The path to leadership as a Black dental student

I’ve been involved with ASDA since my first year of dental school when our chapter, Meharry ASDA, attended the District 4 Annual Meeting in Asheville, North Carolina. That was my first time even hearing of the city, as well as my first national ASDA event. As a first-year dental student, I hadn’t considered if I would participate in organized dentistry and, honestly, I didn’t know what it entailed. That District 4 meeting laid the foundation for my future involvement with ASDA and organized dentistry. I realized that this is what dentistry looks like.

It’s been a privilege to train at one of the two historically Black dental schools in the nation. Every day, I’m learning with, being trained by and serving people who look like me. When I attended this meeting with my classmates and colleagues, I remember feeling like we stuck out like a sore thumb. We weren’t the only school to bring Black students, but we were the largest group. Aside from our chapter president, I didn’t meet any other Black ASDA leaders throughout the entirety of the weekend.

I started to wonder, why didn’t I see any Black leaders at the conference? I personally knew several Black students in my year and ahead of me. Were they not interested in ASDA? Were they even aware of these leadership opportunities? Did they feel comfortable striving to lead in an organization where they were underrepresented?

I enjoyed the annual meeting and all of the resources and insight I gained — I just wished there were more Black dental students participating in ASDA to experience this. Recognizing that this conference adequately portrayed the current representation of Black dentists in the country motivated me to become a leader and make a much needed change. As soon as I returned to Meharry, I knew I was going to shape a future for myself in ASDA.

I campaigned and successfully became president-elect of our chapter during my sophomore year. Whenever I enter a leadership role, I set organizational goals for myself to ensure that I leave a lasting impact. My primary goals were to increase chapter participation in national events and programming, and encourage chapter members to apply for national leadership positions. I spent many days challenging administration to send more students to national events, emphasizing the fact that I wanted our members to feel they have a place in ASDA.

After many struggles, our chapter successfully sent over 50 students to our district meeting and 15 students to the National Leadership Conference, which was record-breaking attendance for our chapter. Many members expressed how much they had enjoyed themselves and learned about ASDA. Not only did they develop as future dental professionals, they grew as leaders and saw opportunities outside of the chapter level.

Diversifying leadership has always been important to me because it provides various outlooks and perspectives for decision making. I was adamant about chapter members applying for national leadership, but I knew I would have to serve as an example for my peers first. At the end of my term as president-elect, I decided to run for District 4 trustee. So many concerns and doubts crossed my mind. I had not served on the district cabinet, but I made substantial change at the chapter level. I even spoke with previous trustees who encouraged me to run.

During Annual Session, I ran against one other opponent, and I was so nervous, but I had prepared as much as I possibly could. When members were voting, I overheard a student ask someone a question and refer to me as “the Black one.” Despite all that I had said and the countless times I provided my very unique name, I was considered “the Black one.” Although I was offended and never approached the student, I held my head high and stood next to my opponent as it was announced that I lost the race. Moments after I hugged our newly elected trustee, students showered me with hugs and encouraging words, expressing how proud they were of me. In that moment, I felt what I was doing had a purpose. I felt respected, I felt heard and I felt like I belonged. To me, that is the true beauty of organized dentistry and an example of the appreciation we all have in diverse voices and perspectives. 

Following that Annual Session, I applied for the district cabinet and was selected to serve as one of three annual meeting coordinators. I was responsible for content and scheduling. This was poetic justice to me because I remembered how much I enjoyed my first annual meeting but lacked connection to some of the presenters and certain content. As meeting coordinator, I included content such as a “women in dentistry” panel, and I invited several Black dentists who were faculty and alumni of Meharry Medical College. In addition, that district meeting had one of the highest attendance of Black students I had seen during my time in dental school. As I took a group picture with my chapter, I felt so proud of the small role I played in increasing Black student participation and representation.

At Annual Session 2020, I received a Gold Crown Award for District 4 Delegate of the Year. This meant so much to me, as I reflected on my leadership experience in ASDA. I’ve developed so much as a leader, person and future dental professional.

During my final year of dental school, I’ve served on the ASDA Council on Professional Issues and emphasize the need for ASDA to promote diversity and inclusion in organized dentistry and beyond. During my time as an associate, I’ve met some of the most outstanding women, who have constantly respected my opinion and outlook as a Black dental student. I’ve also learned more about their views, beliefs and experiences, many of which we shared.

My experience being a Black leader in ASDA has been transformative, filled with opportunities and growth I never dreamed of. I encourage all Black dental students to become — and remain — involved in ASDA because your voices, creativity and talents are needed. I believe all levels of dentistry benefit from the presence of Black leaders, and your leadership will always serve as an example for students to come.

~Aierress Hanna, Meharry ’21, ASDA Council on Professional Issues Associate

Aierress Hanna

Aierress C. Hanna, MHS, Meharry '21, graduated from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor's degree in health sciences and a double minor in chemistry and African American studies. In 2017, she received her Master of Health Science degree from Meharry Medical College and began her predoctoral career with an interest in periodontics. Aierress has served as Meharry ASDA president, District 4 annual meeting coordinator and is currently an associate on the ASDA Council on Professional Issues.

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