Pipeline Program Steers More Underrepresented Students Toward Dental School

Dentistry Today


Despite calls for a more diverse workforce, only 15.2% of dental school applicants in 2016 were underrepresented minorities, according to the American Dental Education Association. The Saturday Academy at the New York University College of Dentistry, however, may be having an impact in improving those numbers. 

“The results of our pilot study suggest that Saturday Academy is a successful example of a pipeline program to increase the future representation of underrepresented minorities in the dental profession by addressing barriers to pursuing a career in the health professions,” said Lorel Burns, DDS, who cofounded the program when she was a dental student at NYU Dentistry in 2012 and is now an assistant professor of endodontics there.

Having more dentists from diverse backgrounds benefits both patients and peers, NYU Dentistry says. Dentists who are underrepresented minorities are more likely to serve communities in need and therefore address disparities in dental care. Studies also have found that a diverse learning environment improves the learning experience for all students through exposure to different ideas and perspectives. 

But building the pipeline for more diverse dentists starts well before students apply to dental school, NYU Dentistry says. Early exposure to the field is essential, the school says, as students need to take science courses in college that can put them on the path to applying to dental school, making high school an ideal time to engage future dentists.

Saturday Academy is designed to boost the interest of underrepresented and low-income high school students in the health professions, including dentistry. NYU Dentistry has hosted Saturday Academy each fall since 2013, with students gathering at NYU two Saturdays a month. High school students are recruited to apply from schools across New York City. Most participants are in their junior year.

The program is designed to mentor and coach these students through the college application process and to expose them to dentistry as a viable career option through instruction and hands-on learning. Dental students volunteer each year to lead the program, enabling participants to build relationships with the next generation of dentists.

Each session is split into learning about one facet of college preparedness and a hands-on activity about dentistry. College preparedness topics include the SAT and ACT, Common Application, personal statements, and financial aid. Parents are encouraged to attend the session on financial aid.

In the hands-on labs, students learn how to take impressions of teeth, use stone models made with impressions to create mouthguards and wax-ups, and remove plaque and fill cavities on plastic models of teeth. 

“While we aimed to create a program that was both informative and engaging for high school students, we also made an effort to address perceived barriers to dental school that influence the dentistry pipeline, including financial resources, family engagement, and mentoring,” said Cheryline Pezzullo, DDS, who cofounded Saturday Academy as a student and is now a clinical instructor of cariology and comprehensive care at NYU College of Dentistry.

The Saturday Academy founders and faculty advisors have surveyed each cohort of participants after completion of the program to ensure its success. Fifty-five of the more than 80 students who have completed the program also have completed surveys about it. All of the respondents reported graduating from high school and were attending college, with 93% enrolled in four-year colleges of universities and 7% in community college.

When asked if they were interested in the health professions, 71% said yes, and 47% wanted to pursue dentistry as a career. Also, 96% of those wanting to become dentists attributed their interest to their experience at Saturday Academy.

“The results of this pilot study show that Saturday Academy has been effective in reaching underrepresented minority and low-income high school students to achieve its mission: increasing understanding of the college application process and increased interest in the health professions, particularly dentistry, among participants,” said Eugenia Mejia, PhD, assistant dean for admissions and enrollment management at NYU Dentistry. 

NYU Dentistry, which provides funding for Saturday Academy, is expanding the program to reach more high school students. The fall 2019 cohort includes 45 students, or nearly triple the average number of students in the first five years of the program, which is 17. 

The study, “Targeting the Pipeline to a Diverse Dental Student Body: Saturday Academy at New York University College of Dentistry,” was published by the Journal of Dental Education.

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