Graduates Share Experiences 50 Years Apart
By Catherine Duncan
While completing his undergraduate degree at The University of Texas at Austin in 1970, Martin James “Jim” Clark, D.D.S. Class of 1974, applied to dental schools with the plan of going out of state. That all changed when he heard about the new dental school opening in San Antonio.
Dr. Clark applied to and was accepted to The University of Texas Dental School at San Antonio. He was one of 16 who began dental school in September 1970 in borrowed space from the medical school, which had opened in September of 1968, under the now-named Holly Auditorium. Four years later, 14 would graduate.
“They were trying to create the curriculum as we were starting classes. We were definitely the guinea pigs,” he said. “We went to school 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. It was a grueling first two years. We did the first year of basic science courses with the medical students. That was tough.”
By the third and fourth years, dental school became easier, he said. “I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. We had the opportunity to be part of the first graduating class. It was a special time.”
Dr. Clark said, as he looks back 50 years, “Dentistry has been a great career for me.” After graduating, he joined the U.S. Air Force and completed a general practice residency. Following his honorable discharge, he returned to the School of Dentistry for his formal training in oral and maxillofacial surgery. He went into private practice in oral surgery in 1981. The Woodlands, Texas, resident retired in 2018.
Felix Perez Majul, D.D.S. Class of 1974, recalls being the oldest student in the first dental class. At 32 years old, he was married and had two children. His wife, Ana Maria Majul, worked while he went to dental school.
Dr. Majul, who had already earned a pharmacy degree from UT Austin, said he remembers there were 600 applicants and only 16 selected to attend the fledgling dental school. He retired in 2019 after having his own general practice, located west of downtown San Antonio, for 45 years.
Michael “Mike” Boland, D.D.S. Class of 1974, said when his class began dental school, the war was raging in Vietnam, and the U.S. military was drafting young men into active service. “We worried a lot that some of our faculty, who were recently retired military members, would get called back.”
Dr. Boland, who had already earned his bachelor’s degree from UT Austin, and several of his classmates had joined the military when they applied to dental school. When he graduated, he was a captain and a dentist in the U.S. Army. After dental school, he completed the military’s hospital dentistry residency and ended up treating warriors with the 82nd Airborne who were injured in Japan. When badly burned bodies were brought in, he would be asked to identify them since he had provided dental care to the young men.
After three years of active duty, he left the military and moved his family to Alice, Texas, near the coast. He had a private general dentistry practice until retiring in 2000 due to debilitating arthritis in his neck. Dr. Boland advises young dentists to contribute monthly to a savings account plus invest in the stock market. “Don’t depend solely on your practice for your retirement. Have the foresight to put money away,” he added.
Paul E. McLerran, D.D.S. Class of 1974, said while attending Baylor University in Waco, Texas, for his undergraduate degree, he worked as a surgical orderly in a hospital after his sophomore year. “I had started off in college as pre-med/pre-dentistry. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. During that summer, I decided medicine wasn’t for me.
“A friend suggested I look into dentistry. I had always liked doing things with my hands and fixing things,” he said.
Although Dr. McLerran was accepted into the established dental school in Houston, his parents lived in San Antonio, and he was excited about starting at a dental school where everything was new.
“We had a lot of faculty compared to the number of students. We had almost one-on-one attention. We really got to know our faculty and build close relationships with them,” he said.
The small class size also meant each student received a lot of clinical experience. “Our clinical operatories were under the auditorium. We each had our own operatory at that time,” Dr. McLerran said. “When we graduated from dental school, we all felt very confident about our clinical ability.”
After graduating, he worked with an older dentist for four years before having his own practice for five years. “I developed a neurological disease that caused muscle weakness, and I eventually didn’t feel comfortable practicing. I sold my practice to a classmate in 1983.”
Like Dr. Boland, he said he had disability insurance that helped him while he decided what to do next. Not wanting to leaving San Antonio, he partnered with a friend in commercial real estate development in the 1980s. He took business and real estate courses around the country. His business experience led him to opening in 1987 McLerran & Associates, which provides practice appraisals, sales and transition consulting services to dentists throughout Texas. He worked full time in the brokerage of dental practices until 2010, when his son and a partner took over.
“I was lucky to be able to retrain myself, go into a new business, and retire early. When I think back, I always remember what a great experience I had at the dental school.”
TODAY’S D.D.S. CLASS
Although the first classmates began school during the divisive Vietnam War, those graduating from the School of Dentistry in 2020 had no idea when the spring semester began that they would be experiencing an unprecedented, challenging final chapter of their education. In March, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world, including the school and all clinical activities. School leaders and faculty transitioned to virtual education to allow students to complete their studies and later scheduled clinical experience. A virtual graduation and delayed boards rounded out their completion of dental school.
Hevony Rodriguez, D.D.S. Class of 2020, said while dental school was very challenging, she made lifelong friends. “I also was so fortunate to have some great mentors and professors who helped me along the way.”
