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Basmah Aref was not some wide-eyed novice when she arrived at UAB in 2021 to start her training at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Dentistry. In fact, she was already a dental school graduate with a year of experience working as an assistant at a pediatric practice.

IDP students celebrate their White Coat Ceremony with Drs. Stephen and Sonya Mitchell (center)IDP students celebrate their White Coat Ceremony with Drs. Stephen and Sonya Mitchell (center)The difference is, Aref’s dental degree came from her home country of Egypt, and her goal is to practice dentistry in the United States. So she enrolled in UAB’s International Dentist Program, (IDP) and what she discovered in her first year left her a bit, well, wide-eyed.

“Back home, we still have less technology and less opportunities for us to learn new treatments,” Aref says. “I come here and I’m able to do implants and work with a surgeon or a periodontist. It’s incredible that I am getting a chance to experience all this. It’s a dream come true.”

That was the reaction school officials were hoping to receive when the IDP debuted in 2015. The goal was to expose talented foreign students to the dental methods and technologies available in the United States, while also exposing the younger U.S. students to more experienced peers from different cultural backgrounds.

“The IDP students are definitely advance-standing individuals,” says Sonya Tidwell Mitchell, D.M.D., M.S.H.A., the original IDP director who retired December 1, 2022. “Many of them have worked for a number of years in their home country, so they come here with a decent amount of patient-care experience. They’re definitely at a different tier than our traditional students.”

The program has grown from 10 students the first year to 23 enrolled in 2023 from 12 different countries. Because they already have dental degrees from their home country, the IDP students start at UAB at a second-year, second-semester level, then go through a six-month preparatory term that Mitchell refers to as “boot camp.”

“That prep term is to get everybody to understand UAB’s dental philosophy, the materials we use, how we approach patient care, and what the faculty are looking for,” Mitchell says. “The training in their own country was sort of a stepping stone, then the prep term shows them what we’re going to be looking for at UAB in order for them to have success moving forward.”

After the prep term, the IDP students are integrated with the other students at a third-year level, then they complete the final two years of the D.M.D. curriculum.

“One of the things I love most about this program is the IDP students are infused with the traditional students, who get to sit next to these more experienced students in class and work with them in clinic rotation,” says Stephen Mitchell, D.M.D., M.S., who replaced his wife as IDP director. “What the professor teaches is one level. But when you have a classmate who knows a little more than you and has more experience, you can learn from them, too.

“That dynamic takes place with the IDP students. The traditional students will start picking up tips and tricks and ways to do things that they wouldn’t have been exposed to otherwise.”

In turn, the IDP students receive hands-on clinical training at a scale that for most of them was not available in their home country. Smit Sinojia, an IDP student from India, says that was one of the primary appeals of coming to UAB.

“I was looking for a program that provided a lot of clinical skills and experience,” Sinojia says. “I learned some things back home, but I wanted to learn newer technologies and methods, and have a lot of clinical experience. At UAB, we see a lot of patients, and I can get one-on-one instruction from faculty helping me with a complex treatment plan.”

While the program obviously benefits the IDP students, Stephen Mitchell says it also provides “tremendous value” to the school as well as the state of Alabama.

“Clinical revenue is very important to the School of Dentistry,” Mitchell says. “These are advanced-standing students who come in with higher clinical skills and an increased ability to be highly productive in the clinics while they’re here, and that helps the School of Dentistry.”

“Then for the state, it is common for people who have gone through these types of international programs in medicine to wind up in rural and underserved communities. A lot of times, our IDP students come from backgrounds that lets them understand how difficult it can be for rural poor communities. We currently have two IDP graduates working with a group in Tuscumbia called Treehouse Children’s Dentistry that treats Medicaid children.”

Before arriving at UAB, Aref volunteered with a health care clinic in Atlanta that dealt primarily with lower-income patients. She says she would like to do similar work after graduating from the School of Dentistry.

“It really reminded me of the kind of patients I’d see back home, where people wanted to take care of their teeth but were unable to do so financially,” Aref says. “I’d like to go to more rural areas and serve some of those types of communities in America.”

This willingness to help others permeates throughout the IDP students, partly because they receive that same type of assistance from School of Dentistry faculty.

“I’ve never felt left alone in the clinic,” Sinojia says. “There is always faculty there to help you out. They’re always ready to teach you. I really enjoy the feeling of comradery I get here.”

Stephen Mitchell says that is one of the reasons the IDP program has been successful enough that its incoming classes have more than doubled in size in less than a decade – something that led to the appointment of Ramakiran Chavali, B.D.S., M.S., as the program’s assistant director.

“We really believe in trying to provide a supportive environment for our students,” Stephen Mitchell says. “The IDP students seem to recognize that when they come in for their interviews. They seem very impressed with the family environment here. The IDP program works very hard to establish that we are a family, and we want to make sure that all our students succeed.”

UAB SOD International Dentist Program