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Setting the stage for more diversity in dentistry

Recruiting students with different lived experiences is key to VCU School of Dentistry, the only dental school in Virginia. One graduate shares her story. 

Mina Ibrahim in a medical setting

By VCU News staff and John Wallace

Only about 4% of all dentists in the U.S. are Black. Minatallah “Mina” Ibrahim, who recently graduated with a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Dentistry, recalls a recent interaction with a patient. “The woman came up to me at one of our external rotation sites. She wasn’t my patient, but she looked at me, smiled, complimented me on my nails and the way I talked to my patients, and said, ‘I’m just also so happy to see a Black dentist,’” recalled Ibrahim. “That was so validating for me. I hope that VCU continues to push for recruiting students from all walks of life.”

Oral health challenges led to career in dentistry

Growing up in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, it was Ibrahim’s own challenges with oral health that drove her to pursue a career in dentistry.

“There was a lack of dental public health where I lived, so I wasn’t conscious of my diet and brushing techniques. I ended up getting a lot of cavities and got bullied — middle school kids can be so relentless,” Ibrahim said. “But I grew a lot from it and became more aware of my own challenges with oral health as well as those of my family. By pursuing dentistry, I felt like I could help them as well as myself while providing guidance to others.”

Pathway program provided encouragement

Ibrahim followed her brother to VCU, where she majored in chemistry as an undergraduate. She became connected with VCU School of Dentistry through the Undergraduate Student National Dental Association and its parent group at the school, the Student National Dental Association.

“USNDA and SNDA focus on promoting and supporting minorities in dentistry,” said Ibrahim. “I participated in several of their workshops and activities, which were fun, but just talking to people and seeing how they feel about the profession and the school was really important.”

Ibrahim participated in the school’s Pre-Dental Day and Impressions Day, which provide hands-on experiences to undergraduate students who are interested in dentistry and learning about life at dental school. She made connections with current students as well as faculty.

While Ibrahim was already determined to become a dentist before moving to the U.S., the hands-on experience she gained in the field helped in her application process.

Striving for belonging and representation

During her studies, Ibrahim worked toward obtaining her U.S. citizenship. While she felt more at home after becoming a U.S. citizen in 2019, she still experienced another challenge during her transition into dental school: the low number of African Americans entering the profession.

The lack of Black dentists is reflected at dental schools today, Ibrahim said. “My undergraduate experience was very diverse, but it did get lonely here sometimes. I have a unique background, I wear a hijab, and sometimes it was tough to navigate that and explain my history and beliefs. I feel like the friends I’ve made have to be the most compassionate people ever, because they might not fully understand my experience but they are always willing to listen and give support.”

Ibrahim became involved with the Student National Dental Association, serving as the group’s historian and also the historian for her class. Following the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, the School of Dentistry created its Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, which strives to cultivate a welcoming atmosphere and culture of belonging for all students, as well as patients, staff and faculty.

Like many dental students, Ibrahim points to her experience caring for patients as one of the most rewarding aspects of her educational journey.

“Once you enter the clinic and start building relationships with patients, you begin to feel appreciated and see the impact you are making,” Ibrahim said. “Patients trust you, and it’s a lot of responsibility, but it’s so incredibly rewarding. At the end of the day, you get to go home and say, ‘Hey, I changed someone’s life.’”

The need for more representation in the field is there. VCU Dental Care clinics report that of all patients reporting their race (35%), over a third (36%) self-identified as African American. The actual number is likely much higher.

Ibrahim plans to continue her education in the one-year general practice residency program at The Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York. She’s excited about the new environment, the diverse patient population served by the hospital and the way the program is modeled like a private practice.

The full story is available on VCU School of Dentistry’s blog.

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