DENTAL EARLY ASSURANCE
ECU, UNC Pembroke sign dental school early assurance agreement
Ten years ago, Dr. Kennedi Stewart Henry began her undergraduate journey at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. One year ago, she embarked upon a career in dentistry in her hometown of Hamlet, North Carolina.
It is only fitting that Henry, a 2021 graduate of the East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine who also completed an advanced education in general dentistry residency in 2022, witnessed the official start of a historic collaboration between the two institutions that made her who she is today.
Leaders from ECU and UNCP signed an early assurance agreement (EAA) on Friday, creating a pathway linking UNCP’s undergraduate students to the ECU School of Dental Medicine.
The EAA, signed during a ceremony in the dental school’s campus facility, Ross Hall, guarantees admission of UNCP students into the ECU dental school’s Doctor of Dental Medicine (DMD) program upon meeting certain criteria and requirements. Beginning in fall 2024, one of the 52 seats in the dental school’s incoming class will be reserved, three years in advance, for outstanding students entering UNCP as first-year students.
The program is the dental school’s first such early assurance initiative with another institution.
“This is a special day,” said ECU Chancellor Dr. Philip Rogers, “one that I often like to refer to in the life of East Carolina University as a ‘milestone moment.’ It’s a day where we get to see the University of North Carolina System at its best, doing exactly what it was built to do: leveraging the very best assets of its constituent institutions coming together to discover, to create, to transmit and to apply knowledge to address the needs of individuals and to address, most importantly, the needs of society.”
According to the agreement, students who apply for the program must be North Carolina residents from Bladen, Columbus, Cumberland, Halifax, Hoke, Robeson, Sampson, Scotland or Warren counties. UNCP faculty and administrators will help recruit students for the program and will help to mentor them throughout their course of study and academic development at UNCP as they prepare for matriculation into dental school.
Students who accept a position for early assurance into ECU dental school’s DMD program must maintain certain academic standards and participate in various activities during their undergraduate studies to remain eligible for their seats in the dental school’s entering class.
UNCP Chancellor Dr. Robin Cummings said the agreement will have a profound effect on the futures of students and the region.
“It’s about the success of our students — students who will have an expanded opportunity to pursue their dreams,” he said. “Through this agreement today, we’re promoting access to East Carolina’s highly regarded School of Dental Medicine. This agreement has the potential for real change for real people in rural North Carolina.”
The aspiration to be “leaders who become dentists” is within reach for even more promising students because of the EAA, said Dr. Greg Chadwick, dean of the ECU School of Dental Medicine.
“It represents the spirit of opportunity for North Carolinians, and the possibility of a dream coming true for students to want to become dentists and make a difference in the people’s lives in the state of North Carolina,” he said. “It is working together in partnerships like this one, represented by the agreement we just signed here today, that allows us room to grow and thrive.”
A promising partnership
Friday’s event, which welcomed state legislators as well as students and alumni, local and regional leaders, and supporters, represents a partnership between two state institutions that value student success, service and regional prosperity as part of their respective missions. Both schools also champion diversity as part of their efforts to serve rural North Carolina through educational access and opportunity.
UNCP, founded in 1887 as Croatan Normal School, is the nation’s only four-year public institution created by American Indians for American Indians. With more than 7,600 students, UNCP sits at the heart of Lumbee Tribal Territory that stretches through Robeson, Hoke, Cumberland and Scotland counties.
According to UNCP officials, the ECU dental school partnership is the latest of a growing list of academic pathways UNCP has in place with programs in the UNC System and across the country.
Robeson County’s ties to the ECU School of Dental Medicine have grown in number over the years since the dental school opened in 2011. There is a strong contingent of current dental students who attended UNCP or grew up in the area and alumni who returned to practice dentistry in the surrounding rural communities.
Dr. Dalton Brooks III earned his DMD at ECU in 2021 and returned to Robeson County to practice dentistry alongside his father. His paternal grandfather was a professor at UNCP for many years.
“This partnership and opportunity with UNCP is a huge deal; it opens up a bright future for so many young students that want to pursue a dental career,” Brooks said. “This shows the ECU School of Dental Medicine’s investment into our community and its bright students. Students from this area possess the qualities and leadership it requires to becoming great dental providers if given the opportunity, and that’s what this partnership allows.”
The dental school’s community service learning center (CSLC) in Lumberton has further established ECU as a permanent part of the community. ECU dental student Hunter Jolicoeur, also a Robeson County native, said those connections — along with the new early assurance program — will prove invaluable to the area’s future.
“We are composed of many closely-knit communities, woven together by a shared thread of interconnectedness,” Jolicoeur said of his home community. “With the implementation of this agreement and the presence of the CSLC in Lumberton, a remarkable opportunity arises: an extension allowing our community members to remain deeply connected to their communities for an additional four years at UNCP, all the while preparing for the transformative journey of dental school.”
The early assurance program, he added, is a step toward addressing obstacles to accessible and routine dental care that are prevalent in rural North Carolina.
“As one of the 50,000+ American Indians residing in Robeson County, I find it truly heartening and am deeply appreciative to witness and be a part of the significant investments made by ECU SoDM in our communities,” Jolicoeur said. “It’s important to acknowledge that the challenges our American Indian communities face won’t be swiftly resolved, but the collaborative efforts like the agreement between ECU and UNCP are crucial steps in addressing some of these shortcomings.”
Pathways of opportunity
Henry, who earned a degree in chemistry with a pre-health concentration from UNCP in 2016, recently celebrated her first anniversary as an associate dentist at Marshall Brown Family Dentistry. The office is just off Main Street in Henry’s hometown of Hamlet, and she remembers driving past the building every day while she was growing up.
Her experiences at UNCP and ECU’s dental school honed her path homeward.
“It feels like a full circle moment,” Henry said.
As an undergraduate at UNCP, she was shy, quiet and unsure of what her purpose was. Her advisors and professors brought her out of her shell, she said, making her realize that dental school was within her reach. She chose ECU because of its mission.
“Producing dentists that go back to rural areas to practice was in line with what my career goal was, so it just seemed like a perfect fit,” she said. “My main goal when I came out of dental school was to give back to the community who made me who I am.”
UNCP students, Henry explained, are resilient, service-minded and proud of their culture and home. Through whatever obstacles they face, she said, they find a way to pursue their education and their dreams. The dental school could fine-tune those characteristics, she added.
“In dental school, resilience is a huge part too,” she said. “It takes a lot of resilience to get though the program. Knowing that ECU will have a spot for a UNCP student in the class could provide encouragement to future students.”
Like Henry, Maya Grimes — who, along with Jolicoeur, completed her first year of dental school on Friday — graduated from UNCP before making her way to ECU.
Grimes is confident that the EAA will open doors to talented students who may have otherwise lacked access to resources for advanced studies.
“As a pre-dental student in a rural area with a limited number of resources, it is so easy to become discouraged throughout the process of applying to dental school,” she said. “This agreement would serve as an example to students who would like to pursue a doctoral program who don’t believe they could get there due to the lack of resources.”
The new program, she said, introduces hope to the futures of students looking forward to promising careers in which they can make a difference.
“When I was in my undergraduate career, I had many classes with a girl who was a part of the Brody School of Medicine early assurance program, and I wished there was something like that for the dental school,” Grimes said. “Now a few short years later, my wish came true. This will give not only undergraduate students hope and drive for the future but younger students in high schools and middle schools as well.”