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Campus Spotlight: Creighton University School of Dentistry

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Last year, there were only 111 Native American students enrolled at all 58 U.S. dental schools. Eight of them were at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. Why?

Some might point to a 2008 grant from the Pipeline, Profession & Practice: Community-Based Dental Education program. Others cite the school's strong preparatory programs. Still others refer to Creighton's decades-long relationship with several Native American communities. All of these factors and more have elevated the Creighton University School of Dentistry to its current prominence as a magnet for Native American students.

"We don't sit here and hope they will come through the door," says Prof. Kelly A. Gould, Assistant Professor of Community and Preventive Dentistry and Director of Extramural Programs at Creighton. "We actively pursue Native American students and help them get to the point where they can come to dental school."

This recruitment effort has many facets. For starters, Creighton runs both a summer enrichment program and a post-baccalaureate program, two proven methods of recruiting and preparing underrepresented minority (URM) applicants. The receipt of a Pipeline grant (sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation) allowed Creighton to offer financial support to Native American students interested in applying to these programs. Four applied and were accepted to the summer program in the first year of the grant. When Creighton learned that many students chose not to apply because of the cost of forfeiting summer employment, administrators used grant funds to create a stipend, and in the second and third years, applications rose sixfold.

The grant also allowed Creighton to expand its 13-month post-baccalaureate program by providing scholarships for two Native American students each year. This funding expired last year, but now that a pipeline has been established, the university anticipates that Native American students will continue to participate in the program. For now, at least, Creighton can count one Native American graduate of the summer enrichment program among this year's post-baccalaureate program enrollees.

The dental school's Native American recruitment effort also benefits from established relationships with nearby states that lack dental schools. In particular, New Mexico's large Navajo population provides a fertile recruiting ground for Creighton. The dental school has an agreement to take a minimum of five New Mexican students a year. Their education is underwritten by the state of New Mexico, with the understanding that the students will return to practice. Dr. Neil S. Norton, Assistant Dean for Student Affairs and Director of Admissions, tours the state each year, visiting with predental societies on its campuses.

"I have worked with these groups for the past 10 years," says Dr. Norton. "I talk with undergraduates about how they can become competitive applicants, and I have brought several Native American students to Creighton through that process."

One New Mexican student eager to gain entrance to the dental school is a young man named Adrian. His family dentist graduated from Creighton, inspiring Adrian to head to Omaha for college. His engagement as an undergraduate in campus cultural events, the Native American Association, and the dental club cemented his ambition to attend Creighton's dental school. Adrian also took part in the summer enrichment program, and he is currently enrolled in the post-baccalaureate program. If he successfully completes the program, he is guaranteed a seat in the fall 2012 class at the dental school.

Once Native American students arrive on campus, Creighton goes the extra mile to make sure they feel at home. The campus has hosted pow-wows and other events intended to welcome Native American students for nearly a decade. Also, in 2010, the university established a Native American Center to coordinate its outreach efforts to the Native American community, with the long-term goal of becoming the premier Jesuit institution partnering with Native Americans. Among other activities, the center's university-wide retention group meets monthly to discuss ways it can support students, and a new program, Native American Advocates, has been established to ensure that each Native student at Creighton succeeds academically. The center is also developing a mentoring program, which will invite members of the community to play a social, spiritual, and culturally supportive role in the lives of Native students.

According to Dr. Norton, this commitment is rooted in Creighton's history and values as a Jesuit institution, including its century-old relationship with the Jesuit schools on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota.

"Among the university's founding principles is its mission to create young men and women who are for others," Dr. Norton points out. "Where better does that vision exemplify itself than in health care?"

During the dental school's most recent accreditation site visit, Creighton was commended for its recruitment, retention, and graduation rates of URM students. Creighton's leadership in these areas is making a vital contribution to the formation of Native American dentists who can serve a population that urgently needs their care.

"These students tell us they are very much looking forward to going back to their home communities to practice dentistry," reports Prof. Gould. "We have every hope of seeing them there after they graduate."

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