How taking two gap years made me a better dental student

The last thing I expected to do was take a gap year after college. Everyone around me was applying and getting accepted to dental school, and it was frustrating that I was not on the same path. What I had yet to realize was that going to dental school immediately after college was a path for some, and even though it wasn’t mine, my path wasn’t any less fulfilling.

Working in a research lab that conducted community-based participatory research during my third and fourth years of college introduced me to public health and community health education. This experience was so positive that it inspired me to apply to Master of Public Health (MPH) programs during my gap years before dental school.

The decision to pursue an MPH in community health education and take two gap years before dental school was one of the best decisions I ever made and more rewarding than I ever imagined. This time allowed me to clear my mind and learn about different perspectives from new people, but most importantly, it helped me focus on why dentistry was my passion.

People choose to pursue a variety of opportunities during their gap year. These are some of the pros and cons I experienced, in addition to some of the lessons I learned along the way.

Pros of taking a gap year

  • You can push yourself out of your comfort zone. Learn new skills you wouldn’t have been exposed to before. I wanted to push myself and learn as much as possible during my master’s program, so when the opportunity arose to work as a public health advisor for the undergraduate public health students, I quickly applied. Through working as an advisor, I strengthened my communication and interpersonal skills, while also learning case management skills, through one-on-one personalized appointments with students. Case management was a skill I never imagined learning before dental school. Working with students one-on-one taught me how to individualize each academic plan, as each student had different goals for college and post-graduation. I realized how this skill easily translates to dentistry and developing individualized treatment plans for each patient.
  • You learn about people and yourself. The people you meet during your gap year while working as a research assistant, going to graduate school or volunteering all have different backgrounds, perspectives and views on life. As you get to know the new people around you, you may also learn more about yourself. Getting to know my classmates and coworkers and hearing about their journeys to pursue public health struck me with compassion and empathy. In addition, learning about these new people in my life helped me think about why I was pursuing public health and dentistry. Self-reflection is important, and it allowed me to grow as a person and as a future dentist.

Cons of taking a gap year

  • You’re pursuing a job/program that is not your end goal. Sometimes it can be difficult to be working at a job or studying for classes that do not directly contribute to your end goal. However, it is important to keep an open mind and remind yourself why dentistry is your passion and how your current position is preparing you to pursue it.
  • Staying involved in dentistry can be challenging. Trying to continue fueling your motivation to apply to dental school while pursuing something directly outside of the dental field can be challenging. It’s important to find ways to stay involved in the field during your gap year(s), whether it’s through your school’s predental society (even as a graduate student), ASDA or by volunteering at events such as Mission of Mercy.

If I hadn’t taken two gap years, I wouldn’t have learned two important lessons: 1) It is central to get to know and hear the voices of the community you serve, and 2) your love for learning shouldn’t end after college.

The two years I spent studying public health have further motivated me to pursue dentistry. I learned about the importance of health literacy and connecting with my community, as well as how much I loved to learn. As a result, both of these areas are ones I hope to continue working on and strengthening as a first-year dental student through volunteering to teach children about oral health at schools, health fairs and other events, and continuing to absorb as much information as I can in dental school so that I never let my love for learning fade.

Your journey to dental school doesn’t end just because you take a gap year. In some ways, it has just begun. Enjoy the path you’re on, and take advantage of all that you’ll learn along the way. It’ll help you to become a better dentist in the long run.

~Joan Daniel, New England ’22

2018 Predental Month is sponsored by:

Joan Daniel

A Massachusetts native, Joan Daniel is currently a student at the University of New England (UNE) in Portland, Maine. She's an active member of her chapter and loves photography, traveling, spending time with family and friends, and trying new coffee shops.

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