Class of 2023: From rural Jordan to top dental student, Saleh Smadi is dedicated to caring for those most in need
By Olivia Trani
Saleh Smadi had known for some time that he wanted to work in health care. When he was a child growing up in Jordan, he had fractured his tooth while playing outside. The broken tooth caused him unimaginable pain, and his parents had to drive him more than an hour to visit the closest dentist. The ordeal made a lasting impression, later inspiring him to pursue a career where he could provide the same kind of relief from pain that he had experienced.
When Smadi was 18 years old, he decided to move from Jordan to the United States to receive a college education and become a healthcare professional. He is now graduating with a D.D.S. at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Dentistry.
“I grew up in a rural area where there weren’t a lot of educational opportunities. At that time, none of my family members had attended college or graduated from high school,” Smadi said. “I knew I wanted to be different and make a change, even if it is a small one, and that desire led me to move to the United States.”
Smadi’s journey in higher education began in New York City, where he attended the College of Staten Island. While he was motivated to advance his studies, the transition was not without its challenges. He was living thousands of miles away from his family, did not know the language or the area, and held various jobs to support himself in school, including working as a taxi driver, grocery store attendant and tutor.
Despite these challenges, Smadi worked incredibly hard in school, in part due to the support of a close friend.
“I met my friend Mohamed Al Sharif, who I call my brother, during my undergraduate years in New York,” he said. “He is my closest friend who supported me throughout my journey and kept me motivated in school. He is someone I can always depend on.”
Smadi graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in biology and plans to become a dentist. He was accepted into multiple dental schools and ultimately chose VCU’s School of Dentistry.
“I love the area and the people here,” he said. “VCU was the first school I interviewed, and when I got the phone call about being accepted into the program, I was overjoyed.”
At VCU, Smadi continued to excel in his studies, often spending time after classes and on the weekends to perfect his understanding of the material. He held the highest grades of his class in his second, third and fourth years of school, and tutored many of his classmates in their coursework. Outside of his classes, he was involved in research projects on various topics, including oral cancer, appliances for sleep apnea, dental prosthetics, erbium laser technology and other cutting-edge dental material.
Smadi also dedicated much of his time to honing his skills in the school’s pre-doctoral student clinic. By the end of his first semester, he had completed more procedures than any student in his class.
“At the beginning of the program, you are assigned a few patients to provide dental work. The work was slow at the beginning, but then all of a sudden, my patients would refer me to their family members,” he said. “It made me so happy to know that they were pleased with my work.”
Smadi credits his success in school to a number of faculty members, including Aous A. Abdulmajeed, D.D.S., Ph.D.; Awab A. Abdulmajeed, D.D.S.; and Sarah H. Glass, D.D.S, who taught him new techniques, made complex topics more accessible, and further fueled his passion for dentistry.
“That is something I really love about the VCU School of Dentistry. My professors were always supportive whenever I showed an interest in learning more about a specific procedure or topic,” Smadi said. “They encouraged me to work hard and have helped me grow my skills exponentially. In dentistry, it’s relatively easy to do a certain procedure satisfactorily, but it’s hard to do it ideally. My mentors always strive to provide ideal dental care, and it’s a work ethic that I want to mirror in my own practice.”
Looking back at his time at VCU, Smadi is most grateful for having the chance to improve his skills while also serving communities in need.
Since his second year in dental school, he worked as a student project coordinator for Missions of Mercy, an initiative to provide dental care for the uninsured and underserved populations of Virginia. Through this position, he helped organize and attend events that collectively treated thousands of people across the state. Additionally, during the height of the pandemic, Smadi joined a volunteer group of students who helped administer COVID-19 vaccines in the Richmond area.
“My focus has always been towards the humanitarian aspect of health care, and I was very honored to be able to help my local community. These opportunities really solidified my love for dentistry,” he said.
After graduation, Smadi will begin working as a dentist at a free clinic in rural Virginia, where he will continue to play a part in giving dental care to underserved communities.
“What motivated me in school was the thought that I’m making a difference in people’s lives, whether through relieving someone’s pain or boosting their self-esteem,” he said. “It’s really amazing to be in a place where I could help those in need.”