International dentist program promotes an inclusive environment and enriched learning

International dentist program students pose together.
The 2022 International Dentist Education Program graduates celebrate the completion of their training.

Even as a successful, practicing dentist in Brazil, Juliana Alonso Ryan, DDS, yearned for a new challenge. Taking into account her various personal and professional goals, she made the decision to move to the United States where she planned to continue practicing dentistry.

In doing so, Alonso Ryan knew that moving meant she would need to re-enroll in dental school before she could apply for a license to practice here.

“The decision to revalidate my diploma for licensure in the U.S. was quite difficult,” she said. “To go through dental school once again, you must be prepared to be very humble and to learn as much as possible from the opportunity.”

The UT Health San Antonio School of Dentistry established the International Dentist Education Program (IDEP) in 2006, offering qualified graduates of foreign dental schools the opportunity to earn a doctor of dental surgery degree, which would allow them to sit for any state licensing exam in the United States.

“We created the program with the key goal of integrating our internationally trained dentists with our traditional dental students during the third and fourth year of dental school,” said Program Director Rita Parma, DDS, FAGD. “It has led to an increasingly diverse student body, pairing students who are not only culturally and ethnically diverse but also educationally and experientially diverse.” 

It is no secret that an inclusive environment sparks creativity and learning. In fact, now more than ever diversity, equity and inclusion are at the forefront of academic initiatives worldwide. UT Health San Antonio, for example, has committed to creating a safe environment in which individuals can share intercultural experiences and learn from one another. 

The refinement of these concepts in education is an intention of the two-year program, according to Dr. Parma.

Alonso Ryan said she experienced multiple accounts of traditional dental students enhancing the scope of her training throughout her time at the School of Dentistry. A couple of interactions with one traditional dental student stood out to her as an example of this type of synergy. 

“On my first week, I was assigned to assist one of our seniors and became overwhelmed by the new clinical setting,” she said. “The senior student recognized it right away and walked me through the whole process, constantly providing me with valuable information. That day, I was supposed to help her, but she was the one helping me.”

“Weeks later, the same student was having issues with a crown placement and I went to see if I could help her. I discussed ways she could address the problems and then demonstrated how to clinically apply them. The crown was successfully placed by the student, and she thanked me for sharing my experience with her. From that day on, many students looked to me for advice during clinic or laboratory time and I knew I could count on them to help me. The special way international students and traditional dental students help each other enhances our experience during dental school and creates a diverse environment from which we all can learn.”

Shivam Patel, DDS, agreed that all students benefit from integrating international dentists into the traditional program, which he graduated from this spring. 

“Beginning to treat live patients in my third year was daunting,” he said. “It was extremely helpful to have IDEP students alongside to learn from. Not only are these students licensed dentists in their respective countries, but many of them have more than five years of experience, so it is natural for them to have many tips and tricks that will aid the traditional student learning.”

The School of Dentistry graduated 109 dentists in an all-school commencement ceremony on May 21. Twelve of the graduates completed the International Dentist Education Program, representing countries such as Brazil, Egypt, India, Iran and Pakistan. 

“Everybody is valued in our programs,” Dr. Parma said. “There’s something to be said about the culture of our school — the culture of those drawn to our school and how we embrace each other’s differences. If we continue to do so, the potential of our students is limitless.”

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