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As the summer of 2023 approached, college students from a variety of backgrounds eagerly awaited their acceptance letters into SHPEP at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Patient smiling while sitting in dentist chairFourth year dental student Zoie McIntosh, a 2023 SHPEP mentor and alumna, supervises program participants using plaque disclosing tablets.Aspiring dentists, doctors, optometrists, and other health professionals, each one driven by a passion to make a difference in the lives of others.

Supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Summer Health Professions Education Program (SHPEP) is a free six-week enrichment program for first- and second-year college students. SHPEP aims to empower aspiring young minds from underrepresented backgrounds by exposing participants to a diverse range of health professions and career paths. Core principles are academic enrichment, clinical exposure, career development, and mentorship.

At UAB, SHPEP is a partnership between the Heersink School of Medicine and the Schools of Dentistry, Optometry, and Health Professions. The university is one of only 12 in the nation to host the prestigious summer program. Each year, more than 350 students from across the country and Puerto Rico vie for one of only 80 openings.

For UAB participants, the program is a transformative experience. They come to campus with a mix of excitement, curiosity, and a desire to learn and grow, ready to embark on a life-changing adventure.

With the in-person program returning after being held in a virtual format for three years, the 2023 cohort was especially excited to arrive on campus. From day one, the group was warmly welcomed by a team of dedicated faculty and staff. Participants, including predental students Jaden Tran and Kacey Barksdale-Jones, were assigned mentors from diverse healthcare fields to guide them through interactive lectures, hands-on workshops, and engaging small-group discussions.

"It's really fulfilling to me because I'm getting closer to dental school and my dreams."

- Jaden Tran

From the School of Dentistry, eight D.M.D. students served as professional mentors within the program. A fourth-year dental student, Dara Johnson served as one of four full-time mentors who were with the cohort throughout the whole six-week program. The other four mentors were available specifically for one week devoted to dentistry to help introduce the SHPEP cohort to its fundamentals.

Throughout ‘dentistry week,’ participants attended lectures, toured the dental school, and experienced simulations such as creating dental impressions and drilling and filling teeth. They also learned dental terminology and charting, as well as dental radiology and digital dentistry.

“As mentors, we provide services like reviewing their personal statements with them, helping them with the application process, interview tips, and sharing our experiences,” said Johnson. “We also do one-on-one sessions with them. It’s a whole week full of dentistry.”

Chloe Cater, also a fourth-year dental student, served as a mentor and helped run the weeklong dentistry-specific curriculum. Emphasizing that UAB does a great job of introducing participants to a broad range of healthcare specialties, Cater was naturally excited about the dental week.

“Participants have an entire week where they get to come and do hands-on activities and really see what it’s like to be a dental student and a dentist,” said Cater. “Even the students who aren’t predental get an opportunity to take an impression, wax up a tooth the way that we would in dental school.”

Typically, about one quarter of the 80 UAB SHPEP students have already decided to pursue dentistry before they arrive.

A SHPEP participant in 2018, Cater said the program helped solidify her desire to go to dental school. The same could be said for Zoie McIntosh, a fourth-year dental student and 2017 SHEPEP alumna.

“I was a little shaky about dentistry back then. I kind of knew that was what I wanted to do but I wasn’t 100% sure, and then I came to SHPEP,” said McIntosh. “I was able to come here to this PCD [preclinical dentistry] lab, I was able to drill on teeth, I was able to talk to the students, and I absolutely fell in love.”

The first time McIntosh came to UAB was to participate in SHPEP. Not only did she fall in love with dentistry, but she also fell in love with UAB. “Now I’m here,” McIntosh explained. “I’m just a product of what SHPEP can do for students and that’s why I decided to come back and become a SHEPEP mentor.”

Members of the 2023 cohort echoed the sentiments of Cater and McIntosh.

Tran called dentistry week ‘incredible,’ sharing that he has shadowed dentists in countless offices but has especially enjoyed being on the other end of things through SHPEP. “I’ve never been able to touch a handpiece before, I’ve never been able to take an impression, I’ve never been able to drill stuff, to use the little air gun,” he said. “It’s super cool to be able to have the opportunity to do those things.”

Barksdale-Jones, a rising college junior, said that dental week was a fun experience. “We have had the opportunity to do a lot of hands-on activities as far as cavity drilling, building a tooth, carving a tooth out of wax, and making impressions,” she said. “It has definitely confirmed my decision for wanting to go into the dentistry field.”

SHPEP 2023 ended with a graduation ceremony on July 14, but participants will carry with them the memories of an unforgettable experience.

“It’s really fulfilling to me because I’m getting closer to dental school and to my dreams,” said Tran.