GSDM Student-Driven Project Targets Educating Underrepresented High School Students about Various Dental Professions

In July 2023, Aina was joined by Stephen Carpinito CAS 18 CAMED 19 DMD 24 to talk to high school students. After discussing dental career opportunities and their personal experiences, Aina and Carpinito led a hands-on activity teaching the students how to conduct an oral cancer screening. (Photo credit: Dan Bomba, GSDM.)

From dental office manager to dental hygienist, there is a career option for everyone within the oral healthcare field. Despite the many possibilities—and growing demand across the field—relatively few young people from diverse backgrounds enter the dental profession.  

Dr. Michelle Henshaw SPH 96 DPH 07, GSDM associate dean of global & population health, said high school students from diverse backgrounds need more exposure to various dental career opportunities before they need to plan their educational paths. 

“We have such a huge inequity in the racial and ethnic distribution in the [oral] health profession and part of it is potentially [lack of] awareness and not understanding the different options that are available and making it seem accessible to people,” Henshaw said.  

Since 2020, Henshaw has been working with oral healthcare students to develop an online presentation aimed at high school student populations that are historically underrepresented in the dental profession. 

Torera Aina DMD 24 is helping finalize the interactive multimedia presentation as a continuation of her Global Applied Professional Experience (APEX), a program four-year DMD students at GSDM do in their first year that allows them to integrate classroom study with professional experiences as interns in dental offices. Aina elected to spend additional time working on a global project related to oral health promotion or access to care.  

Once the presentation is completed, Henshaw said they plan to make all materials available to high schools nationwide and to work with local organizations to provide in-person informational sessions and mentorship programs.  

“Our hope is to make it available for not just GSDM to use, but for people nationwide to use if they want to go into high schools or for high school counselors to use, really anyone to raise awareness about the dental professions,” Henshaw said. “There were surprisingly few very well-done introductions to the dental professions online. There were some that were specific for dentists and some that were specific for hygienists, but nothing that we could find that really did such a comprehensive review of the dental professions.”  

The project began as a capstone project that Melissa Hebert–now a dental hygienist at BU Dental Health Center–was completing, under Henshaw’s mentorship, for her dental hygiene degree at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy Forsyth School of Dental Hygiene.  

Hebert researched the relationship between underserved populations in the greater Boston area and their dental health. Many individuals within this population did not have regular dental appointments–and Hebert found that the select few who did see the dentist regularly tended to have visits with providers whose backgrounds did not mirror their own. 

There are various benefits to a patient seeing dental professionals with a similar background, including a greater sense of comfort and trust, which can help them develop better personal oral healthcare habits. One way to help build a more diverse dental field is by encouraging young people of all backgrounds to enter the dental profession, Hebert said.  

In Hebert’s preliminary PowerPoint presentation, she discussed several oral healthcare careers, in the hopes of educating students on the need for dental healthcare and the various roles they can be involved in. She said she wants the final presentation to spark inspiration in students, showing that not only do they belong in the dental profession, but they are also needed.  

“It’s not a universal experience to go to the dentist every six months for a lot of people and it’s not a universal experience for them to know who the hygienist is and who the dentist is and who the dental assistant is,” Hebert said. “In choosing a career, which I think we put on children and students so young, it’s just awesome for them to realize this could be an opportunity for growth and it could be a job that I would really love and want to do–if they knew about it.”  

Aina took the initial draft started by Hebert and expanded on it by adding multimedia elements. As part of this work, Aina spoke to current high school students, filmed in-person presentations, and sought feedback from GSDM faculty and staff.  

In July 2023, Aina was joined by Stephen Carpinito CAS 18 CAMED 19 DMD 24 to talk to high school students.  

During the talk, Aina showed students the current percentage of dentists from every ethnicity, emphasizing how the dental field needs diversity. After discussing dental career opportunities and their personal experiences, Aina and Carpinito led a hands-on activity teaching the students how to conduct an oral cancer screening.  

“We try to make the presentation as enlightening and as fun as possible,” Aina said. “If you’re someone that loves working with your hands, in this field, you can use your hands a lot. It just made everyone think ‘Oh, okay, this is fun. I can do stuff. I can place the sealant. I can move around and do oral cancer screening.’” 

It was rewarding to see students become engaged and excited by the hands-on activity, the pair said. Carpinito noted that students were coming up to him immediately after the presentation and saying they wanted to enter the dental field because of them.  

“There were students right then and there giving us live feedback saying, ‘We’re interested,’” Carpinito said. “They said it opened their eyes…It was really rewarding to see that with the students.” 

Carpinito said he was enthusiastic about helping Aina as he had experience working at the front desk at a dental office and as a dental assistant before he started at GSDM. The dental assistant role is stereotypically “female,” but Carpinito, as someone who identifies as male, wanted to share that jobs aren’t gendered–and that diversity is needed in all aspects of dentistry.  

“I was able to talk personally about the stories I had and help them get an understanding about what exactly the tasks were involved with that,” Carpinito said.  

In January 2024, Aina asked GSDM faculty and staff to record a brief message about why they love being a part of the dental profession and encouraging students to do the same. These videos will be added to the presentation along with the content from July 2023.  

“The videos and photos will be impactful to the high school students because when they look at the photos and videos, they will see real people they can aspire to be,” Aina said. “Real people who were once in their shoes and real people who can perhaps serve as a mentor one day.” 

Individuals do not necessarily need decades of education to work in the dental industry, but they do need an educational plan, Henshaw said. Exposing students from all backgrounds to options in the dental profession early in their education gives those students an opportunity to develop (or revise) their educational plans and may lead to an increase in the diversity of the dental profession.  

“We know that people seeking treatment for dental care in general are much more likely to be comfortable and to continue treatment if they are seeking care from someone who is like them, whatever that means to them,” Henshaw said. “By diversifying the workforce, it’s another way to try and address inequities in access to care.”  


By Rachel Grace Philipson