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It Takes More Than Studying: Volunteering as a Dental Student

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          The role of the dentist is often misinterpreted. Most people believe that the dentist just deals with toothaches, cleanings, and the occasional cavity. It may be true in function, but our role really expands to fit the needs of the communities we serve. There is a level of respect that comes with being a dental practitioner, and this is commanded in the way we fill our part as those who serve. For these reasons, it is absolutely imperative for the dental student to become involved with the surrounding community via outreach and volunteer opportunities.

 

Dental school offers much to learn regarding hand skills and the proper way to handle challenges presented daily by our patients. What is lacking, however, is how to engage and encourage people to be invested in their mouths. At Rutgers School of Dental Medicine, we are required to volunteer five hours per year in a variety of settings. I taught kindergarteners the importance of oral hygiene and assisted at the local food bank. When members of the society you serve see you helping out and showing a true investment in them, an environment of trust becomes established. Showing the real person behind the dental mask creates a bond that will ultimately encourage the patient to trust and work with the dentist. This is especially true when working with young children.

As dental professionals, we strive to provide optimal care for our patients. At times, this goal may be compromised due to requirements necessary for graduating dental school. By incorporating a habit of volunteerism, these seemingly opposing ideas can be approached in harmony. Because I am a D2, I have yet to start working with patients, but that does not mean I have been inactive. Through my volunteer activities, I have found many patients looking for dental care. This has benefited me because I am being proactive, and hopefully avoiding the lack of patients I might experience in my third year. I am also benefiting the patients because they know me and have experienced my dedication to volunteering, recognizing that I truly care about their well-being.

Volunteering does not always sound like the most ideal opportunity in dental school. Waking up early on a Saturday to dedicate time that is already precious seems counterintuitive. Ultimately, it is a true benefit to both the dental student and patient. The benefits become even more obvious when you become a practice owner or associate. My father is practicing pediatric dentistry and has spent one day every week for the past 25 years devoting his services to underserved populations. When I speak to him about his career, he always mentions that the most satisfying part is giving back. It may cost him money out of his own pocket in the short term, but by seeing to the needs of even the most disadvantaged patients, people recognize the kind of person my father is. Establishing a habit of volunteerism early in our careers as dentists benefits those around us, but ultimately it is an investment worth pursuing.