16:13 PM

New dental school scholarship aims to boost diversity


Horizon partners with Rutgers School of Dental Medicine to help students of color pursue dentistry as a career. See how.

Filomena Machleder

By Filomena Machleder, Senior Program Officer, The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey 

When children see a dentist who looks like them, slipping into that dentist chair can be a lot more comfortable.

Studies show that minority patients are more likely to visit medical professionals of color, including dentists. That’s because when providers come from a patient’s own community, they may better understand those patients’ unique needs and be trusted to listen and deliver the best possible care.

Unfortunately, there are not a lot of dentists of color to visit. Here in New Jersey – like elsewhere in the country – there is a lack of diversity in dentistry, a problem set in motion by a lack of diversity within dental schools. At the Rutgers School of Dental Medicine (RSDM), the state’s only dental school, 17 percent of dental students are from underepresented minority groups, compared with 16 percent of first-year students nationwide. That’s about half their percentage of the general population in New Jersey.

A new scholarship program is a step toward increasing the representation of dentists of color in New Jersey – and to helping ensure families get the dental care they need.

Horizon and RSDM have partnered to create the Horizon Endowed Scholarship. The scholarship will give people from historically underrepresented backgrounds more opportunities for support in hopes of building a pipeline of diverse students to the school. The scholarship will be endowed with a $250,000 grant from The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey (The Horizon Foundation).

“This scholarship will improve the health of New Jersey residents by providing culturally competent oral care to those in need. It also reinforces Horizon’s pledge to make positive and lasting change in the communities we serve,” said Jonathan Pearson, Executive Director of The Horizon Foundation.

With contributions from RSDM – the state’s largest provider of oral healthcare – the scholarship will fund a total of $20,000 in scholarships each academic year: a $10,000 scholarship to recruit a first-year dental school student and a second $10,000 scholarship to a fourth-year dental student entering a pediatric residency program after graduation.

Although RSDM has been a national model in its diversity and inclusion recruitment efforts, it doesn’t have the same funding as many private dental schools to be able to offer large scholarships to students of color.

“Private dental schools that have that ability draw people of color away from New Jersey,” said Dr. Rosa Chaviano-Moran, Associate Dean for Admissions at RSDM. “This program will help more local talent stay in the state and improve dental health outcomes in our own communities.”

Dr. Chaviano-Moran added, “We hope this progam will encourage people from all types of backgrounds to pursue a career in dentistry. When we have a diverse group of students working closely together, they improve their ability to interact with people of different cultures and backgrounds – in other words, they become more culturally competent. And that makes the care we all provide better for everyone.”

Overcoming the barriers to diversity in dentistry

New Jersey’s shortage of dentists of color certainly doesn’t start at the dental school door. Due to a lack of accessible resources and opportunities, communities of color face a range of disadvantages throughout their K-12 and undergraduate education that prevents them from being academically prepared to enter dental school.

There’s also a lack of awareness around careers in oral health. In one study, researchers found that high-achieving students were often encouraged to pursue nursing and medicine, but jobs in dentistry and dental hygiene rarely came up in discussions.

The other big barrier is cost. Many dental students can face nearly $300,000 in debt when they graduate. The Horizon Endowed Scholarship will help alleviate some of this debt and help Rutgers recruit more diverse students.

In addition to the scholarship funding, Horizon and RSDM will launch a robust partnership that includes ongoing mentorship between Horizon clinicians and students, the creation of a Horizon Scholars alumni group, networking and volunteer events, and research collaborations.

“It’s important that we create an environment, beyond funding, that can support students of color while they’re here at school and when they emerge into the community as dentists,” said Dr. Cecile Feldman, Dean at RSDM.

Ongoing commitment to oral health in NJ

The Horizon Endowed Scholarship represents a third phase of the Kids’ Oral Health Program (KOHP), created in 2016 by Horizon to improve the dental health of underserved children. Children from low-income families are twice as likely to have cavities, compared with children from higher-income households.

The KOPH has provided $1 million to school and community-based oral health education and treatment programs that offer more affordable and convenient access to dental services. In the program’s first five years, tens of thousands of children were taught how to take care of their teeth and gums and thousands more were treated for cavities and other dental conditions.

“By providing care to thousands of children with financial and clinical need and raising awareness of the importance of oral health, we’ve made great progress in addressing dental disease – the most common childhood disease in America,” Pearson said. “We’re able to reduce health disparities in New Jersey by preventing serious health problems today and investing in a healthier future for all kids.”