Like a silver filling right on an anterior tooth, I stuck out. Being the only active, female member of my school’s predental club meant having a lot of conversations like this:
Fellow student: “What are your plans after graduation?”
Me (smiling): “I’m preparing to take the DAT and will be applying to dental school next summer.”
Fellow student: “Oh, you mean, you want to be a dental hygienist?’
Me: “No, a dentist — just like you.”
As a girl from Utah considering pursuing dentistry, I’ve had this conversation about a dozen times. It’s not that people are trying to be offensive, it’s just that they’ve probably never met a female dentist. According to a 2015 report from the Utah Medical Education Council, fewer than 3 percent of all Utah dentists are female. The people who ask me if I’m going to hygiene school likely don’t realize that nearly 50 percent of U.S. dental students are women.
The first time I ever met a female dentist was at ASDA’s 2016 National Leadership Conference (NLC). I didn’t meet just one, I met hundreds. Walking into a room with more than 600 dental students, a group representing all 66 dental schools in the U.S., I quickly noticed that there were more women present than men. For the first time, I wasn’t the only girl in the room passionate about water flossers and wisdom teeth. These women were intelligent, personable and ambitious. I wanted to be just like them.
If other women at BYU could experience dentistry the way I had at NLC, wouldn’t they want to be dentists too? It didn’t seem possible that in a school of more than 30,000 students, I could be the only female predent. I set out to find more.
A casual conversation about my experience at NLC with David Walton, president of BYU’s predental ASDA chapter, jumpstarted the BYU Women in Dentistry club. Throughout the past six months, we’ve created a place where women at BYU can explore dentistry, interact with female dentists from all over the country and learn about the world’s greatest profession.
In the course of building the club, some common barriers emerged. Most female students were unfamiliar with dentistry and were not comfortable attending predental club events. Tessa Hadley, our club vice president, shared that many female students at BYU also feel discouraged trying to balance career and family goals. “There is so much motivation and potential present within the female student body at BYU, but sometimes they lack the confidence, support or encouragement needed to pursue the goal of going to dental school.”
In order to illuminate the cultural fog preventing women at BYU from seeing dentistry clearly, we’ve worked to build a network of female dental mentors across the state of Utah and beyond. So far, we’ve interviewed several female dentists in our community and plan to interview dozens more to provide support and encouragement for the students here. Our vision is to connect every female predental student with several mentors to help her determine if dentistry is the right fit.
Both the dental schools at Utah and Roseman have been eager to help. We’re looking forward to partnering with them and their female students within the next year to create shadowing and mentorship opportunities. The University of Utah’s Women in Dentistry Conference helped us connect with a cohort of female dentists, dental and predental students across Utah. We’re excited to keep building upon those ties.
The more I think about the experience of female predental students in Utah, the more I wonder about female predental students in other states. Do you know of any Women in Dentistry clubs or organizations in your state? We’d love to hear about your efforts and join with you in helping even more women across America pursue dentistry.
It is 100 percent possible to balance motherhood, mentorship and dentistry, and it can be really fun too. The mentors, club members and dentists I’ve met along the way have helped me feel so much more confident in my choice to pursue dentistry. I’ve never felt more right about my path, and I’m more excited each day to help others find out if dentistry is right for them, too.
- Lauren Olsen, BYU '18