Hometown: Davis, CA
Career Plans: Initially he will work in his father’s dental practice, and eventually he sees himself moving into dental education.
The environment here is so positive. It’s one of professionalism and collaboration.
Like many students at the Dugoni School, Kenji O’Brien, DDS Class of 2021, was introduced to dentistry by a family member. Growing up spending a great deal of time in his dad’s dental office, he developed an interest in medicine. However, his love of science and desire to make a difference in people’s lives initially led him to become a high-school biology teacher.
While receiving his Master in Education degree at Stanford, Kenji taught at a charter school in Redwood City before joining four other teachers and a principal to open a charter school in East San Jose. Working with a predominantly low-income demographic had its challenges, but Kenji was committed to fulfilling the mission of the school — to get 100 percent of students accepted into four-year colleges.
“Being at the ground level of that school and getting to see it from an idea all the way to graduation and handing out diplomas to our students on stage was amazing,” recalls Kenji. “And having all the students accepted into four-year colleges is definitely one of my proudest accomplishments!”
Given how much Kenji loved working with his students, how did he go from being a biology teacher to wanting to become a dentist? It was a dental mission trip to Guatemala with his dad that made him see dentistry in a different light. To Kenji, dentistry had seemed mainly focused on the cosmetic; he didn’t see the humanistic side of the field. That all changed during this trip.
“I saw first hand the need for oral health care in Guatemala and it made me realize there’s more of a social justice/social impact that you can have with dentistry,” says Kenji. “It definitely made me more interested in pursuing dentistry as a career.”
Now in his second year at the Dugoni School, Kenji couldn’t be happier not only with his decision to switch careers but also in his choice of school. The school has just the type of environment he wants to be immersed in.
“The environment here is so positive. It’s one of professionalism and collaboration,” says Kenji. “I feel like my class in particular has that mindset — that we are all in this together and that we will succeed if we help each other out. It’s been great to be a part of.”
With his background in teaching, Kenji can also appreciate the culture of excellence and the high standards that students are held to. It pushes them to be better practitioners. “As a teacher, when I held my students to high standards, they rose to that challenge. It’s the same here at the Dugoni School.”
Even with his heavy course load, Kenji has found time to be involved with the Diversity and Inclusion Committee at the school. His commitment to educational equity goes back to his college years, where he planned a series of student events during Multiracial Identity Week. His time teaching a diverse student population solidified his commitment to inclusion and ensuring access to education and care.
“It’s something I’m passionate about and I think a lot of that work is what drew me to teaching and dentistry,” says Kenji. “The more you understand your patients and the more you can connect with them on multiple levels, the better you can build a practice and be a part of your community.”
As for his future career plans, Kenji’s keeping things open. Right after graduation he will work in his dad’s dental office in Sacramento. However, he’s also very interested in dental education and sees that in his future. He also wants to continue community work, whether it’s something international like in Guatemala or locally.
“I want to find ways to leverage the resources of a private practice to provide services to a diverse population, not just for those who can afford but also for those who cannot,” says Kenji. “My goal is to find alternative practice models that can still be sustainable but provide services to people who need it the most.”