From Noncompetitive Grades to Dental School with the Help of the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program

A Profile of Ngozi N. Okoh, DScD

    • April 12, 2011

The problem. Talented college students from minority and disadvantaged groups with potential for medical or dental school often do not have role models or mentors to guide them through the pre-admission process.

Okoh's background. Before she and her three sisters were born, Ngozi N. Okoh's Nigerian-born parents moved to the United States and established medical careers in New York City. Okoh's father was a surgeon at New York Methodist Hospital and her mother was a nurse at Lutheran Medical Center. Okoh looked to both of her parents as strong medical mentors.

But Okoh's questions about her parents' medical careers were always asked from a child's perspective, and she cannot recall her parents' answers. Okoh was just nine when her mother passed away, and her father died two years later when she was 11. Local relatives and a favorite first-grade teacher who was close with Okoh's parents soon worked out a guardianship agreement that kept the four young girls together and attending the same Catholic school. "We were never separated," remembers Okoh. "No one wanted that." Eventually, the family friend was named the official guardian of the children. And in 2003, Okoh graduated as valedictorian of her high-school class.

In addition to her father, Okoh had several uncles who were physicians and she always thought of medicine as "the next step." While an undergraduate biology student at Columbia University, she traveled to northern Virginia and met her roommate's mother, a pediatric dentist. Through her close association with this family, Okoh quickly became interested in the practice of dentistry. "It was a beautiful practice. It just opened my eyes," says Okoh about the visit. "I had never even considered dentistry as an option."

The program's influence. During her sophomore year at Columbia, Okoh was accepted into the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP), an intensive program providing academic enrichment for undergraduate pre-medical and pre-dental students from historically underrepresented groups and from disadvantaged backgrounds. See Program Results for more information about the SMDEP program.

"Thankfully, it had a dental component, and I got to spend six weeks as a dental student," says Okoh. "It was a really, really good fit and it gave me a quick look at what being a dentist was all about."

Through SMDEP, Okoh experienced dental school classes in anatomy and biochemistry, and she was able to spend time in a clinic observing patients and the rotation practices of dental students. She also took advantage of SMDEP's prep courses and tutors for the Dental Admission Test (DAT). But what Okoh remembers as the program's primary benefit came through its evaluations of her strengths and weaknesses as a student. "My grades, as an undergraduate, were not competitive," recalls Okoh. "SMDEP prepares and evaluates our studying habits and helps us see what type of learner we are. Really, from that course, I realized what I was doing wrong in undergraduate school. I came in, thinking that you study the same for every class, which you don't. And that helped me focus my last several years in college and I made better grades, at least overall."

On to dental school. To further strengthen her dental school application after graduating from Columbia in 2007, Okoh took a year off before dental school and worked as a pediatric dental assistant in northern Virginia, with her former roommate's mother—the pediatric dentist she so admired. Okoh was accepted to dental schools at both Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania; she is now a third-year student at Penn's School of Dental Medicine, expecting to graduate in 2012. She has remained in touch with fellow SMDEP students, not only through dental school and conferences, but as an officer in the Student National Dental Association (SNDA), an organization devoted to the advancement of underrepresented students in dentistry.

As it turns out, one of Okoh's younger sisters is interested in medicine too, and Okoh hopes that she has the chance to participate in the SMDEP program as well. "It is a great, compacted program that gives you everything you need to get into medicine and dentistry, as long as you are willing to work hard," she says.

RWJF's perspective. The Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP) is a six-week, intensive academic enrichment summer program. It is designed to help qualified undergraduate students from disadvantaged backgrounds and from racial and ethnic groups underrepresented in medicine and dentistry compete successfully for medical and dental school admission. Scholars receive the tools and course work necessary to be more successful in their journey to medical and dental school through instruction in the basic sciences and math, as well as career development and financial planning assistance, and limited clinical exposure. RWJF launched the program in 1987 under the name Minority Medical Education Program, which focused on helping pre-med students only and limited eligibility to Blacks, Mexican Americans, American Indians and mainland Puerto Ricans. In 2003, RWJF expanded eligibility to include pre-med students representing a wide range of economic, cultural, racial and ethnic diversity, and renamed the program the Summer Medical Education Program. In 2005, RWJF expanded the program to students interested in the dental profession and gave the program its current title to reflect the change.

Since 1987, more than 19,000 students have participated in the SMDEP program, which is now offered at 12 sites around the country, says Andrea Daitz, MA, RWJF program associate and lead program officer for the SMDEP program. "This program represents the youngest group of people that we support within our Human Capital portfolio of grant making," Daitz says. "We typically invest in people and support individuals during their careers, but SMDEP reaches participants much sooner and that makes it very special. I often refer to it as 'academic boot camp,' but it exposes student to much more than the academic rigors of health care careers. This program exposes students to the possibilities, and it gives them the tools they need to succeed."