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