Encouraging Smiles Sophomore Brett Becker has started the Pre-dental Club for Washington and Lee students who want to study dentistry and to volunteer in the community.
“We were able to directly help over 500 people within our local community as well as gain hands-on experience in the dental field. It was amazing and so rewarding to see how our actions were able to help those who needed it.”
— Brett Becker
One does not typically ponder future career choices while lying in a dental chair with a shattered molar, but those are the exact circumstances under which Brett Becker ’18 decided what he wanted to do with his life.
“It kind of hit me that a dentist can help someone physically and psychologically, through something as simple as a smile,” he said. “It’s just so simple.”
At that time, Becker was a sophomore in high school in Pennsylvania. (He had landed in the dental chair after he was head-butted in the jaw during a basketball game.) He shadowed dentists over the next couple of years and, when he arrived at Washington and Lee University as a Johnson Scholar in 2014, set out to find other pre-dental students.
He found that W&L did not have a Pre-dental Club, but he was not deterred — he started one himself. The club, which will be officially recognized by the Executive Committee this spring, now has about a dozen members.
The club’s goal is threefold: to raise awareness of good oral hygiene; to give pre-dental students an outlet for networking with dentists, schools, professors and each other; and to do community service in the area of dentistry. On the weekend of March 5-6, five members of the Pre-dental Club volunteered at a remote area medical clinic in Buena Vista, where they observed and assisted dentists providing free services.
“I think I can speak for all of us when I say that it was an unforgettable experience,” Becker said. “We were able to directly help over 500 people within our local community as well as gain hands-on experience in the dental field. It was amazing and so rewarding to see how our actions were able to help those who needed it.”
Remote Area Medical (RAM), founded in 1985, provides medical, dental and vision care to underserved communities by taking the services straight to those patients. In the past year, RAM clinics have visited locations across the United States from Florida to Nevada. A local affiliate, RAM of Virginia, serves economically distressed locations such as Wise, Grundy and the counties of Smyth and Lee.
Lisa Alty, professor of chemistry and coordinator of the Health Professions Advisory Committee at W&L, heard about the upcoming RAM clinic in Buena Vista and suggested it to Becker as a volunteer activity for the club.
“This is a terrific event for pre-dental students because you are actually participating, you are not just standing there watching,” she said.
Five students volunteered at the clinic: Chloe Doto ’16, Scott Philips ’17, Bailey Russell ’16, Olivia Kubli ’18 and Becker. They assisted with tooth extractions, fillings and cleanings.
Besides doing suction and fetching instruments for the dentists, the students found themselves interacting with patients, particularly those who were nervous or uncomfortable. Becker said his training as a peer counselor at W&L came in handy with a patient who was extremely anxious about her procedure. He held her hand, got her water, joked around with her and reassured her.
Kubli noticed that one patient walked into the dental clinic while covering her mouth with a napkin, because she didn’t want anyone to see her ill-fitting, previously worn dentures. Kubli, who said she has wanted to be a dentist since about the seventh grade, was reminded that the profession can have a significant impact on a person’s physical and mental well being.
In addition to dental problems’ causing pain and discomfort, she said, “if you don’t have a nice smile, it really does something to your confidence.”
Over the next two years, Becker hopes the club will grow larger and stronger, and find additional ways to engage with the community. The club’s faculty advisor, Fred LaRiviere, associate professor of chemistry, said the club members may do more outreach with other schools, invite speakers, research dental school requirements, and help each other study for the Dental Admissions Test.
“Brett has been the impetus behind this,” Alty said. “He came in freshman year gung-ho for dental, and he has been the one who has really pushed for it.”
Becker said he’s just excited to get the club off the ground and “rocking and rolling.”
“I hope by my senior year to leave the legacy of it as a part of Washington and Lee’s campus,” he said. “As long as there are pre-dental students, I hope it sticks around.”