First Female American Indian Dentist Shares Her Story With Students

Richard Gawel

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In honor of Native American Heritage Month, Jessica A. Rickert, DDS, visited Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC) in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She is the first female American Indian dentist. 

Rickert presented her story, toured the campus, and met with its dean, faculty, and students during her visit. A member of the Prairie Band Pottawatomi Nation, Rickert remembered when she was younger and dreaming of becoming a dentist as she shared her history.

“The possibility of attending the University of Michigan School of Dentistry (UMSOD) was like imagining going to the moon for me,” she said.

All universities including the University of Michigan during that era were “monolithic,” she said. Still, she earned her DDS from the UMSOD in 1975, but it was not easy.

 

“All faculty and DDS students at the UMSOD were white privileged males. The UMSOD did not welcome females. The UMSOD did not want an AIAN (American Indian and Alaska Native) amongst its ranks—me,” she said. 

During her visit, Rickert particularly connected with two American Indian students in KVCC’s registered dental hygienist program, which has had American Indian graduates in the past, including her cousin, Kelly Whitepigeon. 

Meanwhile, KVCC’s diversity and inclusion officer Trice Batson was pleased to learn more about Michigan Indian history, which is not typically taught in schools. He has since begun outreach to the nearby Pokagon Pottawatomi to learn more about them and to inform them about KVCC. 

“The Pokagon Pottawatomi are teaching him accurate Michigan Indian history, because AIAN history is never taught in schools. He is eager to learn,” said Rickert.

KVCC will work with the Pokagon’s educational department to present its own educational opportunities to Pokagon youth and their parents, including immersive visits to the KVCC campuses with fun, recreational events.

Rickert believes this kind of outreach is essential to increasing the numbers of AIAN youth who choose dentistry as a career.

“There are 407 AIAN dentists in the United States. In order for there to be parity, there should be 3,000. We need more AIAN dentists!” she said.

This process faces challenges, though. Rickert says that students need to start a professional track of courses as early as the seventh and eighth grades if they want to successfully attend dental school. Representation matters, too.

“If AIAN youth can see people who look like themselves, they might imagine becoming a dentist. Also, the dominant society needs to see AIAN dentists to be reminded that this career is possible for AIANs,” Rickert said.

Rickert encourages AIAN youth who are interested in careers in dentistry to reach out to the Society of American Indian Dentists. Other programs supporting AIAN youth include: 

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