Summer camp piques interest in dental careers for children across the state

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Student Kylie Jones polishes teeth like a pro. (Photo: Jay Ferchaud/UMMC Communications)

By Rachel Vanderford

JA Guest Writer

The second annual S.M.I.L.E. U summer program at the University of Mississippi School of Dentistry kicked off in June with a full week of activities, hands-on learning opportunities, and lessons in oral health. 

In its inaugural year, the program recruited students from the Jackson metro area to participate. This year, S.M.I.L.E. U broadened its scope, drawing middle-schoolers from all corners of the state, and striving to captivate an even younger audience. 

Students from the initial cohort were invited to return this year to serve as ambassadors supporting a new oral health fair offered for pre-kindergarten through third grade students. Graduates of the program each sported their very own monogrammed white coat while they guided the younger children through activities and games designed to teach them about various aspects of oral hygiene and dentistry.

S.M.I.L.E. U, short for Shaping Minds to Inspire, Lead and Explore, was created  to expose middle school students from underrepresented backgrounds, rural areas of the state, and first-generation families to careers in dentistry through exploration of career options in the dental profession.

“S.M.I.L.E. U was created to expose Mississippi children from vulnerable and underrepresented backgrounds to careers in dentistry in the hopes that they envision themselves as part of the future dental workforce,” said Kristin Nalls, assistant dean for student affairs and lead director of admissions. “The mission of S.M.I.L.E. U is to prepare a competitive and diverse applicant pool that will be passionate about serving the most disparate areas of our state.” In addition to dental components, students in the program also obtain CPR certification, learn financial literacy, and acquire other essential professional skills like time management and public speaking.

After the five-day enrichment program, students are scheduled to meet with their S.M.I.L.E. U mentors a few times per year for the next two years to stay connected and learn about any changes or new career opportunities happening in the field.

“All students in Mississippi deserve this level of exposure to career exploration opportunities,” said Dr. Michael Eubanks, incoming superintendent of the Laurel School District. “It is crucial that we work together with our higher learning institutions and programs to help close the disparity gaps that exist in the health care profession regarding minority representation.”

Eubanks and his family established the Dr. Carolyn G. Eubanks Enrichment Endowment, which supports the S.M.I.L.E. U program, to honor his mother. Carolyn Eubanks was the first African American woman to graduate from the School of Dentistry and has been a lifeline for care and education in her community for decades. The mission of S.M.I.L.E. U reflects Eubanks’ efforts throughout her own career to teach children about oral hygiene and encourage their educational pursuits.

“Our mother was dedicated to serving as a dentist in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, in Mound Bayou,” said Eubanks. “She loved her patients and her community, and our family is committed to bridging the gap in access to medical careers and health care. By starting to train our students as early as middle school, we unlock unlimited potential in closing these gaps.”

“We are grateful to the Eubanks Family for their support of this work,” said Nalls. “We hope that S.M.I.L.E. U continues to expand and creates opportunities for more children to learn about careers in oral health. Our goal is to train a compassionate, well-trained, and diverse dental workforce for Mississippi.

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Summer camp piques interest in dental careers for children across the state

By Jackson Advocate News Service
June 30, 2024