Dr. Rodriguez said her experience at the School of Dentistry changed her opinion about the type of dentistry to practice. The Laredo native was first introduced to dentistry in high school through a magnet program for health and sciences. “I shadowed a dentist and fell in love with helping patients and making them feel better and gain confidence,” said Dr. Rodriguez, who went on to earn her undergraduate degree from Texas A&M International University in Laredo.
“When I started dental school, I really thought I wanted to go into private practice and own my own business,” she said. “However, since middle school, I had been volunteering in my community. I continued doing volunteer service but through summer rotations with the dental school. In community clinics, I was able to help populations that can’t afford dental care. During my final year of school, I decided I wanted to start off in community health dentistry.”
Dr. Rodriguez, who earned scholarships throughout her undergraduate and dental education, applied for the loan repayment program through the Health Resources and Services Administration. She was accepted and now works in community dentistry and receives assistance in paying off her student loans. Since Aug. 31, she has been working in general dentistry for adults and children at Gateway Community Health Center, Inc., in Laredo.
Zeki Abdulaali, D.D.S. Class of 2020, said although he always wanted to be a dentist, he didn’t have the courage to pursue his dream. He earned his undergraduate degree and became an engineer. Although he was accepted to graduate school at Purdue University, he realized he wouldn’t be happy in engineering. He joined the U.S. Army and was deployed to his homeland of Iraq. A conversation with a dentist in the Army revealed to him all the rewards of becoming a dentist. “I decided to volunteer at Fort Polk in Louisiana as a dental assistant. I really enjoyed caring for patients and teaching them about oral care.”
After leaving the Army in 2013, Dr. Abdulaali moved to Texas to earn his bachelor’s degree in immunology and microbiology at UT San Antonio so he would have the prerequisites needed for dental school. “I was thrilled to be accepted into dental school at UT Health San Antonio. I was very fortunate to be in the Class of 2020.
“There is no class as great as my class. We all cared about each other. I will never forget how supportive the faculty was to all of us. The administrative staff is great too,” he said. “Drs. Glass, Segura, Dodge, Loomer and Jennifer Sandlin were all so supportive. The level of our clinical faculty is astounding. They are each elite in their specialty.”
Dr. Abdulaali moved to California after graduation and is now waiting to receive his license there. “I want to open up my own practice here. I would like to settle down and have a family. I can finally put down roots.”
Samantha J. Whitten, D.D.S. Class of 2020, said while she was always interested in science, she started off as an undergraduate student in pre-med but was never 100 percent certain about a career in medicine. After her sophomore year at Texas A&M University in College Station, Dr. Whitten’s hometown dentist in Bastrop, Texas, asked about her career plans and suggested she shadow dentists for a week that summer.
“I loved it. I liked helping patients through a dental procedure that could be painful or stressful for them,” she said. “Out of my acceptances, I decided to go to the dental school where I felt the best. The School of Dentistry has the friendliest people, a great availability of selectives, and a focus on community service. I also saw that the faculty and students seemed to have a great relationship. Plus, the Center for Oral Health Care and Research is a new high-tech facility for patient care.”
Dr. Whitten said the dental school was ideal for her because she was able to be involved in and lead student organizations and serve on the school’s curriculum committee. She also tutored through the school and on her own time.
Since graduating, Dr. Whitten began a one-year internship in oral and maxillofacial surgery with the School of Dentistry. She said since early July, the OMS team has stayed busy because of emergency procedures allowed during the COVID-19 pandemic. “We’ve had to adapt and respond. We saw a lot of patients delay getting care because of COVID-19. We are now doing a lot of infection control,” said Dr. Whitten, who is applying for a four- to six-year residency in OMS.
DENTAL HYGIENE FIRST GRADS
While the dental’s school first class began in 1970 and graduated in 1974, the university’s dental hygiene program began in 1976 and celebrated its first graduates of the then-two-year certificate program in 1978. These first students experienced some of the same advantages and disadvantages of the first dental students.
Linda Roberts (Snow), D.H. Class of 1978, RDH, said she had no idea what she wanted to do when she graduated from Judson High School in San Antonio in 1975. A personality test in high school recommended careers in either nursing or dental hygiene. “At that time, I felt like I could never give an injection so I didn’t pursue nursing.”
Roberts heard about the new dental hygiene program being offered through the then-named School of Allied Health Sciences at UT Health San Antonio. She applied and was accepted in 1975 but had to wait until classes began in 1976. During that time, Roberts worked as a dental assistant which gave her the opportunity to see if she wanted a career in dentistry.
She was one of 48 students who began class in the fall of 1976. “There were those of us who were basically straight out of high school. You had women who had raised their kids and were ready to start a profession. And, we had those who had been in the military and were looking for a new career,” Roberts said.
