Class of 2023: Youngest in her class, Destiney Coles aspires to inspire
Destiney Coles is the youngest graduate of the Dental Hygiene Class of 2023 at VCU School of Dentistry. At just 20 years old, Coles graduates this week with a bachelor’s degree at an age when most of her peers typically start the program.
“This week, I accepted an award from the school for clinical excellence and professionalism. Of everything I’ve accomplished in the program, I’m most proud of my personal and professional development,” said Coles. “I’m thankful for my amazing faculty who worked with me throughout these past few years. I feel like this award is proof that I’m growing and progressing to be a better version of myself.”
Coles’ path wasn’t easy, but her challenges made her all the more determined to succeed. At Lakeland High School in Suffolk, VA, she sought out opportunities to get ahead. She took advantage of a biomedical sciences program in ninth grade, signed up for advanced placement courses and enrolled in an associate’s degree program for first-generation college students.
“By the time I was 15, I was pretty much an adult,” said Coles, who recounts growing up with her grandparents in Suffolk, VA. “I wasn’t very connected to my parents and we didn’t have much growing up, but I was determined to not be defined by my circumstances and become someone that others could look up to.”
Instead of care-free summers and hanging out with friends, Coles focused on her studies and completing the courses she needed for her associate’s degree. Having always been interested in dentistry, she decided to pursue a career in dental hygiene and started checking out schools.
“I toured VCU three times, but I knew it was the place for me the first time I visited,” she said. “I actually worked in an occupational therapy office on the MCV Campus and started communicating with dental hygiene students. They helped me learn more about the program and even gave me advice on my application.”
After high school, Coles moved to Richmond and enrolled in anatomy and microbiology courses at VCU to fulfill the requirements for the Dental Hygiene program. Once she was accepted and started her courses and clinical training, she immediately fell in love with the work.
“School hasn’t been easy, but I never viewed it as difficult because it was always what I wanted to do. The most challenging part has been balancing life, paying my bills and being away from my grandparents,” she said. “I try to talk to my grandmother every week, not about school but just about life.”
Life on her own was an adjustment. Coles missed her connection with her grandparents, and she stayed busy working as a server in order to pay the bills while she completed her education. She suffered the loss of her great grandmother during her first year, but also developed a close relationship with faculty members LaTesha McLee, M.S.D.H., R.D.H., and Heather Tuthill, M.P.H., B.S.D.H., R.D.H.
“Ms. McLee and Ms. Tuthill have been like my mothers away from home. They’ve always seen the best in me even when I didn’t see it myself,” said Coles.
Coles recalls a day when she was with members of her class picking up trash at Belle Isle as part of a community service project. She slipped on a wet rock and hit her head, requiring her to go to the hospital and stay for monitoring.
“Ms. McLee came and sat with me. It meant the world to me because I had never been to the hospital alone before,” she said.
VCU School of Dentistry is known for its commitment to service, and Coles became heavily involved in efforts to help the community. She signed up for educational events at local schools, volunteered for Mission of Mercy projects and became one of the volunteer coordinators for the school’s involvement in CARITAS, a local homeless shelter at which students in VCU’s Health Sciences schools volunteer to provide medical, dental and other services to those in need.
Coles empathizes with many of her patients. In them, she sees some of the same struggles that her family and members of her community faced when she was growing up in Suffolk.
“We serve a lot of minorities at CARITAS, and many of them struggle with alcohol and substance abuse,” said Coles, who works with her dental hygiene classmates to conduct oral health checks and cancer screenings for the residents. “Sometimes you can’t get to your family, but it’s a beautiful thing to be able to help others and connect them with additional resources.”
Coles describes the connection she experiences with her patients as her favorite part of her education. In particular, an experience during an external rotation at Lynchburg Free Health Clinic stood out.
“I had a patient, he was a smoker and mentioned how he just wanted his teeth to be back to normal. I gave him some advice and at the end of his cleaning he thanked me and said, ‘I can finally smile again, and now I can show my daughter my beautiful smile,’” said Coles. “I cried, after his appointment of course. I’m not sure how often those experiences happen outside of a public health setting.”
Coles is also a member of Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority at VCU focused on community service.
“A lot of people think that the two campuses at VCU can’t collaborate, but I’m proof that you can be in the health sciences and still be engaged with the Monroe Park Campus,” said Coles.
After graduation, Coles plans to work for a temp agency in the Tidewater area for a while in order to try different environments and kinds of practices before relocating to Northern Virginia. Eventually, she wants to go back to school. Her experience in the Dental Hygiene program opened her eyes to the possibility of teaching.
“In five to seven years, I’d like to get my master’s degree in public health or education, in order to eventually become a dental hygiene instructor,” said Coles. “I like to inspire others, and the faculty have said I’m really good at teaching. It’s definitely something I hadn’t considered when I started the dental hygiene program.”
When asked if she had any advice for others who might be on a similar career path, Coles replied: “I would just say to take advantage of opportunities and not let where you come from define you, there might be a better version of yourself that you just can’t see yet.”