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For the first time since its inception in 2015, the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Dentistry’s International Dentist Program has reached its accredited limit of 24 students. And not only is this year’s IDP cohort bigger than ever, it also is broader, with a program-high of 18 countries represented in the class.

IDP 2024 Group Photo“While reaching 24 is great, having dental school representation from 18 countries is extremely exciting,” says SOD professor and IDP director Stephen Mitchell, D.M.D., M.S. “It shows that people from all over the world are really interested in this program.”

The program accepts students who already have a dental degree from their home country but want to be licensed for practice in the United States. The students enter the SOD at a second-year, second-semester level, then go through a six-month preparatory term before being integrated with other SOD students for the final two years of the regular D.M.D. curriculum.

Mitchell says students in this year’s class have an average of more than 3½ years of dental practice experience in their home countries. The list of countries includes first-time IDP representation from Belarus, Czech Republic and Mongolia.

“We want great diversity in the different dental educations that are coming together in this program. That’s been an intentional desire,” Mitchell says. “There also has been a concerted effort over the past two years to get the word out about the program and what we have to offer.”

“But probably the single-most important thing that has happened is our students who have gone through the program enjoyed what they experienced and have been vocal about it. They’ve been spreading the word and talking in chat groups and social media, as well as through professional connections. They’re talking about how when you come to UAB, you get real solid clinical experience. You get to know your faculty, and they get to know you as a person.”

“People are valuing that. They’re saying, ‘This program will make me a better dentist.’ It’s not about simply getting a degree, but getting an education and being a better-prepared dentist when you leave UAB. That seems to be selling the program, and our students are talking about it.”

Such word-of-mouth was one of the reasons Alesia Shaaban applied for this year’s IDP class, and was so excited when she was accepted. A native of Belarus, Shaaban moved to the U.S with her daughter to join her husband, who already was in the country attending a different dental school.

“A friend of mine graduated from UAB a couple of years ago and gave me a lot of good reviews about this school,” Shaaban says. “So from the very beginning, UAB was my top choice. When I got accepted, I was over the moon because it was my dream school.”

Shaaban says she was particularly intrigued by the UAB SOD because of all the clinical experience IDP students receive during their time in the program. She says she had to put her professional career on hold while going through the lengthy process of relocating to the U.S., and wants to restart practicing as quickly as possible upon graduation. In order to do that, Shaaban says she needs to immerse herself in clinical work.

“In my country, I was limited in the procedures that I could perform. So I need to get as much experience here as possible,” Shaaban says. “That was a major reason I came to UAB, because I didn’t want to be lost after graduation. I really wanted to get that experience.”

It did not take long, however, for Shaaban to recognize an extra benefit to the IDP program. During her dental education in Belarus, Shaaban says the instructors rarely worked directly with students, but she already has experienced a more personal approach from the SOD faculty.

“I didn’t expect that our faculty members would be so invested in us,” Shaaban says. “They try to accommodate everybody and address every issue that we have. They truly want us to succeed, to feel comfortable, to learn as much as possible. I appreciate that so much. It was a surprise, and a big difference from my country.”

As positive reviews like that continue to circulate among the dental community, Mitchell says admittance to the IDP program will become increasingly competitive, especially since there are no immediate plans to try to expand the accredited limit beyond 24 students per year.

“What that means is, getting one of the 24 spots we have is a badge of honor,” Mitchell says. “Just by being accepted into the program, our students already have demonstrated something pretty special.”