“I think the fact that we were so diverse, and we were the first class made us a really close group,” she said. “We were a family. We struggled through everything together. It really was a great experience.”
After becoming a certified dental hygienist, Roberts went back to work briefly for Dr. T. Hulan Yarbrough in Universal City where she had first worked as a dental assistant. “We soon moved to Houston where I worked for a dentist in Kingwood, Texas, for nine years before moving to Oregon and working there for 25 years. I have been in Rochester, Minnesota, practicing for the last seven years.”
Roberts, who still works four days a week, plans to retire on Feb. 1, 2022, with 42 years of total service as a dental hygienist. “I’m a people person. I enjoy making people feel better. In one hour, I feel like I can make a difference in their lives.”
Debbie Driffill, D.H. Class of 1978, RDH, fondly recalls her all-female class. “We had a great group of girls. We worked hard, and we played hard.” She remembers tuition for her first semester was “a whopping $99.”
Driffill does remember several differences to schooling and the profession from today’s dental hygiene world. “We had to wear white caps, dresses, hose and shoes similar to nursing uniforms. One of our classmates arrived for class once and had forgotten her white hose. She used white shoe polish, which we used on our white shoes, to paint her legs white so she could go to class. We all sat in class watching to see if she would get caught. We still laugh about that today.”
She said other changes involve practicing in dental offices. “We didn’t even wear gloves to work on patients until the early 1980s after the outbreak of HIV. Now, because of COVID-19, we are working in full PPE. Technology has changed everything too. No more paper file folders. And, it was wonderful when X-rays went digital so we no longer had to develop the film in the office.
“While there have been many changes in our profession, one thing never changes: The fulfillment you get from helping a patient with dental issues and teaching him or her oral health care,” she said.
Driffill is still working full time after 42 years as a dental hygienist. Since 1997, she has worked for Gary W. Shults, D.D.S. Class of 1988.
GRADUATING DURING A PANDEMIC
While this year’s graduates who earned a Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene benefited from an established program, they saw their last semester of school altered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Everything from enjoying final classes together to experiencing clinical experiences to walking the stage in front of family and friends would not occur for this class. But, as they attest, they grew stronger and more resilient.
Anna Vu, B.S.D.H. Class of 2020, RDH, said growing up in an Asian family meant she was encouraged to become a doctor. “I knew in my heart that I didn’t want to be a physician. Growing up in Houston, I always enjoyed going to the dental hygienist. I knew I wanted to be a dental hygienist.”
Although she thought she would go to dental hygiene school in Houston, her first interview in San Antonio with a faculty member changed her mind. “I saw how great the dental hygiene faculty are here. I got to speak to students who had volunteered to meet with applicants. They loved it here. After that experience, I knew this was where I wanted to come,” she said.
Vu said her favorite aspect of school was the clinical work in the community. “I found it very rewarding to serve populations—including homeless and intellectually disabled individuals—who I had never been exposed to. This really opened me up to a world where they so desperately need oral health care.”
Vu said the administration and faculty made adjustments so that she and her classmates could receive delayed clinical experience and be prepared academically for their exam. She was able to get a job at a general practice after passing her boards. “I started working feeling so prepared and confident. I feel like ours is one of the best programs in the nation. The faculty really care how you are doing in school. If you are having issues, they come in with a plan to help. The faculty were always there to help us.”
Jerry Suarez, B.S.D.H. Class of 2020, RDH, said he can remember in elementary school a dental professor coming to his class and explaining the importance of oral health care. “That is why I always took care of my teeth,” he said.
Suarez said he was attending college in California when a family emergency required him to withdraw his admission from a dental hygiene program there and move to San Antonio. “The admissions officer in California was so nice that she started looking into dental hygiene programs here to help me. She was so impressed to read about this program and that I could earn my bachelor’s degree.”
Once Suarez started the dental hygiene program at UT Health, he said he was impressed by the faculty members who were dedicated to professionalism and patient care. “It was a lot more hands on than I had expected. I graduated knowing I was really prepared to treat patients,” said Suarez, who is working for a general dentistry practice. “I can confidently say I chose the right path. I love helping people with their oral hygiene and taking care of them.”
Allison Aguirre, B.S.D.H. Class of 2020, RDH, said she is proud of all the hurdles her class had to overcome to graduate and pass their licensing exam during a global pandemic. “Everything was delayed because of COVID-19. As a class, we didn’t take the boards until the summer. Most of us didn’t get licensed until August. That was a challenge.”
Aguirre had worked as a dental assistant for five years before starting dental hygiene school. “I wanted to be able to do more for my patients. I wanted to expand my knowledge in this profession,” she said.
“I was so happy when I was accepted to the program. I have made lifelong friendships from my time there. I also will always remember the community service I was able to provide while getting my degree. I had a great time and learned so much about dental care,” said Aguirre, who once again is working at Tier One Dental in Seguin but now as a registered dental hygienist.