The U.S. Military Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) is a unique opportunity for individuals interested in careers in health care who would also like to serve their country. This year, VCU School of Dentistry has four graduating dental students who have made a year-for-year commitment to service in exchange for education. Read on to learn about their experiences.

Dr. Alix Schneider
Hometown: Norfolk, VA
Undergraduate: Sewanee College in Tennessee
Branch of service: Army
Plans after graduation: Completing a one-year Advanced Education in General Dentistry residency at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, WA

What got you interested in oral health?  

Growing up, I was in orthodontics for 10 years and had full jaw surgery. I actually always loved going to the dentist. I had a fantastic pediatric dentist, they were actually the first person I shadowed when I decided I wanted to pursue dentistry. 

In college, I majored in international and global relations and planned to go into the shipping industry in some fashion. After graduating, I considered a master’s degree in that field but decided I wanted to go to law school. But, after taking the LSAT I thought who would want to do that? 

I was in a dental appointment after college getting some work done and it just hit me. I realized, I can totally do this. After that, honestly, I just went after it. 

Eventually I realized that the connection to patients really appealed to me. I also liked having a tangible skill that I could build throughout my career, something that I could take with me anywhere while still being able to interact with people. 

Were you always interested in military service?

I’m from Norfolk, a huge Navy town. I always knew I wanted to go into the military and it was a way to pay for college. I have family in medicine and others who are harbor pilots with connections to the Navy. I joke that I chose the Army out of spite. I didn’t really want to go into private practice and deal with the business aspects of it, so the military was appealing. I also liked that it was a bigger, more collaborative environment with a lot of colleagues who could give input on my work as I go. 

What have you liked most about your time at VCU? 

I was more of a non-traditional candidate and did all of my prerequisites in a bit of a piecemeal fashion as I was working after college. When I was applying to dental schools, I came to VCU to meet with an admissions counselor. I talked to Lindsay Smith and she suggested I do the Pre-medical Graduate Health Sciences Certificate (CERT) program. I completed it and then went on to complete a master’s degree at VCU. Through it all, I met several of the faculty here. When it came down to deciding between the schools to which I had been accepted, I chose VCU because I had really good experiences and it was already familiar. 

What did you like most about your education? 

I really liked being able to connect with the patients and provide more oral health education than they might get in other settings due to the longer appointment times. A lot of our patients don’t have much exposure to oral health care, and we have an opportunity to teach them and make a difference. When I came to dental school, I didn’t even know how to floss my teeth properly. So, if I didn’t know that as a pre-dental student, how can I expect my patients to know? 

Was there an experience that stood out to you most? 

Well, I had my daughter in my third year, so that definitely stands out. I actually took one of my exams after I started going into labor. The doctor told me I probably needed to go into the hospital soon and offered to write a note, but I figured I would never get it done if I didn’t do it then. I remember coming home with my daughter and listening to lectures while I was feeding her or when she was napping. My husband would watch her when I had to go into school for tests. 

I’ve always been bad about neglecting myself and blindly pursuing goals with no concern for life balance. But, after having a kid, I had to learn how to balance my education and caring for her. She taught me the need for boundaries and how to prioritize different parts of my life. 

Dr. Nicole Manfrini 
Hometown: Miami, FL
Undergraduate: University of Miami
Branch of service: Air Force
Plans after graduation: Completing a one-year Advanced Education in General Dentistry residency at Air Force Base Travis in Fairfield, CA

What made you consider the Health Professions Scholarship Program? 

I was born in Argentina and moved to Miami with my family when I was six years old. My sister went to medical school and applied for the Air Force HPSP, so she was a big influence on my decision. 

One of my mentors in undergrad was a dentist in the Air Force. He liked that you could give the best care possible and not have to worry about the financial aspect with your patients. Not having to deal with insurance or limit the care you provide really stood out to me. 

Did you always want to pursue dentistry? 

I had a lot of ortho treatment in high school. I was applying to colleges wanting to pursue a degree in advertising, but late in my senior year I realized that dentistry was something I wanted to pursue. I started shadowing a lot in undergrad. I liked that it was tangible, it was medicine. You don’t just prescribe a medication and hope it works, you literally get to see the difference you make. It’s hands-on and artistic. There’s also a lot of interaction, and I like to talk. 

I ended up double majoring in advertising and microbiology. I figured, maybe I could advertise for my own practice one day. 

What made you choose VCU? 

My pre-dental advisor and my mentor in undergrad both loved VCU. My mentor went to VCU in the 60’s. They both talked about the culture and the atmosphere of the school. So, I ended up applying and felt the same thing when I interviewed. It was very welcoming, and a lot of the other schools weren’t. Other interviews felt like an interrogation, like they were trying to catch you slipping up. Here, it was much more relaxed. They asked about my application, research and other stuff, but they wanted to get to know me personally and treated me like a person. 

What was the most challenging aspect of your education? 

I think the hardest part is separating your personal and professional life. It’s hard to turn off your brain from the dental world because all of my friends are dental students, so it’s what we end up talking about outside of school. It can also be difficult juggling all the responsibilities and playing the role of dentist, assistant and admin. You schedule your patients and give them your Google number, but you have to set boundaries because if you text or contact them after hours they will expect you to be available 24-7. 

What was the best part of your experience at VCU?

For me, it’s been giving back to patients, especially the big Hispanic community we have here. A lot of them have never had a dentist that speaks their language, so how can they expect to know what treatment they’re getting or what they need? I like to learn about different people’s backgrounds when educating them. They’ve struggled to get to where they are now. It’s not that they don’t care about their oral health, they just don’t know about it. 

