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A mere 25 years after graduating from the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Dentistry, Sonya Mitchell D.M.D., M.S.H.A., is about to enter private practice.

Sonya Mitchell. Of course, Mitchell hasn’t been just sitting around these past two-plus decades. Far from it. She has been an integral part of preparing future dentists for their own careers in the profession, most recently as director of the UAB SOD International Dentist Program.

Mitchell officially retires from UAB on Dec. 1 in preparation for joining UAB SOD graduate Dane Grovenstein, D.M.D., at Deerfoot Dental in Trussville. It is a transition Mitchell says has been 25 years in the making.

“I really feel like all the different things I’ve been involved with along the way at UAB has prepared me for this,” Mitchell says. “I’ve been teaching so many different facets in the area of general dentistry.”

Mitchell grew up in Scottsboro, Ala, and was in a pre-med program as an undergraduate. She received her degree from Lee University in Tennessee, with a major in biology and a double minor in chemistry and in Bible. After some initial uncertainty about exactly what area of health care to pursue, Mitchell decided that dentistry fit both her personality and her career goals.

“I’ve always liked working with my hands and felt like I was creative, so dentistry was a good match for that,” Mitchell says. “I also wanted some sort of family-career balance in my life.”

Career and family intersected sooner than Mitchell anticipated upon her arrival at the UAB SOD. During her first week of classes, she met a fellow SOD student named Stephen. Two years later they were married, a step that led Mitchell down the path toward an unexpected academic career.

“He was the one interested in teaching, not me,” Mitchell says with a chuckle. “But when I finished my residency, I looked into some private practice opportunities in the area, then also at possibly working full time at the dental school. That just seemed to be the thing I felt called to do. Now 25 years later, here I am.”

Mitchell’s first year on the SOD faculty coincided with the move toward a more comprehensive-care approach to the school’s clinical program. Instead of working in a certain section of the clinic handling a specific task, students were being called upon to perform a wide variety of dental procedures.

“That means on any day, a student might be doing a root canal or a crown or a denture,” Mitchell says. “I liked the diversity of all that, being able to work with students and have everything occurring simultaneously. I really enjoyed that.”

Mitchell moved steadily through different positions of leadership during her time at the UAB SOD. She worked as a group manager with senior students, became assistant director of the comprehensive care clinic and later the director, then served as the division head of general dentistry.

“I was very fortunate to be given the opportunity to work in several different roles in the school with different groups of people,” Mitchell says. “I really liked that, because I enjoy continued growth. It helps me become the best version of myself that I can be. That was very valuable.”

However, after several years as the division head, Mitchell realized she missed the regular interaction with students that comes from teaching. That was when the International Dentist Program started, with Mitchell as the director.

The program brings in trained dentists from other countries who are seeking a U.S. degree, and puts them through an intensive six-month preparatory program before merging them with UAB SOD third-year students for the final two years of the D.M.D. curriculum.

“I was meeting with our curriculum dean about the program, and he was describing the personal characteristics the program director needed to develop and teach the new program,” Mitchell recalls. “Somebody who is familiar with all areas of general dentistry, and who understands how the clinic worked.

“While listening to him, I started thinking that what he was describing was everything I had done along the way. It had prepared me to understand what the international students would need in a very short prep term. And I was yearning to get back to direct teaching.”

The IDP started in 2015 with 10 students, but has more than doubled in size since then. Mitchell says the program was the ideal way for her to conclude her time at UAB.

“The thing that was most rewarding to me was just seeing them continue to blossom and grow from whatever level they were when they started here,” Mitchell says. “I tell applicants I’m looking for someone who can make decisions on their own. And when difficult things come up, they understand the foundation and end up with a successful result.

“I really enjoyed seeing students take that and grow, and become the best versions of themselves.”

Now, Mitchell is poised to follow her own advice about growth. Her husband Stephen Mitchell, D.M.D., M.S., will take over as IDP director, while Sonya Mitchell will transfer all that she has learned at UAB and begin using it in private practice.