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Drilling, filling and X-rays: Undergrads learn what it’s like to be a first-year dental student

USC’s Dental Explorers program introduces minority students to dentistry and its specialties, including orthodontics and pediatrics

dental students practicing techniques
Dental Explorer Vidal Ahmedov learns to apply dental sealants under the supervision of USC student Kathleen Sun. (Photo/Derek Tam)

Kimiye Makiyama, 18, knew she wanted to work in the dental profession ever since she was a kid.

“I loved going to the dentist’s office and having my teeth worked on,” she said. “I couldn’t wait to get the fluoride foam because it was always so fun.”

Kimiye Makiyama portrait

Kimiye Makiyama loved going to the dentist as a child. (Photo/Derek Tam)

The first in her family to attend college, she didn’t always have an easy road.

“Growing up, it was only my mom and me ever since I could I remember, but she worked very hard to move me to an amazing school district so that I would have a better education,” Makiyama said. “While all my friends were handed their parents’ credit cards and brand-new cars, I had to babysit on the weekends to afford gas for my grandpa’s truck that I paid for myself.”

Makiyama said these experiences made her a hard worker and a more appreciative person.

“It’s because I had to sacrifice to get to this point that I have a better understanding of the opportunities I’ve been given, like being a part of the Dental Explorers program,” she said.

Difficult histories, bright futures

Every summer since 2003, the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC has hosted Dental Explorers, a two-week camp for undergraduates interested in learning more about dentistry.

Each year, participants experience full days of faculty presentations, clinic shadowing experiences and hands-on exercises to provide a clearer picture of dentistry and its specialties, including orthodontics, endodontics and pediatrics.

More than offering participants a look into the profession, the program aims to diversify dentistry by reaching out to students from historically underrepresented, low socioeconomic or disadvantaged backgrounds.

“Some of these students have been through difficult times and might not have family support or feel as confident,” program administrator Saul Rios said.

There aren’t many resources for pre-dental students, and this provides a memorable experience for students.

Saul Rios

“There aren’t many resources for pre-dental students, and this provides a memorable experience for students to see if they’re interested in the oral health care profession.”

The life of a dental student

Iris Gutierrez, a junior studying human biology at University of California, Merced, was one of 30 students who took part in the program this summer.

“The program reaches out to underrepresented students, and I really wanted to take advantage of that to see if dentistry was something I wanted to do,” she said. “Plus, it was only two weeks, so it didn’t feel too intense or intimidating.”

Weekdays from about 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Dental Explorers tried their hand at a variety of activities, including building composite teeth, drilling and filling exercises, reading X-rays and shadowing dental students. “They essentially learn what it is to be a first-year dental student,” Rios said.

two students working together to practice dental techniques

Danica Tuason and Iris Gutierrez, right, work together making impressions for bleaching trays. (Photo/Derek Tam)

“We were busy; we had deadlines. They pushed us,” said current USC student David Hernandez, who attended Dental Explorers in 2012 ahead of his senior year at the University of California, Santa Cruz. “All the shadowing, volunteering and activities really solidified that I wanted to be a dentist.”

In addition to the hands-on activities, lectures include information on financial aid as well as application tips.

“I’m low-income, so understanding that financial piece is really important,” Gutierrez said. “We also learned about volunteer work, and I was really into it. I live 10 minutes from USC, so it’s easy to go there and volunteer to help strengthen my application.”

Team-building exercises, counseling sessions and mentoring opportunities help students create a connection with USC and the Trojan family.

From dental explorer to dental student

“The biggest impact I had from this program was from interacting with dentists and dental students of all ages,” said Danica Tuason, a recent San Diego State University graduate who attended this year’s program. “Discussing their journey and love for dentistry has helped me get a deeper understanding for the profession. These small interactions allowed me to see a little piece of myself in each person, which reassured me that I was heading in the right direction.”

The majority of Dental Explorers go on to dental school; USC’s incoming DDS class has nine former participants, Rios said.

“We’re changing the lives of many individuals,” he added. “The first day of the program, a student might be considering dental hygiene. But by end of the program, they not only want to do hygiene, they want to become a dentist and maybe pursue a specialty.”

Makiyama starts USC as a freshman in the fall, majoring in health and human sciences with an emphasis in pre-dentistry.

“I definitely hope to proceed in the profession and go into orthodontics after dental school,” she said. “There are lots of people out there who are so embarrassed of their teeth that they refuse to smile, and I would love to be able to give them the confidence that comes with a great smile.”

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Drilling, filling and X-rays: Undergrads learn what it’s like to be a first-year dental student

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