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USC Dental Students Answer the Call for Health Professional Shortage Areas
For two years of service, National Health Service Corps Scholarship Recipients get tuition paid for
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It’s a statistic that’s never far from the mind of Asha Green: just 3.7 percent of dentists in the United States are Black, according to the American Dental Association.
The shortage means that African Americans — particularly those who are low-income or live in areas with fewer healthcare professionals — face a disproportionate risk of tooth loss, periodontal disease and tooth decay.
Green, who is Black, is working to become part of the solution, thanks to a scholarship from the National Health Service Corps (NHSC). The award covers the full cost of tuition, fees and equipment. Additionally, it allots recipients a $1,400 monthly stipend. In exchange, they are obligated to spend at least two years working in a “health professional shortage area” after graduation.
No better reward
“To me, there’s just no better reward,” Green says. “Coming from a low socioeconomic background, you always have that survival mentality in the back of your mind. That’s why I’m so thankful to NHSC. I can be supported financially, but more importantly I’ll support these communities that do not have the help that they need.
My duty and responsibility are what has fueled me through this entire process.”
Somkene Okwuego and Daniel Ip also received the prestigious scholarship, giving the Class of 2026 the largest concentration of NHSC scholars at Ostrow currently.
It was as an undergraduate at Howard University that Green conducted research examining the impact of socioeconomic status on dental caries among area middle school students.
During that time, she learned about the NHSC scholarship. She enrolled at Ostrow because of its diversity. Green hopes to spend her career working in Georgia, where she was raised.
Dentists of color are critical in underserved communities, according to the ADA. More Black dentists (63 percent) participate in Medicaid than White dentists (39 percent). About half of Hispanics, Asians and other races participate in the government health coverage program for low-income adults and children. (White dentists make up the vast majority of the workforce, at 70.2 percent, according to 2020 data; 18 percent were Asian and 5.9 percent were Hispanic.)
Always wanted to be an advocate for my community
Okwuego says she applied for the scholarship because she wants to exclusively work with marginalized populations.
She initially considered a career in medicine because her grandfather was a doctor in Nigeria. She also considered gerontology after her grandmother suffered a stroke. But it was dentistry that combined elements of art and engineering, passions she developed as a kid growing up in South Los Angeles.
“I thought, ‘oh, this is perfect for me!’ so I started shadowing dentists,” says Okwuego, who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. “It definitely felt like a calling.”
The scholarship erased any hesitations she felt about pursuing her dream.
“For a long time, I struggled wanting to commit to going into dentistry because I would always say that I was scared I couldn’t afford the education,” says Okwuego, who decided she’d apply for student loans — until she learned about NHSC during an online search. In her application, she was to the point: “I’ve always wanted to be an advocate for my community.”
The average educational debt at graduation for Black dental graduates was more than $314,000 in 2019, according to ADA, “by far” the highest level among all ethnicities.
Okwuego plans to work in South L.A. after fulfilling her scholarship obligations. Many low-income residents view dental care as a “luxury,” she notes. As an undergraduate, she helped transport elderly patients to doctor appointments. Many of them had lost teeth and had poor diets as a result. Some were able to buy dentures, but complained about them, she recalls.
“A lot of people didn’t want to smile, because they’re embarrassed of how their teeth look,” Okwuego says. “When I told them I was going to dentistry school, they’d say, ‘please go, so you can come and help me.’ Social factors are affected, and so are health factors.”
Super thankful for the award
Ip, of Monterey Park, decided to enroll at Ostrow for its reputation, and after shadowing a number of dentists. He was impressed by a longtime Pasadena dentist who interacted warmly with patients while allaying anxieties about treatments.
“I could really imagine myself in his shoes,” says Ip, who holds an undergraduate biology degree from UCLA. “He played a big role in solidifying my passion for dentistry.”
Ip applied for as many scholarships as he could find, including the NHSC award. He stressed in his application that he wanted to be a “patient-centered” practitioner, in the same vein as his Pasadena role model. He vowed in his personal statement that he would provide innovative solutions to complex problems.
Dental health is far more important than people often realize, Ip notes.
“I like to tell people that our teeth aren’t just little bones in our mouths,” he says. “They’re intimately connected to our circulatory system. They’re close to our brain and close to our heart, so taking care of our teeth — not letting them become infected or populated by bacteria, and maintaining good oral hygiene — is so important, because it affects your whole systemic health.”
Ip, of Chinese and Filipino descent, says he’s not sure where his dental journey will take him when his scholarship duties are completed. His Ostrow education will help shape that path, and the scholarship will give him a way to explore the possibilities without the added stress of financial burden, he adds.
“This opens the door to my dreams of pursuing dentistry,” he says. “I’m super thankful for this opportunity.”
In the meantime, the scholarships give each of the students the time to pursue extracurricular activities that will help them forge their careers.
Green is the first ever Black woman to serve as a class president
at Ostrow, and she teaches elementary school students once a month on the importance of oral health. She’s also a member of the Hispanic and Korean Dental Association and the Student National Dental Association.
Okwuego is a member of the Pan-African Student Association, and she’ll serve as a teacher assistant next semester for one or two gerontology courses.
Ip, for his part, is a member of the Chinese, Korean and Christian Dental Student Associations as well as the American Student Dental Association and is networking with classmates — aspiring general dentists and specialists, alike.
“In the end, dental school is what you make of it,” he says.
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