By Timothy Hyland
More and more dental school students are signing on for overseas dental missions, providing them an opportunity to work with and learn from experienced dentists, as well as the chance to expose themselves to new and diverse cultures.
The number of dental schools offering international programming increased by 11.5 percent between 2009 and 2016, according to a 2016 study; even non-dental majors are participating in these volunteer programs.
The University of Florida in Gainesville has one of the most robust dental mission programs in the nation. The UF College of Dentistry offers five international service trips each year: to the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, India, Jamaica, and Mexico. The oldest—the Dominican Republic trip—has been in place for more than 20 years and incorporates a nine-day summer excursion.
The university has also cultivated partnerships with the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ) in Quito, Ecuador; Universidad Catolica Nordestana (UCNE) in San Francisco de Macoris, Dominican Republic; and the Swami Vivekanand University Subharti Dental College, Meerut, India.
The University of Florida, says Micaela Gibbs, D.D.S., M.H.A., is, by its very nature, a multicultural institution. After all, she notes, it’s the flagship university of a deeply multicultural state.
“It’s part of the culture,” says Dr. Gibbs, a clinical associate professor who serves as director of global service initiatives for the dental school. “It’s who we are.”
These missions, Dr. Gibbs explains, not only provide students with the opportunity to give back to communities around the world, but also to develop new skills that one day will help them become better dentists, should they pursue the profession.
“There is a significant workload on these trips, and the students do all of it,” Dr. Micaela Gibbs says. “It’s pretty impressive.”
Dr. Gibbs says the service programs—which are led by students, with faculty in support—remain incredibly popular among students: each year, she notes, she must turn away interested students, simply because there isn’t enough space.
“They have ownership of it,” she says. “And because they have that ownership piece, and because we give them the authority to oversee things, it means more to them.”
Besides providing the students with valuable educational experience—students on these trips will tackle challenges they may not see here in the U.S., as many patients they will see during their travels lack access to any regular dental care. The overseas missions also make a real difference: last year, the five trips together contributed more than 3,000 patient visits.
“There is a significant workload on these trips, and the students do all of it,” Dr. Gibbs says. “It’s pretty impressive.”
The increasing popularity of overseas dental missions is easy to understand, Dr. Gibbs says. Universities and students recognize that at a time of rapid globalization, having the ability to absorb and understand myriad cultures is an essential life skill. And those skills can only be accessed through experience.
“Away from the strictly dental aspects of these trips, we believe students gain an appreciation for cultural differences and individual patient needs, especially when they are working in places where there is a lack of access to care,” she adds. “We also hope that [the trips] will prepare them to continue to do service as they move into their careers.”
Author: Contributing writer Timothy Hyland has more than 20 years' experience as a writer, reporter, and editor. His work has also appeared in Fast Company, Roll Call, Philadelphia Business Journal, and The Washington Times.