The prosthodontic cases are also really rewarding. One of my first patients needed dentures and I treated her over the course of two years. This past month, she sent me a picture of herself smiling at a party. And she was like, “You’re the reason I’m smiling. I never thought I would ever smile like this.” It was a beautiful thing, because when I first met her she was going through a lot in her personal life and I was able to see her blossom. 

Dr. Colin Smith 
Hometown: Midlothian, VA
Undergraduate: Virginia Military Institute
Branch of service: Army
Plans after graduation: Completing a one-year Advanced Education in General Dentistry residency at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, WA

What made you interested in the military? 

I always knew I wanted to be in the military. I went to an all-boys military Catholic high school. My brother went to VMI. We weren’t very disciplined growing up, but I saw how the school changed him as a person. It seemed like he could just get up in front of a group of people and be a natural leader, and it inspired me to follow in his footsteps. I joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) for the Army, and I was actually planning on being a tanker after graduation. But, right before they slotted us, I decided that I wanted to do something with my chemistry degree. So, I applied to dental school and was like, if I get in, I get in. Well, I got in and they switched me from my existing scholarship to the HPSP. 

What made you choose dentistry? 

Well, my dad works for Zimmer Biomet, a big implant company. He knows a lot of dentists in the Richmond area and was able to connect me with a really good doctor for shadowing. When I was a kid, I was terrified of the dentist. I was that kid that had to be dragged in kicking and screaming. But, through shadowing, I saw the connection with the patients and how everyone was enjoying their appointments. I thought it would be a cool way to conquer my fear and give back. 

I’m still terrified of the dentist, but I’m getting there. 

What made you consider VCU? 

VCU was actually the only school I applied to. VMI didn’t have a pre-dental track. I was on a pre-med track and Dr. Susie Goolsby, who was VCU faculty at the time, came to Washington and Lee University, which is right down the street from VMI. I was the only one who signed up. I was in uniform and nervous, but she said that I had a good shot at getting in and encouraged me to go ahead and apply. I thought, what the heck, I’ll give it my best shot and go for it. 

What was the best part about your experience at VCU?

Definitely meeting my wife. She’s a student here as well and we got married about a month ago.

Besides that, seeing the patients’ reactions and also just kind of being an outlet for patients is really rewarding. A lot of people will say, “I’ve gone everywhere and nobody accepts my insurance. I can’t afford it.” It’s a really good feeling, being able to offer those patients an option and seeing how much it means to them. 

The flip side is also the hardest part. It’s tough presenting a treatment option that would provide the best outcome but the patient can’t do it for financial or other reasons. Seeing their disappointment, it really gets to me on some days. 

How have you evolved since you started school? 

I think it really taught me how to better take care of myself and lead a healthier lifestyle. At VMI, it was a lot of staying up late studying, waking up early to work out or have uniform inspection. No matter how tired I was I would just power through it. Here, coming into the clinic, I realize how much it affects my performance. I don’t want to come in tired and be off my game–it could affect a patient’s outcome. I started paying more attention to getting rest, eating a good breakfast and showing up prepared. 

Is there a particular experience that stands out for you? 

I think it was delivering my first dentures to a patient. She wrote a letter of appreciation and the school got permission to share it and took a picture of us together. She’s a really special person, she has a special needs daughter and has never been able to take care of herself. I just saw her again after a year and a half and she was just as ecstatic as she ever was. It was my first exposure to treating a patient, my first denture delivery. The dentures turned out beautifully and she couldn’t have been happier. I thought, this is amazing. 

Dr. Joseph Volant
Hometown: Fairfield, VA
Undergraduate: Christopher Newport University
Branch of service: Navy
Plans after graduation: One-year Advanced Education in General Dentistry Residency at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina

Did you always want to pursue a career in oral health? 

It’s funny, my siblings and I hated going to the dentist due to some bad experiences we had when we were younger. So growing up, I never really expected to be interested in dentistry.

I went to Christopher Newport University where I studied cellular biology. I thought I wanted to do surgery, but I started shadowing in a hospital and was really taken aback at the amount of burnout. 

I ended up shadowing a dentist during college. Every patient that he had was so relaxed and laughing during their appointment. I think shadowing this doctor made me realize what compassionate care looked like. I also realized I could still pursue surgery but also develop these relationships. I liked the idea of being the kind of provider that I didn’t have growing up. 

What got you interested in joining the military? 

My dad was in the Army when I was growing up, so he will always be a big role model for me. I actually wanted to be a pilot before I got interested in surgery. 

After deciding on dentistry, what I liked about the military was it gives you an opportunity as a provider to do the treatment that provides the best outcome for the patient regardless of cost. In the civilian world, you sometimes have to make compromises based on financial resources or insurance or some other outside factor. The military was appealing because it gave me the financial support in dental school but also will allow me to provide the best care possible professionally. 

What made you choose VCU? 

I went on a dental mission trip to Jamaica as an undergrad. There were students from a couple of different schools. I got to assist and watch them work, and there was a big difference in the clinical abilities of the students from VCU. These same students also welcomed me like family and were so encouraging to me in my journey to dental school. That, for me, was probably the biggest factor in my decision. 

What’s been your favorite part of your education? 

Seeing patients react when you complete treatment. People have a huge connection to their smile, and it means a lot to see them happy with your work. 

In particular, I got to do some work on my sister last year. We both had some dental work done by a provider we had growing up that was not ideal. Getting to fix that was really impactful for both of us. I felt like I was correcting some wrongs that we had gone through when we were younger. It also made me realize the personal growth I’ve had progressing through school and stepping into the clinic. I shared a video of her reaction on my Instagram account. 

What advice do you have for others interested in a similar path?

My advice for anyone interested in following a similar path would be to always take steps toward your goals even if you don’t feel ready. If you wait for the perfect moment to start working toward something, the moment will never come. It’s better to just get started on your journey and embrace all the mistakes, pitfalls and lessons that will help you grow.

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