Dugoni leading national efforts to diversify dental field

A student works in the simulation clinic

Dental student Elisa Wang '24 practices her skills in the simulation clinic.

University of the Pacific’s Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry is leading efforts to diversify the dental profession at the local and national level through recruitment efforts, student-led scholarship initiatives and research, among other strategies.

“The goal is to have professionals that match the communities we serve,” said Nader Nadershahi, dean and vice provost for the San Francisco Campus. “Patients can feel more comfortable when they see themselves in their provider. When they feel they'll be supported, they tend to get the care they need.”

Diversity efforts have been heightened under Nadershahi’s leadership. As an immigrant and the first Iranian American dean of a dental school in the United States, promoting an inclusive community and creating opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds has been paramount.

“Coming from a background where I felt some of the lack of access or equity, it's important for me that we create an environment of belonging for everyone,” he said.  

Fostering an inclusive environment 

The Dugoni School’s efforts have focused on creating a more diverse student population; 88% of dentists in California are white or Asian but only about half of the state’s population is.

“We have increased significantly the amount of targeted recruitment we do to assure we have a more diversified pool of candidates,” said Stan Constantino, assistant dean for admissions and student affairs. “We also have actively recruited and fostered relationships with STEM students and advisors from historically Black universities and colleges and Hispanic-serving institutions.” 

All students are selected for interviews based on a holistic review of applications, emphasizing their experiences, rather than solely relying on standardized test scores. The changes have resulted in a 180% increase in the number of students from historically underrepresented racial and ethnic groups interviewed in 2021 compared to 2015. 

Work also is underway to create pathway programs for pre-dental students at historically black colleges and universities and partnerships with organizations, including the Society of American Indian Dentists, Diversity in Dentistry, Summer Health Professions Education Programs, minority serving institutions, and Hispanic-serving institutions.

A Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging Committee, comprising 15 faculty, staff and students, was created to support students of color and the underserved. 

“We bring in speakers to focus on diversity. We have continued the Mosaic Mentorship Program, dreamed up by alumna Winna Pham '22 (the program pairs first-generation students with faculty mentors). And, for the first time, we had faculty, staff and students from all three campuses participate in the San Francisco Pride parade in 2022 representing University of the Pacific,” said Melissa Yamanaka, diversity and outreach manager for Dugoni and chair of the committee.

A long-standing festive event at Dugoni called Bridge Builders celebrates the rich cultures of students, faculty and staff highlighting cultural clothing, music and food.     

Student research and leadership

Students are actively involved in furthering Dugoni’s commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.  

As its graduation gift, the class of 2021 raised money to create the Dugoni School Faces of Change Endowed Scholarship Fund, which will provide support to students who are Black, Indigenous or other people of color. 

“We wanted to raise awareness and continue to share and promote Dugoni’s commitment to diversity and inclusion for all prospective dental students,” said 2021 class president Trisha Ilas.

The Sexuality and Gender Alliance organization, formed by students a few years ago, holds events such as Pronouns Day and Coming Out Day to create a supportive environment. 

“It’s a safe space for students to reach out to members in the community who are also in dental school,” said club vice president Duncan Eshom ’23. “It also allows the community to talk about things that may be troubling or need to be addressed.”

Research by student Aishwarya Ravivarapu found ethnic diversity in dental post-graduate programs does not reflect the country’s demographics. 

“At the end of the day, more representation in residencies leads to better quality of patient care for diverse populations,” Ravivarapu said. “This is incredibly important as we move forward and hope to better and improve access to our healthcare system in the United States.” 

Her work was awarded the 2022 American Association of Oral and Maxillofacial (jaw and face) Surgeons Best Poster Award.

Elevating the conversation 

Earlier this month Dugoni hosted health practitioners and educators from across the country (including University of California, Los Angeles and Boston University) for a symposium on reducing inequities in oral health care—one of the first of its kind in dental education. 

“Our goal was to understand the history and consequences of systemic racism and bias in health care and engage participants in identifying strategies and steps that could be used in dental practice, research, education and health care policy to advance equity for all members of our communities,” said symposium organizer Elisa Chavez, director of the Pacific Center for Equity in Oral Health Care. 

As chair of the board of American Dental Education Association, Nadershahi also is leading initiatives nationally to promote a more diverse profession, such as a creating a climate assessment survey for universities and contributing to leading dental publications (Journal of Dental Education and the California Dental Association Journal).

“We will achieve excellence through diversity; if we think about it that way, we make better decisions,” Nadershahi said.