• The Value of Mentorship

    Me and Dr. Nathan Russell at the 2018 Pacific Northwest Dental Conference in Bellevue, Washington.
    Brandon Walker/2018

    The value of mentorship cannot be overstated. I recall my first memorable experience with mentorship while serving overseas in Japan as a Marine Special Communications Signals Collection Operator. In the midst of a long and arduous training mission, my Platoon Sergeant, Christopher Rodriguez, asserted that so long as I always worked hard and did what was right (e.g. taking the moral high ground despite the popular opinion), he’d always have my back. The impact of his honest, no-nonsense leadership still resonates with me today, more than a decade later, as I continue my transition from ten years of honorable service in the Marine Corps to an equally fulfilling career in dentistry.

    I recall questioning whether I would experience in dentistry the high-quality mentorship and leadership I had become accustomed to in the Marines. When I was accepted to the University of Washington School of Dentistry (UWSoD) Class of 2020, I vowed to share with my colleagues the wealth of knowledge, skills, and experience I acquired as a leader of Marines. I understood that my tendency to speak the hard truth, fight the status quo, and present fresh ideas would likely force people out of their comfort zones, but if the Marine Corps taught me anything, it’s that discomfort breeds growth, and normalization of discomfort breeds courage. Perhaps by fostering courage among my peers, the leadership I sought would take form.

    One’s courageous inclination to lead is often engrained by great mentors like SSgt Rodriguez, but the fear of being underutilized can also be a driving factor for many of us veterans. The nature of a Marine’s duty as our country’s first line of defense requires a high level of training – no task is too large, and nothing is ever “good enough.” Everything we do is pursued with great attention to detail to ensure the best possible outcome. Cutting corners almost certainly leads to mission failure or loss of life. Working hard, committing to excellence, and trusting in seasoned mentors is a sure-fire plan that contributed to my success as a Marine. The same mentality will ensure I am never underutilized as a developing clinician, advocate, and community leader.

    Over the years I have learned that the most successful mentor/mentee relationships are almost never a coincidence. The late renowned author Dr. Wayne Dyer believed that no one attracts what they want, but rather what they are. He called this concept the “Power of Intention,” and I experienced it first-hand in 2016 when I was matched through the Washington State Dental Association’s (WSDA) Mentorship Program with Dr. Nathan Russell, who inspired me to immerse myself in the world of organized dentistry and become the first dental student to be accepted into the WSDA’s Leadership Institute.

    Asked why he wanted to be a mentor, Dr. Russell expressed his desire to “give back, pay it forward, return the favor, and help someone else’s path for the betterment.” He too was blessed with mentors that helped him transverse the trenches of dental school. “New graduates who are successfully mentored,” he asserts, “become better dentists, clinicians, and advocates for oral health. They are better with patients and all aspects of patient care.”

    Dr. Russell’s stance on mentorship is echoed by countless other practicing dentists, particularly those who frequent the Washington Academy of General Dentistry (WAGD) learning center for their continuing education. In fact, I met Dr. Timothy Hess while attending my first course as an AGD Student Member, and he too has challenged me to become the best version of myself every day since. "The professional person has no right to be other than a continuous student,” he says, quoting G.V. Black, the father of dentistry in the United States. He adds, “Every dentist has the responsibility to be a teacher to patients, staff, students and colleagues.”

    It is clear a unique obligation is shared throughout the dental community to help pre-doctorate students realize the importance of both advocating for our great profession and engaging in the self- motivated pursuit of knowledge. Thanks to top-notch mentors like Dr. Russell and Dr. Hess, I have learned more about dentistry than could ever be taught within the walls of dental school, and I too want to “pay it forward.” Through my continued involvement in organized dentistry, I hope to inspire my fellow classmates to find value in mentorship, commit to lifelong learning, and keep the bar set high for generations to come. The future of our profession is in our hands.

  • The Power of Intention

    Yours truly overseeing clinic operations during a Husky Health Bridge outreach event for Tent City 3, a city-sanctioned homeless encampment in Seattle, Washington.
    Dennis Wise/2017

    Dental school requires a great deal of time, energy, and money, so it's adventageous to make the most out of your investment. In my opinion, there are at least two ways to go through dental school: 1) show up, take what you're given, and go home; or 2) rise above the monotony and seek opportunities beyond the curriculum. Both offer the same end result: everyone graduates a fully functional oral healthcare professional. But if you really want make the most of your four years, you've got to take advantage of the plethora of opportunities that arise during your time in school. In doing so, you'll build invaluable relationships within the dental community, gain access to a wealth of free professional resources and advanced training, and develop exceptional skills that will set you apart from your colleagues both during and after graduate school.

