If You Open the Gates,
They Will Walk Through
words by merry sue baum / photograph by john emerson
e honest: Would you have chosen the same career if you’d had the chance to try it out first? If your answer is a resounding “no,” you’re not alone. Many people find themselves in professions they simple are not cut out for and don’t enjoy. A trial run could have saved them from an expensive, time-consuming trip down the wrong career path.
Gateway to Dentistry, a pipeline program at UMDNJ-New Jersey Dental School (NJDS), is designed to do exactly that. Qualified college students or recent graduates get the opportunity to try out dental school for two weeks. The would-be dentists do hands-on projects in the dental lab, spend time observing actual procedures being performed on patients, and they listen to lectures. Faculty members explain everything from what attracted them to dentistry and what it’s like to practice, to applying to dental school. The students can opt to stay on campus, and each is paired with a “buddy”— usually a third- or fourth-year NJDS student, many of whom completed Gateway. These companions help the students navigate the program and spend some downtime with them. The participants get a feel for what life as dental students and as dentists is really like.
A few other dental schools have pipeline programs, however Gateway is truly one-of-a-kind. “Other programs are much shorter, have minimal faculty involvement and don’t give students hands-on experience,” says program director Jeanette DeCastro. “Here a large number of our faculty members volunteer substantial amounts of time, playing a major role in the program.”
A total of 565 students from across the country have “graduated” from Gateway, since its inception in 2001. It is offered twice a year, in January and May/June, and the competition is stiff: about 150 to 300 applicants vie for 30 spots each session. The aim is attract some of the top students from prestigious colleges and universities, and it is also a recruiting tool used to attract qualified underepresented minority students.
Los Angeles resident Marisa Origel had long been set on a career in medicine. She always loved science and her father is a physician, so it seemed natural. She was taking pre-med at Dartmouth, however, in her senior year the pre-med students were invited to a meeting of the newly formed Pre-dental Club. “I started thinking maybe dentistry was a better fit,” she says. “It is a profession that is more conducive to having a family.” She spent the winter break talking to local dentists and learning more about the profession, and she attended Gateway. “It was just like being in
dental school. We all wore scrubs and had to be on time,” she says. “And Gateway truly promotes student-faculty relationships. All of the faculty members were very approachable and enthusiastic about having us there. I found I was excited about going to dental school.”
Shortly after Gateway ended, she got a call from Rosa Chaviano-Moran, DMD, acting director of Multicultural Affairs at NJDS and an assistant professor in the Department of Community Health. “Dr. Chaviano-Moran knew I was on the fence, so she called to see if I had questions or if she could help in any way,” says Origel. “It was nice to know she was interested and willing to help.”
Now in her second year, Origel is leaning toward pediatric dentistry and would like to do research. She conducted pediatric dental research this past summer and enjoyed it. “In class you read and learn material given to you,” she says. “But research allows you to be innovative and hands-on, while possibly adding to a body of knowledge.”
For Gateway graduate Chris Disla the program did more than solidify his decision to go into dentistry, it renewed his spirit. He began dreaming of becoming a dentist in middle school. His grandmother, an Ecuadorian who speaks no English, was terrified of dentists. Even though she was suffering from advanced periodontal disease, she had had a bad dental experience and refused to go. Eventually, she traveled to her native country, where she received treatment and was fitted with dentures. “When I saw her after she came back, I thought that as a dentist, I could help people like her,” Disla says.
He received a scholarship to Penn State and was well on his way. Then, in the middle of his sophomore year, things started going wrong. Because of a personal situation at home, he had to move in with his grandmother. “It was a horrible time,” he says. “I had no money and my grades started to go down. There was so much in my way, I began thinking I’d have to give up my dream.” Just when things seemed bleakest, he enrolled in Gateway. After talking with the dental students, he started believing that with some hard work, he could actually achieve his goal. “The students and faculty members in Gateway were all so helpful and encouraging,” he says. “I knew they’d be there to help me get through.” Now a second-year NJDS student, Disla plans on practicing some form of community-oriented dentistry. “When I was young, I once went with my grandmother to a dental clinic in Camden,” he says. “We waited outside with a huge group of people for about two hours and ended up seeing the dentist for only 20 minutes. I want to help people like her, people who need it most.”