Dalhousie Program Introduces Underrepresented Students to Dental Careers

Dentistry Today
Nick Pearce photos


Nick Pearce photos

The COVID-19 pandemic presented some challenges for Dalhousie University’s Promoting Leadership in health for African Nova Scotians (PLANS) to offer its regular camps for teens. But an unexpected grant from the Dartmouth General Hospital Foundation provided an opportunity to connect with African Nova Scotian high school students interested in healthcare careers.

It was a great opportunity for PLANS program manager Sarah Upshaw, the school said, though it meant creating a 14-week program on short notice. Upshaw worked with the Faculties of Medicine, Dentistry, and Health to hold sessions on many different health professions, together with information about applying to university, scholarships, and financial literacy.

“I wanted to provide a meaningful experience for the students and make the best use of the funds I had for the program,” Upshaw said.

Students in the co-op program at five local high schools provided the ideal audience for the new PLANS program, Dalhousie said. These students already were enrolled in a co-op program, 80 hours of which were allocated to a placement. But because of the pandemic, traditional placements for co-op students interested in the health professions such as in hospitals and nursing homes weren’t available. PLANS helped to fill this gap, the school said.

At the end of January, 10 students in eleventh and twelfth grade attended a presentation by Cynthia Andrews and Heather Doucette of the Faculty of Dentistry and School of Dental Hygiene, respectively, and Juliette Thomas, dental assistant coordinator of the North Preston Dental Clinic, as they explained the roles of dentists, dental hygienists, and dental assistants. Second-year dental hygiene student Jennifer Johnson also was there to answer questions.

Andrews and Doucette discussed the educational requirements of their respective programs. They also provided a short lesson on nutrition as well as plaque and the problems it can cause. Thomas set out the responsibilities of her role at the North Preston Dental Clinic as both a dental assistant and as the administrator of the clinic.

Doucette also explained why it is important for more African Nova Scotian students to enter oral healthcare professions.

“We need more African Nova Scotians in the various health professions. It’s important to increase diversity in healthcare. Patients feel more comfortable with healthcare providers who they can relate to and who may better understand particular barriers to care that they face,” Doucette said.

Johnson fielded questions from students who asked about the workload and the types of activities she was involved in.

“You have an eight-to-five day, plus studying in the evenings,” Johnson said. “Then in second year, you spend 12 hours a week caring for patients. It’s a lot of work, but a lot of fun. And the best part is, you know you’ll have a job when you’re finished.”

COVID-19 limited the oral health hands-on activities the students were able to try, but they were able to test their reverse hand skills using a mirror, something dentists and dental hygienists are required to learn to be able to operate on areas of the mouth that cannot be seen directly.

Beth Ejigu, an eleventh grader at Citadel High School, would like to be a dentist partly because she said she enjoys working with her hands, and partly because she has braces on her teeth and she is intrigued by oral healthcare. She said she enjoyed the session and learned a lot.

Mwamini Bifakubaho, a twelfth grader at Citadel High School, is interested in a career in nursing or dentistry but says she has no one at home she can ask about post-secondary education. The co-op program enables her to explore many different healthcare careers and learn about university life and scholarship and bursary options as well.

“I’ve never laughed so much in a session before,” said Tek Omod, a twelfth grader at Citadel who had been thinking about applying to nursing but is now considering oral health studies too. “It was so cool.”

Janelle Colley, an eleventh grader at Auburn High School, knows she wants to do something in the medical field and appreciates the broad exposure the PLANS program is giving her.

“There are so many programs I didn’t know about. It’s really opened my eyes,” said Colley.

The oral health session helped Colley understand the different roles of dental assistants, dental hygienists, and dentists, and she said she appreciated that Johnson was on hand to share a student perspective. When asked if she would consider a career in oral health, Colley said “it’s definitely something to think about.”

Upshaw said she was delighted with the way the sessions have worked with the co-op students.

“We have been able to provide them with information about scholarships, such as the Johnson Pathway Scholarships, and support them through the university application process and any barriers they encounter along the way,” Upshaw said.

Upshaw also said the students benefit from attending the sessions as a cohort.

“They make friends here and some of them will likely attend college or university together,” Upshaw said.

Upshaw already has funding for a second co-op placement program this term and is hopeful that she will be able to roll the program out to rural schools. She also is exploring ways of getting information to junior high school students so they know what courses to take in high school to make them eligible for healthcare programs in college.

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