    It's All About Mindset

    Let's face it, dental school is challenging for even the most disciplined students. Days are long, professors can be intimidating, and learning the material necessary to safely and successfully conduct surgery on a live patient is like drinking water from a firehose. But excuses only get you so far, and constantly whining about a choice you willingly made for yourself is no way to achieve greatness. I'm routinely asked how I have so much time to explore the outdoors with my friends and family, participate regularly in community outreach, and attend continuing education (CE) courses hosted by our profession's top experts. My answer is always the same. I stay engaged in class, manage my time wisely, and avoid any distractions that take my focus away from my end goal. It's all about mindset. Graduate school is not a place for the "college experience." That's what undergrad is for. Graduate school sets the stage for a long and prosperous career, so long as you pursue it with foresight and intent.

    Seek Meaningful Relationships

    Midway through my first year, I applied to the Washington State Dental Association's (WSDA) mentorship program. I was paired with a local dentist who owns two dental practices, plays a major role in dentistry advocacy throughout Washington, leads a beautiful family of six, and serves in the Air Force Reserves. While many of my friends were impressed that he treated my wife and I to a soccer game during our initial meeting, I remain fascinated by my mentor's ability to take on and manage a myriad of personal and professional pursuits with seemingly little to no effort. I strongly believe our pairing was not a coincidence, but a recognition of the similarities in our work ethics and lifestyles. It's a direct representation of what Dr. Wayne Dyer coined the "Power of Intention." Dr. Dyer believed that no one attracts what they want, but rather what they are. So if average suits you, do the bare minimum. But if you want to be great, go above and beyond. You'll find that greatness will soon surround you.

    Associate With Professional Organizations

    Don't underestimate the value of joining and associating with professional organizations. They offer significantly reduced or free membership to dental students while in school, giving student members complete access to the same membership benefits provided to practicing dentists. Unfortunately, too many students fall into the heirarchy of dental school thinking professional events or CE courses are beyond their current capabilities, and that's nonsense. If you want to be great, you absolutely must challenge yourself! Plus, dental students bring new, fresh information to these events and their attendees. It's a win-win for everyone. Whether your interests include advocacy, networking, or supplemental training/continuing education (CE), organizations like the WSDA, Academy of General Dentistry (AGD), and Spear Education all offer a plethora of opportunities to grow among the dental community, and they're always seeking dental students to join their ranks! Of course, it's highly likely one (or all) of these organizations are well-integrated within your dental school, so seek out their representatives and never miss an opportunity to reach your full potential again.

  • The Struggle Ends When Gratitude Begins

    Rays of light strike a trecherous ridgeline during an early morning sunrise atop Mount Pilchuck. 
    Brandon Walker/2016

    If you feel like you're treading water and just barely staying afloat, you may need to head to higher ground. The demands of a dental school curriculum can be quite burdonsome, leaving even the most organized and highly prepared scholars gasping for a breath of fresh air. If this sounds familiar, seeking and exploring new perspectives may help clear the smog. But if you're seeking a more permanent solution to the stress, consider first finding the spirit of gratitude in all you do.

    Gratitude is life-changing, but in today's world, discovering gratitude isn't as easy as it sounds. We live in an unforgiving, fast-paced society where those who master time find success and those who confuse their priorities find themselves left in the dust. Indeed, achieving success requires hard work, discipline, and resiliance, but no one gets there on their own. We all owe a great deal of our success to our family, friends, and mentors who guide and support us through life's greatest challenges.

    My most recent run-in with gratitude happened atop Mount Pilchuck, 1.62 kilometers above 7.3 million other Washingtonians. A few classmates and I embarked on a challenging midnight hike in order to reach the summit just in time for sunrise, and mother nature did not disappoint. As I perched myself atop the spectacular Pilchuck ridgeline, I found myself less concerned with the clinical implications of Warfarin therapy and more thankful for the opportunity to escape the stress of dental school (and life in general). I relished in the moment, wishing it was anything but temporary.

    Look around. We are inundated with daily reminders that what we have is not enough, and what we need to be happy, healthy, or succeed is merely a click away, so long as the item is in stock and a valid credit card is provided. We're misled by our peers into thinking being liked is more important than having sound morals, ethics, and values. We focus too much on what we don't have and ignore millions of others who have far less. At some point we all take life for granted, but a solution lies deep within us. Recognize the value of what you do have, and being thankful for it.

    It took a mountain to re-introduce me to gratitude, and since then, life has been much more simple. I now see greater value in the life I've lived and relationships I've cultivated along the way. I no longer desire more than I already have and instead seek ways to help those who struggle with far less. My energy is focused not on distractions and detours but on achieving maximum potential. I cherish every new day and welcome the challenges they bring, regardless of how difficult they might be. So if you too find yourself bogged down by stress, try being thankful.

    Indeed, the struggle ends when gratitude begins.