Dental professor addresses oral health among Native American high schoolers

Photo courtesy of James Brozek/james.brozek@mu.edu

Sheila Stover

Dr. Sheila Stover, a clinical assistant professor in the School of Dentistry, is spreading her expertise beyond the classroom by leading the Dental Pipeline National Learning Institute at Marquette. Stover is partnering with the NLI to raise awareness of the dental profession and oral health care to high school students in various Native American tribes in Wisconsin.

The NLI partners with 11 other dental schools and focuses on increasing the enrollment of underrepresented students in dental schools. Native Americans suffer from many health disparities, especially oral health care. The Native American population has the highest tooth decay rate in the country, according to a 2012 study by Department of Preventive and Community Dentistry.

Stover said she does not think the problem is due to negligence, but rather, to a lack of access to care and the lack of fluoride in the water of Native American communities.

In 2006, Stover and William Lobb, dean of the School of Dentistry, thought it would be a good idea to develop a pipeline program for Native American students who were interested in a career in dentistry. They partnered with the Native American Research Center for Health programs in the Lac du Flambeau, Ho-Chunk and Bad River tribes to develop an affiliation agreement, where they would work directly with the high school students in those tribes. The students are brought to the dental school one day a year over the summer and are introduced to the field.

“They spend half the day in the lab; they make teeth and build a tooth kit and use all the dental materials that a dental student would,” Stover said. “We give them an idea of what it’s like to be a dental student.”

The other half of this annual event is providing information about dental school admissions, scholarship opportunities and loan repayment. Students also meet with dental school students at Marquette, who serve as mentors and provide examples of their own experiences.

Jacqueline Schram, a governmental and community affairs associate in the Office of Public Affairs, connected with Stover because of their work in minority student recruitment and retention. Schram is a member of a minority population who has brought some experience to building the pipeline.

“Dr. Stover has set out to inspire young Native Americans throughout the state of Wisconsin to pursue the field of dentistry and bring those critical skills back home, so to speak,” Schram said in an email.

“Dr. Stover’s commitment to community-based, culturally sensitive dental health promotion is both extraordinary and unhurried,” Schram continued. “It is this thoughtful and attentive approach to building relationships that is the difference because it is so attuned to a cultural ethic that pervades Native American and Alaska Native communities.”

Stover said students in the program are giving positive feedback, and the program has generated a lot of interest in dentistry from Native American teenagers. She said her new goal is to do a better job of following up on students’ interests.

“Moving forward what we feel we need to do, is instead of working so broadly, we need to work with each community individually and really get community leaders to be our advocates and help the young people of the community navigate their way through college and dental school while working with us,” she said.

Stover said she does not see what she is doing as an obligatory service, but something she enjoys doing while serving others.

“I like working with high school kids, I see a need in dentistry, and I think it’s just fun to do,” she said.

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