Growing up in Vietnam, I had little interaction with dentistry because regular visits to the dentist were considered a luxury. For many if not most, their first visit is when they need dentures. This culture of dental neglect resulted in my own family also holding little regard for oral health. It was not until we arrived in America that we were made aware of the importance of practicing good oral health care. Through a program in elementary school, I learned how to properly care for my teeth. I recall being ecstatic when I was given a new toothbrush and floss. My classmates had made fun of my yellow teeth, so I was determined to make my teeth shiny. But having no prior experience with flossing, I asked my parents for help. They were shocked that I was using a string to “saw” between my teeth. Being concerned about my gums bleeding after flossing, my parents forbade me to floss. As a result, the health of my teeth deteriorated. I found it difficult to eat and my toothaches became worse. Soon my parents had little choice but to seek professional help.
Visiting the dentist for the first time in my life caused great anxiety. However, Dr. Nguyen eased my tension. She explained how good dental practices, including flossing, should be part of everyday hygiene. From my first visit, I had a very positive impression of my dentist; over the course of several visits, dentists became my own personal superheroes, my own dentist in particular. Since my early visits to the dentist, my family has held the highest regard for practicing good oral hygiene. In fact, this shift in mindset was so significant, and our interest in dentistry so aroused on a family level, that my mother became a dental assistant. Coming to the dental clinic with my mother caused me to notice gaps in the smiles of my neighbors, indicating that they too have been struggling with oral health issues. This instilled in me a desire at an early age to want to help everyone who was in need or oral health care, as Dr. Nguyen had helped me in particular, and my family more generally speaking.
By the time I entered college, therefore, dentistry was a natural choice for a career upon which to set my sights. I spent the next five years engaged in a broad variety of efforts in addition to my biology program, to learn everything that I could about dentistry. I began volunteering for the Mighty Mouth Program, teaching oral hygiene skills in local schools. Visiting a dentist for the first time can be stressful, so to help ease anxiety among younger patients, I would invent pretend lessons which helped them to become more familiar and at ease with oral care routines. I also began serving on this organization’s mobile dental clinic, where I became more and more impressed with the fact that practicing good hygiene habits requires raising awareness for the whole family. I traveled to various locations in XXXX County, California to bring oral hygiene awareness to immigrant families in rural areas who lacked access to dental care. This network that I helped to create gave me an opportunity to volunteer at XXXX’s Dental Clinic. The families that I interacted with there were similar to mine, many recent immigrants, most with language barriers, all of them in need of dental care that they could not afford. Seeing them come into the clinic and learning of their suffering helped me to become very highly motivated to do what I could to contribute to reducing disparities in access to oral health in my community.
My volunteer activities have expanded far beyond my local community, as I have seized every opportunity that presented itself to help promote and improve oral health nationwide and even globally. Through the Minnesota HCOP Fellowship, I was involved with the project that promoted access to oral health programs in the Twin Cities for members of various underrepresented socio-cultural groups. My focus was the Hmong community (a minority ethnicity from Vietnam), where I came to especially appreciate how my efforts to come to understand a patient’s cultural heritage helps to gain the patient’s trust. This effort to experience diverse cultures even lead me to a dental clinic in Istanbul, where I helped to provide oral health care for war refugees. Working with war refugees in Turkey really brought home the glaring nature of global disparities in access to everything, oral health care included.
I welcome the challenge and rigor of the pursuit of dentistry as my career. Particularly since I have now earned a Master’s degree in Anatomical Science, I am confident that I can succeed in a dentistry program. I am approaching my dental education the same way I try to live my life each day: with great courage. As an immigrant, I have overcome language barriers and have grown up in a single parent household. This has taught me to be a positive person even through adversity. I have the strength to learn from life’s obstacles and appreciate my achievements. Aiming to become an especially compassionate dentist, I look forward to devoting a lifetime of special attention to patients who otherwise lack access to dental care.