Hunt School of Dental Medicine Students Embrace Community, Gain Valuable Experience

As a youngster, Amjad Khuffash was teased for his crooked teeth. Born and raised in McAllen, Texas, he rarely saw a dentist because of poverty, a common problem in the Rio Grande Valley. Today, Khuffash and his peers at The Hunt School of Dental Medicine at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso are training to ensure others in similar circumstances don’t go without dental care. 
“Some factors that inspired me to pursue dentistry were poverty and the lack of dental care I experienced growing up,” said Khuffash, a member of the dental school’s inaugural class. “After dental school, I plan to take affordable dental care to residents of the Rio Grande Valley, so others don’t grow up experiencing what I experienced.”
Khuffash’s focus mirrors the dental school’s values, specifically because of the ethnic and socioeconomic similarities between his hometown and the El Paso region. Across West Texas, many suffer from poor dental health due to a lack of access to affordable care. In El Paso County, there’s only one dentist for every 4,840 residents, compared to the national average of one dentist for every 1,638.
The Hunt School of Dental Medicine, which is the first dental school in Texas in over 50 years, opened in July 2021 to change those numbers. Faculty and community dentists began student interviews for the school’s inaugural class in September 2020, narrowing down over 900 applications for only 40 available spots in the class of 2025. 
Students train in the school’s Dental Learning Center, which features 80 stations equipped with high-tech simulation manikins and a fabrication laboratory where students craft dental appliances using 3D scanners and advanced CAD/CAM machines. 
Eliminating Health Care Disparities 
The school offers a curriculum that trains students to serve socially and culturally diverse communities to eliminate health care disparities in the Borderland. Community service and public health components are essential as students learn about local health care topics and barriers in the community. 
Additionally, dental students learn medical Spanish, bridging language and cultural barriers to deliver high-quality oral health care. It’s the first and only dental school in the nation that requires Spanish-language courses.
Like her peers, first-year student Paulette Ramirez, who grew up in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, plans to impact others, specifically in creating oral hygiene awareness in underserved communities. 
“We can have a big impact on the region’s oral health as we share the importance of oral hygiene with others, some who don’t even know what oral hygiene is,” Ramirez said. “But the impact isn’t just affecting the people we serve. It affects us each time we walk into the clinic or help someone find their smile. We’re doing something we’ve dreamed of for years, and what we’re doing is changing lives. That’s an amazing feeling.”   
Early Clinical Experience 
Perhaps most appealing to the dentists-in-training is quick immersion into supervised clinical practice, which is central to the curriculum.
To improve the accessibility of oral health care in the community, the dental school offers reduced-cost  care in its 38,000 square-foot public dental clinic, the Texas Tech Dental Oral Health Clinic. There, students work with faculty to care for Borderland residents. 
Students began working in the clinic within months of arriving on campus, a unique opportunity as most dental schools don’t provide clinical experience until the second year.
Anna Ceniceros, a member of the inaugural class, grew up in the small town of Clarendon, Texas. A child of migrant farmworkers and a first-generation college graduate, she’s been waiting to sit in the dentist seat since childhood.
“When I was in first grade, I had no idea who a dentist was. As a class, we took a field trip to visit the nearest dentist two hours away. While standing in line, my classmates came out from their exams talking about cavities. I didn’t know what a cavity was, but I could tell it wasn’t good.”
When it was her turn, she was a bundle of nerves, but felt calm and excited when she left the room. 
“He explained everything to me in a way that made sense and calmed my nerves. Before I walked out of the room, he gave me a puppy sticker I still have today. I’ve never stopped thinking about that day, and I haven’t stopped thinking about becoming a dentist myself. Now I’m doing what I’ve dreamed about for decades.” 
Staying in an Area of Need
The Hunt School of Dental Medicine isn’t just training a unique group of graduates, but also encouraging them to remain in West Texas and underserved areas. 
In the past 10 years, only 22 of 2,390 Texas dental school graduates chose to practice in West Texas. Because most graduating dentists establish their practices near their dental schools, the Hunt School of Dental Medicine will help alleviate severe shortages of dentists in the Borderland.
Student Steven Venzor, born and raised in El Paso, plans to help alleviate that shortage when he completes dental school. As a child, he had dental work done in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. His experiences were challenging, from waiting in long lines at the port of entry to the quality of oral health care he received.
“As I got older, I realized everyone has different ideas of what a dentist is, based on their own experiences,” he said. “I want to show people that a dentist can be helpful. The people I want to impact are those in my own community. El Paso is my city. If there’s anyone who can understand the community, it’s someone like me who’s lived here my whole life. I know how unique and special it is, and I see the need out there.” 
Veronique Masterson at 915-433-7407 or
Source: Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso