Becoming president of the VCU Student Chapter of the American Dental Hygienists Association (SCADHA) was not something Samantha Smith had in mind when she was accepted into the Dental Hygiene program at VCU School of Dentistry in 2020. But, in the last two years, this self-described “introvert times a million” has coordinated numerous community service events at local elementary schools, organized fundraisers and even administered COVID-19 vaccinations as part of the VCU Vaccine Corps.
“I grew up in Dinwiddie, Virginia. It’s super rural and there was literally one dentist,” said Smith, who graduates in May with a Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene and has already landed a job at a dental practice in Chester, Virginia. “I spent a lot of time in orthodontics as a kid, and from the time I was eight until I was 16 I was dead set on being an orthodontist. And then I took chemistry in high school and wasn’t so sure!”
During her freshman year of college at the University of Mary Washington, Smith decided to pursue a degree in dental hygiene. She wanted to complete her bachelor’s degree and stay in state, so her options were VCU or Old Dominion University. It was her childhood desire to specialize in orthodontics that drove her to VCU.
“VCU has an orthodontic clinic, they have a Periodontics Department, they have all of these specialties that I wouldn’t get to experience somewhere else,” Smith said.
Smith applied and was accepted. However, the COVID-19 pandemic was in full swing as she entered her first semester.
“Most of our early courses were virtual, and our entry into the clinic was scary,” Smith said. “We had a requirement to see 10 patients by the end of February, but everyone was cancelling. It was hard, but I think it also made our class closer because we would always help each other out by referring patients if someone had a cancellation.”
As COVID-19 vaccines became available, Smith was one of more than 1,500 VCU students pursuing a degree in health care who signed up to administer vaccines to the public through the VCU Vaccine Corps.
“Being part of the VCU Vaccine Corps was a highlight of my dental hygiene experience. It was before we had our local anesthesia lab [course] so I’d never handled a needle,” Smith said. “We took an online course and then received training from volunteers at the School of Nursing. It was completely hands-on; they showed us exactly what to do.”
Smith volunteered and vaccinated people at events on the Monroe Park Campus and at Virginia State University.
“Vaccinations aren’t part of a dental hygienist’s responsibilities, so it was a really cool experience stepping into that role,” she said.
As Smith approached her final semester, officers were being chosen for student leadership positions in the Student Chapter of the American Dental Hygienists Association.
“Our class had a group chat and everybody felt like they had too much going on to be SCADHA president, so I was like, you know what, I’m just going to do it,” Smith said. “I had never been in a leadership position before, and I was really nervous.”
Smith decided to focus on community engagement. She worked with her classmates on the association’s community service committee, and they began engaging with local elementary schools.
“We started by volunteering at a Head Start Block Party and giving out free oral hygiene supplies and informational materials,” Smith said. “Then we started going into the schools and engaging directly with the students.”
Smith and her classmates went into classrooms and talked with the students about the importance of healthy eating and which types of foods and drinks can cause cavities. They provided demonstrations on brushing and flossing and gave the students goodie bags with oral hygiene supplies at the end of the day. She estimates that they served several hundred students throughout the year.
“It was fun and challenging working with the kids, but it was always really rewarding,” Smith said.
Smith continued to engage in student leadership committees and participated in events with the Virginia Dental Hygiene Association. The more she stepped out of her comfort zone, the more comfortable she became.
“I’ve always preferred being alone, but I’ve learned to become more outgoing when I need to be. I’ve become more confident in leadership roles, and it’s definitely helped with things like professional networking.”
Smith has no plans to take a break after graduation; she’s looking forward to getting right to work.
“The dental practice I’ll be working for is much bigger and more comprehensive than the one I grew up going to in Dinwiddie,” said Smith, who is still interested in engaging in more specialized aspects of dentistry. “They place implants and do a lot of prosthodontics in-house, so I’m really excited about observing and learning while I work.”
Smith has plans to continue her education. She hopes to work and save money in order to pursue a master’s degree in the next few years.
“If I go back to school, I want it to be at VCU,” Smith said. “I love the school, and I love Richmond. I can see myself moving back into the city and staying long term.”
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