ECU dental student builds future career on service, compassionate care

Although Darian Askew has worn out the beaten paths between Greenville and Ahoskie, the roads in both directions lead home.

Askew, a fourth-year dental student in the East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine, grew up in Union, a small community in Hertford County that lies a stone’s throw from the dental school’s community service learning center (CSLC) in Ahoskie. The first-generation college student and future pediatric dentist wants to create hope from his experience.

Darian Askew, a member of the ECU School of Dental Medicine’s Class of 2022, receives his white coat during his second year of dental school from faculty members Dr. Hanan Elgendy, left, and Dr. Maged Abdelaal. (Contributed photo)

“It was great because everyone who came in would say, ‘Oh hey, it’s you!’” Askew said of community members during his rotation at the CSLC-Ahoskie. “I wanted people to come in and see me and think, ‘If he can do this, I can do this.’ If I can change one kid’s trajectory, then it’s worth it.”

After graduation in May, Askew will complete an advanced education in general dentistry residency at the CSLC-Ahoskie, where he hopes to one day open a pediatric dental clinic. He plans to apply for a residency in pediatric dentistry, with hopes of returning to ECU’s dental school. He is keeping his options open on where to practice, as long as he lands in a rural community where he is needed. 

Man on a mission

Hertford County and its communities are tucked into northeastern North Carolina, a corner that blurs into southern Virginia and the Atlantic Coast. Crime is high; opportunity is low. Askew has seen that firsthand and wants to do something about it.

“Ahoskie is very rural, very poor,” he said. “It’s very challenging because of the environment, and it’s not conducive to being able to see any kind of future.”

Askew graduated from ECU in 2016 with a degree in molecular biology and returned home to teach. He had a nagging feeling, though, that another career was calling him.

“It was more about being able to do something that the people in the community could be proud of,” he said.

He shadowed area dentists in Ahoskie and Greenville, and it clicked. During his rotation in Ahoskie late last year, he realized he wanted to eventually become a pediatric dentist.

Dr. Ford Grant, faculty of the CSLC-Ahoskie, envisions a smooth transition for Askew, from student to resident to professional.

“Darian is a great example of a mission-aligned student who wants to return to serve his home community,” he said. “Young people will look to you for inspiration. You become a role model. Your words and actions determine what kind of role model you will be.”

Driving it home

Askew has taken those words to heart.

From a window in the CSLC-Ahoskie clinic, Askew could gaze across the fields at the school his sons, Christian, 7, and Gabriel, 5, attend. That daily reminder sparked an idea last fall that grew into something meaningful. He organized a toy drive for local schoolchildren for the holidays.

Darian Askew, middle row, right, pauses to talk with some of his classmates during a busy pre-pandemic day in Ross Hall. (Contributed photo)

“I wanted to find a way to give back,” he said. “I understand the mindset of, ‘We’ve got it bad, but they’ve got it worse.’ I understand how some kids don’t get anything for Christmas. I wanted to do something for them around the holidays.”

Askew has also become active in the Young Professionals of the Roanoke Chowan group, which is geared toward bringing young professionals and businesses to the Hertford County area. He also represents the dental school at “pop up” events that promote oral health literacy in communities.

Being a part of the community in these ways is something that Dr. Nicole Beasley understands. From neighboring Northampton County, Beasley graduated from the School of Dental Medicine in 2016 and is now assistant faculty director at CSLC-Ahoskie. She serves as a mentor to Askew, sharing her experience that so closely mirrors his own vision for the future.

“I had been hearing about Darian for a while and then finally had the pleasure to meet him when he interviewed for the AEGD residency here in Ahoskie,” Beasley said. “I had a chance to talk to Darian fairly early on about the pressures he may face. I wanted him to know that every decision he makes, he has to make for himself, with his own goals and happiness in mind. And no matter what he does, people already are and will continue to be proud of him.”

For Askew, making his community proud is a high honor, and one he hopes resonates with those who come after him.

Those who look like me, as well as those who don’t but come from a similar background, can have someone to look at and say, ‘I can become what I dream to be, my circumstances will not define me,’” he said.

A friend, indeed

To make it to the final stretch before graduation from dental school is not a situation Askew takes lightly.

“It’s huge,” he said. “Making it to this point brings a huge sigh of relief as well as motivation to make it past the finish line. There’s also a sense of accomplishment from the cumulation of everything I’ve been through to make it to this point.”

Askew stands out among classmates and friends he has gotten to know over four years.

“Darian is one of the most empathetic people I know,” said classmate and friend Branden Sumner. “I admire the ability he has to connect with his patients, no matter what walk of life they may come from. That is a quality that will make him an outstanding dentist.”

Classmate and friend Eugene Adei said Askew applies the same care, attention to detail and compassion to everything he does.

“Darian is an absolute professional with a profound interest in providing dental care to the underserved communities in North Carolina,” Adei said.

Askew credits the dental school with teaching him how to interact with people from different backgrounds, cultures and places.

“I don’t believe I would be exposed to the same level of cultural variation at a school localized to one area,” he said. “Being able to relate, empathize and interact with people on almost any level, I believe is a great trait to have, and probably my greatest strength now.”