Annika Johnson ’18 came to St. Olaf College knowing she wanted to be a dentist.
She also arrived knowing that with just 66 schools of dentistry in the nation, the application process is extremely competitive — even more so, in many ways, than medical school.
And that’s exactly why she chose St. Olaf, which has a rigorous pre-health program known for preparing students for successful admission to dental and medical school.
That decision paid off. Last year, 100 percent of the students who applied to dental school from St. Olaf were accepted to one or more programs.
Johnson and five other recent St. Olaf alumni are just wrapping up their first term at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry; other successful applicants from last year are attending the Marquette University School of Dentistry and the Oregon Health and Sciences University School of Dentistry.
“The application process for dental school is quite rigorous, as any pre-health program is, but is also very individualistic,” Johnson says. “Although the expectations for the application seem daunting at first, many of the components are a normal part of the dynamic at St. Olaf, so I was prepared.”
Supporting students for success
During the dental school application and interview process, Johnson had the opportunity to speak with applicants from a wide range of undergraduate schools — and in talking with them, she says, she understood why Oles are so successful at getting into advanced education programs in dentistry and medicine and succeeding within.
“The pre-health advisors at St. Olaf push you from your first year to fulfill all of the expectations of graduate applicants,” she says. “I quickly found that what I thought was the norm for all applicants was instead one of the many things that St. Olaf provided for me to help me achieve my goals.”
St. Olaf’s pre-health advisor, Professor of Biology Kevin Crisp, is a full-time tenured faculty member who collaborates closely with the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career — particularly Associate Director of Career Development Katie Hughes, who coaches students interested in pursuing health care. Together they ensure that students gain the knowledge and experience at St. Olaf that will prepare them well for a career in health care.
This approach to coaching is bolstered by Crisp’s personal mission statement: No student left behind. “If a student wants to go to medical or dental school and they’re lacking in a certain area, I never tell them to forget about it,” Crisp says. “I work with students personally so they will have opportunities to succeed.”
Simon Broccard ’18, who also began dental school at the University of Minnesota this fall, says that commitment to helping students succeed is something he experienced across campus. “One aspect of St. Olaf that I greatly appreciated is that professors are always willing to take the time to go over a concept with you,” he says. “They want to help you succeed.”
As students enter their final year at St. Olaf, they work with St. Olaf’s Health Professions Committee — a board that examines students’ applications for medical and dental school. In addition to providing both informal advising and a formal service to students interested in medical, dental, and other health careers, the committee puts together a personal packet for every student and sends it to the schools to which they are applying.
“The college’s committee is older with a long history of credibility,” Crisp says. “Having a personal packet helps remove some uncertainties that medical programs may have about our students, and having a personal letter really sets our students apart from others.”
A liberal arts approach
The other thing that sets St. Olaf applicants apart is their liberal arts education. Not only do students take a range of courses in a wide variety of academic disciplines over the course of four years, but they also have opportunities to engage in music, athletics, study abroad programs, and hands-on research.
Broccard was a member of the men’s soccer team and a saxophonist with the St. Olaf Jazz ensemble, which toured Cuba in 2016. He also participated in a St. Olaf Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry (CURI) program in the summer before his senior year, working alongside Assistant Professor of Chemistry Rodrigo Sánchez-González on a new instrument capable of measuring the properties and behavior of gas flow at low temperatures.
All of those experiences, Broccard says, have been invaluable in preparing him for dental school.
“I wouldn’t trade my Bachelor of Arts degree for anything. It supplied me with a well-rounded education,” he says. “In addition to my chemistry major, I was able to take four semesters of French, five art classes, and also had time in my schedule to obtain a management studies concentration.”
Crisp says that in addition to enabling students to pursue other interests, St. Olaf also provides students with flexibility as they explore what health care field they’d like to go into.
“We have really strong programs in science and nursing. A student can come here and not have to commit to one practice during their first year like other schools,” he says.
Nicole Nothongkham ’18Going to a liberal arts school that requires such diverse general education courses really strengthened my application.
Nicole Nothongkham ’18 has always loved working with her hands and helping others, which is why she ultimately decided to pursue a career in dentistry, where she can do both. Like her peers, she attributes her successful admission to the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry to the liberal arts experience she had at St. Olaf.
“Most schools require the typical pre-health STEM courses, but some schools also have non-STEM prerequisites such as writing and sociology. Going to a liberal arts school that requires such diverse general education courses really strengthened my application,” Nothongkham says.
Powerful learning experiences
In addition to the preparation they receive in the classroom, pre-health students at St. Olaf also have a wide array of opportunities for hands-on learning.
The Peruvian Medical Experience, for example, is a signature study abroad course for pre-dental students. The course is a service experience, where students learn basic clinical techniques, examine emerging diseases, and study existing health care issues. Students spend three weeks in Cuzco, Peru, assessing patient needs in a public hospital, a homeless shelter, orphanages, and a small village.
“Pre-dental students, specifically, can do a lot to get involved and gain hands-on experience,” Crisp says, noting that many do just that.
Professor of Biology and Pre-Health Advisor Kevin CrispPre-dental students, specifically, can do a lot to get involved and gain hands-on experience.
St. Olaf also encourages its pre-dental students to participate in the CURI program, which provides opportunities for students from all academic disciplines to gain an in-depth understanding of a particular subject through working closely with a St. Olaf faculty member in a research framework.
Like Broccard, Nothongkham took part in a CURI research project. She worked alongside Crisp to study the effects of bacterial toxins on the leech immune system.
“This experience really improved my delicacy; dissecting microscopic leech nerves requires very steady movements,” she says. “I got a lot of practice with my visual skills as well, by creating 3D printed boxes for our experiments and identifying specific cells on the leech nerve cords using a microscope.”
St. Olaf also offers a wide range of pre-health internships and experiences at renowned medical facilities like Mayo Clinic and Hennepin Healthcare, as well as the opportunity to participate in a cadaver-based anatomy lab, which provides students with hands-on experience and helps them form empathy in a special way for the ones for whom they’ll be caring.
All of these experiences and opportunities taken together, Crisp says, are what makes St. Olaf so successful at preparing students for dental and medical school. And, he adds, they are part of what makes St. Olaf more than just a college.
“It’s also a place that encourages a vocational calling in a profound way beyond a career and job,” he says. “It’s a positive synergy that benefits all the pre-health students.”
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