Empowering the next generation of dentists starts today

I had the easy path into dentistry. Growing up with a family full of dentists and relatives working in the field of dentistry, it was easy to get an inside view of the profession and learn early on that it appealed to me. Though it took a lot of time and work studying through college and for the DAT to make it to this point, it was still easy for me to envision what my goals were. Sometimes I wonder if I would have been motivated to work as hard as I did without experiencing the clear picture of the day-to-day life of a dentist in my family.  

Recently, I spoke with a faculty member at my school, Dr. Cleverick (CD) Johnson, who helped me realize that being exposed to dentistry at an early age was a driving factor for where I am today. Dr. Johnson is well-known at UTSD Houston, currently serving as a professor and vice chair in the department of general practice and dental public health, as well as the director of the urgent care clinic. A lesser-known fact is that he was the first African American UTSD Houston alumni tenured professor at our school. Not only does he inspire and mentor numerous students at our school, he also supports the vision of our local Student National Dental Association chapter to mentor underrepresented students. He adamantly believes that to continue increasing diversity and inclusion in our profession, it is necessary to inspire children at a young age and to give them the same motivation that drove me to pursue dentistry.

When he started as faculty, Dr. Johnson implemented programs to bring underprivileged students into the dental office and provided tours of the dental school — actions he believes we should continue. While we were talking, he showed me a photo of four African American elementary-aged students he and his wife had spent time teaching. He then pointed at each of them one-by-one saying: “Nurse, nurse, doctor, pharmacist.” He told me that each of these girls were exposed to medicine at a young age and that became their motivation to pursue and succeed in having a career in health care. The same can be done in dentistry.     

Without embracing diversity, this world may not have been able to appreciate the accomplishments and contributions of the first African American dentist Dr. Robert Tanner Freeman or the first African American dental professor at Harvard, Dr. George Franklin Grant. These individuals were children of slaves and broke through the dental barrier during the late 1800s, a time when diversity wasn’t embraced. Students today still struggle with this. While I do believe we should start celebrating the feats of dentists of color, we also should make a greater effort to introduce young people of color to the field and welcome them with open arms. Who knows — maybe it will inspire the next generation of dentists.

In the words of Dr. Johnson, “As a practicing general dentist, you meet over 10,000 people in your life. As a faculty member, you meet 10,000 student dentists who will then meet 10,000 people in their lives. Think about the impact you can make to so many people.”

Someday, I hope to follow in the footsteps of someone who taught me about dentistry, but more importantly, about life. Someday, I hope to be a mentor to others, just as Dr. Johnson has been to me.

~Nicholas Tipton, Houston ’23

Nicholas Tipton

Nicholas Tipton is a third-year dental student from UTHealth School of Dentistry Houston and previously attended Texas A&M for his bachelor's degree.

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