BYU student Lauren Olsen was feeling discouraged after months of being the only woman at BYU Pre-Dental Club activities.
“On several occasions when asked about my career plans, I shared that I’m planning on becoming a dentist. The boys would reply, ‘Oh, you mean, you want to be a dental hygienist?’” Olsen said. “I’d laugh and say, ‘No, a dentist — just like you.'”
Olsen said she was shocked at what she saw at an American Student Dental Association leadership conference in Chicago compared to the adversity she faced in pursing dentistry as a woman.
“I walked into the conference of over 600 dental students, a group representing all 66 dental schools in the U.S., and quickly noticed that there were more girls present than boys,” Olsen said. “And these weren’t just any girls. They were really cool, really beautiful and really bright girls.”
A 2016 poll by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found only 5 percent of the 1,862 practicing dentists in Utah are female and only 29 percent of 196,402 practicing dentists nationwide are female.
However, “the number of women dentists entering the profession has grown considerably,” according to The American Dental Association.
Olsen said her time at the conference made her realize women can have successful careers in dentistry.
“That experience got me thinking about the reasons why girls at BYU don’t go into dentistry,” Olsen said. “It’s almost like people here don’t even realize that it’s in the realm of possibility.”
Alejandra Garcia, who recently graduated as a dental hygienist and is coming back to BYU to become a dentist, said she had similar feelings of discouragement as one of the only women studying dentistry at BYU.
Garcia said she was filled with self-doubt when people would question how she could be a working woman and a mother, especially since she didn’t have any other women to turn to who understood what she was going through.
“When I told people I was going into dental school, I would get asked things like, ‘What if you get married and want to have kids?'” Garcia said. “And I would reply with, ‘Then I will get married and have kids and be a dentist.'”
Club member Kendra Law said she wanted to join the BYU Women in Dentisry Club in order to find a good support system amidst the judgmental comments she has received.
“As LDS women with goals of having careers in the dental field, we are often judged or ridiculed,” Law said. “People tell us that we should be wives, mothers and homemakers, rather than spending our time working or going through school.”
Club Vice President Tessa Hadley said many BYU female students may feel discouraged trying to balance career and family goals.
“We feel that there is so much motivation and potential present within the female student body here at BYU, but sometimes they lack the confidence, support or encouragement needed to pursue such aspiring goals,” Hadley said.
One of the main focuses of the club is to create a space where female students can understand what it’s like to be a mom, a dentist and a Latter-day Saint at the same time, Hadley said. She said another focus of the club is creating a network of female mentors, locally and nationwide.
Over the past few months, Olsen said the club has been building a network of female LDS dentists and dental hygienists, many of whom are former BYU students.
“They’ve shown me that it is 100 percent possible to balance motherhood, discipleship and dentistry, and have helped me feel so much more confident in my choice to pursue dentistry,” Olsen said. “I’ve never felt more right about a path, and I’m so excited to help others find out if dentistry is right for them, too.”
The BYU Women in Dentistry Club currently has 12 members.
The club has plans to interview 30 women in dentistry this summer in order to build a mentoring network that stretches across the country. They plan to partner with Allied Health, Women in Science and Female Physicians of America.
“We’ll first publish these interviews on the internet, and hopefully, someday, into a book,” Olsen said. “We’ll interview them about how they chose dentistry and how it’s impacted their life in an attempt to better understand the field and implications of the choice to work in the dental field.”
Olsen said she is excited to have the club to show more women at BYU that dentistry is the dream career for “girls who want to be able to make cookies with their kiddos after school and still have a career that enables them to help and serve thousands.”
Anyone who may be interested in joining can visit the BYU Women in Dentistry Facebook page or email firstname.lastname@example.org.