International dentists in pursuit of the American dream

An illustration of the globe surrounded by people walking all around it.

Written by Norma Rabago

Innovative programs equip international dentists with the tools to pursue their dream of practicing in the U.S.

After working 13 years as a general dentist in her home country of Colombia, Adriana Henao Casas, DDS, is on the brink of practicing dentistry again after 10 years in the United States, her newly adopted country.

“Dentistry is my passion,” she said. “Many family members and friends said it would be too difficult, but my mind was focused. I told myself, no matter how many years it takes, I will fight.”

Henao Casas’ dream is coming to fruition through the International Dentist Education Program, a curriculum for internationally trained dentists at the The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio School of Dentistry. The program, known as IDEP, is just one of several designed to help immigrant dentists become practicing providers or dental specialists in the United States.

It is highly competitive, with a maximum of 20 students per cohort chosen out of 400 or more applicants, the majority applying from India, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan and Iraq. Since its establishment in 2007, 180 students have graduated from the program.


Upon acceptance, participants are enrolled as third-year dental students to begin clinical practice along with traditional students who have just completed their first two years.

Some IDEP participants, such as Henao Casas, practiced dentistry in their home country, while others are recent dental school graduates.

Henao Casas moved to San Antonio to attend dental school while her husband and two children live in Houston.

“It’s been difficult being here by myself and starting again,” said the 45-year-old dental student, who is in her final year of the program. “But this is my goal, and I’m here to finish my career.”

IDEP starts each January, five months before the traditional dental class starts. Those months are spent reviewing the first- and second-year curriculum, which gives students time to acclimate, said IDEP Director Elena Riccio Leach, DDS, MS.

“In the first six months, the purpose is not only technical, to train them about the courses or how the school and clinic work, but also to show them how the culture works and what they need to know to integrate fully in the environment,” Riccio Leach said. “We have dinners and other social events to make them feel accepted and integrated into the school.”


Riccio Leach, a product of IDEP herself, and Assistant Director Poornima Mensinkai, BDS, PhD, MS, are reasons for the program’s popularity, according to Irish Quindara, DMD.

Mensinkai created a four-day bench test prep workshop for students such as Quindara. Quindara earned her dental degree in the Philippines.

“When I was looking at different programs, what stood out is that Dr. Riccio Leach and Dr. Mensinkai were international dentists,” she said. “I thought to myself, IDEP and the bench test prep workshop are special because they are led by two women who went through the same thing we international students are going through now.”

One of the critical components of the application process is an in-person interview and a skills test. Mensinkai’s 20-person workshop is designed to help foreign-trained dentists competitively apply to the School of Dentistry and dental schools across the country.

“We keep the class size small because they need that attention,” Mensinkai said. “It makes it worthwhile because, during those four days, they can ask questions. It makes them more confident with the subject matter.”

“Don’t stop pursuing your dream.”

— Adriana Henao Casas, DDS

The workshop, offered four times a year, provides one-on-one attention from faculty. That’s why Quindara chose to sign up for it.

“The instructors can focus on weaknesses in your technique or preparation and tell you specifically where you need work,” Quindara said. “Unlike workshops with a high student-to-faculty ratio, they are not rushed to get to the next participant.”

But the workshop isn’t only about sharpening hand skills. It also helps students prepare for the entire application process.

Director of Continuing Dental Education Scott Stafford, DDS, MBA, FICD, said that during the handskills workshop, students receive tips to beef up their curriculum vitae and on interviewing skills.

“If I were to go into a job interview, I’m going to firmly shake the hand of the interviewer, look them in the eyes and speak directly,” he said. “But in a lot of cultures, you don’t do that. We try to give them behavioral cues so they can succeed wherever they apply.”


For domestic and international school graduates looking to pursue a dental specialty such as pediatrics or oral surgery, the newly minted Certificate in Dental Clinical Specialties Foundations (CDCSF) Program helps prepare them to enter any residency program.

Suman Challa, BDS, MPH, program director, said the growing demand for dental specialists and the highly competitive nature of dental residency programs was the driving force for the certification’s creation.

“At our School of Dentistry, we get 300 to 400 applicants for three dental residencies,” Challa said. “This program will help participants become more competitive and able to apply to our programs or programs elsewhere in the country.”

The 12-month program begins in July 2024.


As Henao Casas nears the end of her 2.5- year journey back into dentistry, she uses an iconic Nike slogan to advise anyone considering applying to one of the programs.

“No matter how old you are, how many years have passed since you practiced dentistry and how hard you think it’s going to be, just do it,” she said. “Apply, and if you don’t make it this year, apply again and again. Don’t stop pursuing your dream.”

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In the 2023 issue of Salute

Salute is the official magazine for the alumni and friends of the School of Dentistry at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. Read and share inspiring stories highlighting our dental alumni, faculty and students who are revolutionizing education, research, patient care and critical services in the communities they serve.

View the 2023 issue

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