Advanced Placement Program, International Dentist Program, Foreign Trained Dentist – all of these three titles are who I am. About half of the 65 dental schools in the United States offer these programs in some form. Every year hundreds of foreign-trained dentists come to the U.S. from different walks of life. One group is legal immigrants. These are permanent residents or U.S. citizens, but they have completed their dental school outside of the U.S. They must go through school again even though they might have spent their entire life in the U.S. A second group is those who are married to someone working in the U.S. on an H1-B visa and therefore they are on dependent H-4 visa status. The third group is those sponsored by their native country to study overseas and upon completion they must return and work in their home country. This is a J-1 visa. Finally, there are a few students who enter the U.S. upon their own abilities and determination to study with an F-1 student visa status. I belong to this category.
So what do all of the above have in common?
They all received their dental degree outside the U.S. If they want to be licensed to practice dentistry inside the U.S., then they must go through school again. This may be for two to four years varying with state, school policy and regulations. Many times I asked myself, why do I need so much schooling? As a senior, I realize that dentistry learned outside of the U.S. is similar, but not the same, especially regarding restorative dentistry. There are many non-U.S. dental schools whose standards may be on par or exceeding that of the U.S. in various parameters; nevertheless it is the law which requires a United States DMD/DDS to practice dentistry here.
What’s dental school like the second time around?
The big deal is not learning the same stuff again, but to adjust to a new culture, country, academic environment and financial obligations. My biggest fear upon leaving India wasn’t whether I would make it to dental school. It was how to finance my education. My hardships were different than the other three groups of IDP students because I was a foreign citizen and therefore no federal/state funding was available. Even private student loans required co-signers. Borrowing more $300,000 and hoping to find a cosigner is one of those times you feel helpless enough to quit your dream of attending dental school again. Just because you have a relative/family friend in the US, it is not a guarantee that you are secured until you see his signature officially on your loan application. Luckily, it worked out for me. Unfortunately, there are many who are talented enough but don’t make it to school due to this hurdle.
Dental school in the U.S. was a new experience compared with my first school. The technology learning curve for me was steep: class capture, blackboard, digital library access, online modules, laptops and smartphones. When you speak to somebody in your regular class, they don’t understand you because of your accent. It took few months to get my tongue Americanized, but I still stand out with some words. Food has always been a challenge for me in the U.S. Due to my strict dietary preferences, I can’t eat 90% of regular stuff available in the markets. I ate a lot of frozen food in the beginning, and finally after getting sick of it I learned to cook.
What have you learned?
I became the most independent I have ever been in my entire life. This place offers you opportunities with wide horizons and limitless ends. One of them was to get involved with ASDA while in dental school. This was instrumental in networking, personal development and communicating with dental students all around the country. I had never found such a large organized community of people who dealt with their issues in the present and made changes as needed. Now, I have a sense of belonging to something bigger and better than myself. I caught ASDA fever at a 2011 regional meeting in Buffalo, N.Y. After this, my involvement was more focused on ASDA than anything else. I could relate myself to somebody outside of my dental school, but still in my dental world.
What challenges do you face now?
After graduation, I am most concerned about my postgraduate applications and employment. It has been hard to find employers who will sponsor me on a work visa. STEM inclusion of dentistry is greatly needed. I almost spent a decade in dental school, and I am still struggling to find myself a decent job. All these thoughts are the worst nightmares for a fresh graduate, but stopping to think about them doesn’t help. One thing I learned in life is be patient and wait for your time. You don’t get anything before its scheduled time and you don’t get anything beyond your fortune.
Are you happy?
Yes. I had a dream which I protected. Hard work, determination, and dedication made my dreams come true. If you don’t dream, you don’t know what you want from your life. Life is a journey, go explore what the world has to offer you!
If you are a foreign trained dentist looking to get licensed in the U.S., visit Getting Licensed in the United States – Tips for International Dental Students.
~Kaushik Sharma, Temple ’14