VCU pipeline program assists underrepresented students in their path to dental school
Alexus Harris was a high school student when she was first exposed to dentistry through her own oral health challenges with a tooth abscess.
“The pain was so intense I can’t explain it,” said Harris. “Just having that pain relieved was something I connected to. I felt like I could have a purpose and meaning in the world by relieving pain.”
It was that pain relief, a newly sparked interest, and the encouragement of her big brother that led her to apply for VCU’s Dental Career Exploration program.
DCE is a pipeline program offered through the Office of Admissions at VCU School of Dentistry. The program is for rising 10th graders through graduating seniors from all over the commonwealth who are interested in exploring a career in dentistry. The goal of the free exploratory program is to increase diversity in the dental field by removing barriers for high school students from underrepresented backgrounds and underserved communities.
During the five-day summer program, students are given resources they need to make more informed decisions along their journey after high school. The students learn through interactive workshops and hands-on lab activities, while having the opportunity to work with VCU dental students and faculty members.
“We went over the type of classes you need to take in college, volunteering and internship opportunities, and other things you need to do to get to dental school,” said Harris. “This was very helpful because not having any dental mentors up until that point, it was an interesting world to go into. I didn’t know how to get there, how to make connections.”
DCE is one of several dentistry related early exposure pipeline programs that VCU School of Dentistry offers for high school students. Other pipeline programs include the Dental Hygiene Career Exploration (DHCE) program and the VCU Dental Scholars program. Seth Leibowitz, Ed.D., executive director of health sciences programs and advising in the Department of Kinesiology & Health Sciences at VCU College of Humanities and Sciences, conducts research into the impact of early exposure to health professions on career decisions among youth from underrepresented backgrounds. He said these types of programs help high schoolers gain important skills that give them a sense of confidence and the self-awareness needed to succeed in dentistry.
“We pre-and post-tested students using a career decision making self-efficacy survey. We found out that when they finish the pipeline program, their efficacy, or their confidence with navigating career resources, with self-assessments, planning and goal setting all get higher after they go through the curriculum,” said Leibowitz.
Harris said once she entered the DCE program, she was 100% set on becoming a dentist.
“The program really showed me that being a dentist is an obtainable thing,” said Harris. “I was surrounded by other people of color. Some of the faculty, dental students and mentors were people of color and I was really able to imagine myself in that role.”
Growing up in rural Spotsylvania County, Harris was never exposed to a dentist who looked like her.
“I never had a black doctor or even seen a black dentist. So that was really awesome when I got to VCU,” she added.
Lindsay Smith, pipeline and recruitment program specialist for VCU School of Dentistry, noted that closing that gap is important, because a lot of high school students wouldn’t have that type of exposure if pipeline programs like DCE didn’t exist.
“When we are choosing teaching assistants and faculty to work with these programs, we are intentionally choosing students and faculty who come from an underrepresented or disadvantaged background,” said Smith. “So often, it’s hard for these kids to imagine becoming a dentist when they’ve never seen a dentist of color. We want to make sure the students and faculty we have working with these program participants are just as diverse as the community around us.”
Nationally, there are large disparities in representation in dentistry. According to the American Dental Association, only 4% of dentists are Black, while approximately 6% are Hispanic. Leibowitz said increasing the number of underrepresented students in the field of dentistry will ultimately improve access to oral health care in underserved communities.
“There is a lack of trust in the healthcare system. You see that with the vaccines,” said Leibowitz. “I think people don’t go get the care that they need because they don’t see healthcare workers like them. Also, there is an issue of cost and access. So, it is important to have health care workers who come from these communities and are willing to advocate for the insurance and resources to serve those patients.”
For Harris, it’s a mission that means a lot to her.
“I really look forward to going out into the world, improving oral health disparities and oral health literacy in minority communities. VCU is really setting me up to do that, so I’m really excited about the future,” said Harris.
Now 24, Harris has a master’s degree in biochemistry from VCU, is in her second year of dental school at VCU School of Dentistry, and is now mentoring high school students as a teaching assistant in the DCE program.
Harris is now paying it forward to students who come from similar backgrounds as her. The dental student said it was really important to give back because she wanted to make an impact and be a mentor like those who mentored her.
“For me, one of the biggest barriers to going into professional school is financial and being able to see yourself there, and understanding all the obstacles you are going to have to go through. I wanted to meet the kids and reassure them–yes this is going to be a difficult task, but don’t let money, loans, or any adversity stop you from getting there.”
Smith said it’s vitally important to have teaching assistants like Harris serve as role models for the students participating in the program.
“For a high school student to be able to meet Alexus, work with her and see that she was in their exact shoes seven or eight years ago and, now, she’s a second-year dental student. That makes it more realistic that it’s a goal that they can achieve,” said Smith.
Olivia Trager, a rising senior from Charlottesville, was one of 12 students who participated in the 2022 summer session of the DCE program. She said working with dental students like Harris was truly inspiring for her.
“Seeing Alexus, it makes me very excited for my own future,” said Trager. “Everyone’s been so helpful, and has really given us clear and constructive criticism and advice. The program has absolutely exceeded my expectations.”
Zion Twum, another participant in the 2022 DCE program, said working with the dental students was one of his favorite parts of the program.
“The dental students that we’ve worked with have been amazing, always encouraging. It’s really helped me and they’ve inspired me to do something like they’re doing and to help others,” said Twum.
Since DCE began in 2006, a total of 147 high school students have been exposed to dentistry as a potential career through the pipeline program. For the students who decided to continue on a dental track, DCE mentors provided educational and career support to help keep them on track towards a career in dentistry.
For Harris, this included her participation in another pipeline program, the Summer Academic Enrichment Program, as a college student. It was that type of support that made her choice for dental school an easy one.
“It’s truly a pipeline program,” said Harris. “I felt encouraged by VCU in particular. That’s why they’ve always been my No.1. They give you that motivation, that you can achieve your goals and you can be a dentist.”