Being a first-year dental student comes with many challenges. The transition to daily classes, managing multiple exams each week and hours of studying can be both mentally and physically exhausting. The first couple months of dental school I was driven by the strong self-motivation that comes with finally starting my dream career. Unfortunately, it is easy to lose this enthusiasm in the day-to-day repetition of a rigorous schedule.
I have personally found that the best way to regain that motivation is to spend time volunteering. I recently volunteered in Phoenix at Hopefest, an annual event that improves access to care to more than 24,000 people in our community. The dental clinics were particularly sought-after and hundreds of people waited overnight in line outside of the stadium for this multi-day event. As a patient escort, I walked patients to the dental clinic inside the stadium.
One conversation I had with a woman during my shift really stood out to me. I asked how she was doing, only to notice that she was on the verge of tears. She told me that she had been waiting in line since 1 a.m. to be seen and was very nervous to receive dental treatment. She needed one of her front teeth extracted, but she also knew she would not be able to have the tooth replaced that day. She began crying. She did not want her co-workers to see her with a missing front tooth because it would show that she was unable to afford dental care. As I dropped off the rest of the patients at the dental clinic, I left her with the best encouragement I could, but I couldn’t help but wish that I could do more.
Experiences such as these can help broaden our perspectives and remind us of why we work so hard in school. More importantly, they can help us foster a stronger sense of occupational wellness. A 2004 study published in the Journal of the American Dental Association examining stress, burnout, anxiety and depression among practicing dentists noted that lack of career perspective was found to be the most crucial aspect in the development of burnout. My experience at Hopefest recharged my sense of self-motivation by reminding me why I chose to pursue a dental education in the first place. Eventually, I will be in a position where I can treat patients in need. I want to empower patients who are fighting emotional battles with the state of their dentition and help them smile confidently.
As students, we must remember that the stressors we face now do not necessarily end once we graduate. A career as a practicing dentist comes with its own set of challenges and developing the right mindset to recharge that self-motivation can build a foundation for a long, healthy career. The time to build these habits is now. There are so many opportunities available for students to be engaged in the community and to start seeing the bigger picture beyond a long day in the classroom. I encourage you to pursue these experiences and I hope your passion reminds you once again why you chose to spend your life serving others.
~Jacob Zellner, Arizona ’19