ADEA CCI Liaison Ledger

A New Paradigm of Student Engagement

(Guest Perspective) Permanent link   All Posts

By David A. Simhaee, MBT, Chair of the ADEA Council of Students, Residents, and Fellows (ADEA COSRF), Columbia University College of Dental Medicine, Class of 2012

At Columbia University College of Dental Medicine (CUCDM), it all starts with the white coat ceremony, an event recognizing incoming students as professionals and future colleagues. This ritual shows respect for students from day one and truly sets a tone of collegiality for the CUCDM experience, inside and outside the classroom and clinic. As Dr. Martin J. Davis, Senior Associate Dean of Student and Alumni Affairs, puts it, "Students are encouraged to not only view themselves as clinicians, but also as active members of organizations-ideally assuming leadership roles in the process, just as they should when they enter the worlds of practice, education, and research."

To help put these wheels in motion, we hold student council elections at the beginning of the school year. It is impressive to see how many students are willing to serve on their class councils and how much time and effort they put into representing the class on a daily basis. Indeed, many students seem to share a collective sense of responsibility for their education, and the school reinforces this by providing a framework within which students can assume leadership roles and take them to new heights. Our 2012 Class President, Aaron Myers, for instance, has worked hard on behalf of our class while simultaneously encouraging us to embrace a "pay it forward" mentality that looks out for future classes as well.

This approach has roots in some traditional CUCDM activities like the Student Success Network, a voluntary program in which D2s stage presentations and host mock practicals to help D1s prepare for exams. Columbia's culture of peer support also manifests itself in peer tutoring sessions and student-hosted forums about externships, boards, and the like. We recognize that there is an information gap and that we are our best asset in filling it.

This sense that we students are looking out for one another further feeds our desire to make a difference at our institution. Our class proactively gives feedback to the administration about both positive and negative experiences at dental school. Are we unique? Far from it.

The state of student involvement in dental education is undergoing a paradigm shift with students assuming more active roles at both the local and national levels. Rather than viewing themselves merely as consumers receiving an educational service, they are embracing the process and are focusing on making the process rewarding just as much as obtaining the D.D.S. or D.M.D. degree. As a result, the formal divide between students and teachers is blurring. These two entities, once distinct, now exist along a continuum with teaching and learning occurring in both directions. With dentistry and dental education constantly evolving, teachers themselves must be lifelong learners. They are also asking students to teach them about how students learn best and calling on them to share their learning with one another.

This collaboration occurs on many levels. During my time serving as the curriculum committee representative for the class of 2012, I experienced first-hand how the administration encourages students to take an active role in shaping their education. Columbia is constantly refining its curriculum, and student feedback has proven essential to supporting this dynamic process. It would be understandable that a student might hesitate to speak up in front of the likes of Dr. Letty Moss-Salentijn, Vice Dean for Academic Affairs, but she and the rest of the committee members do a fine job of accomplishing their goal to "engage students in spirited conversations" and, at times, respectful disagreements. Sometimes things get heated, but we all share the same bottom line: a desire to work together to move things forward.

The willingness to be actively involved extends beyond our school, with many students determined to make a difference in organized dentistry. One such person is Corwyn D. Hopke (CUCDM 2011), who serves as a role model and inspiration for many of his classmates. As a first-year student, Corwyn was elected ASDA Class Council Representative. He later became ASDA Speaker of the House and then ASDA President. Corwyn is just one of many Columbia dental students who have chosen to complement their academic and clinical educations with these co-curricular activities. Columbia is also the home of the president of the Student National Dental Association's (SNDA) Adele Newell (CUCDM 2012). It's hard to be in an environment with so many motivated and involved students and not start thinking about getting involved in dentistry and dental education on a grander scale. I see this as students inspiring students, and if space allowed, there are many other individuals I would like to name with similar accomplishments.

In my time as ADEA COSRF Chair, I have found this spirit of engagement among faculty and students at dental schools across the nation. Nowhere have I seen the fervor for student engagement greater than at the national level where faculty and administrators consistently solicit student views. ADEA COSRF serves as the voice of students within ADEA, and as I came to see very quickly, we are a hot commodity! From my first day as Chair, the chairs of several other councils approached me, talked to me, sought feedback, and suggested collaboration on programming-in effect, putting me on an equal footing. I was pleasantly surprised. While I had become accustomed to this collegiality at the local level, these individuals had just met me, and they had immediately taken me under their wing as one of their own.

Complementing this hospitable environment, we have more and more students taking on active roles at the national level. Every year the number of candidates running for positions continues to increase. More students are attending conferences and even sitting on panels at events, eagerly providing a student perspective. And through it all, ADEA serves as a conduit for allowing this interaction to take place.

What do I foresee in the future? I see students getting more involved, faculty becoming more welcoming. These students will have a higher probability of staying involved in dental education down the road and, at the very least, will likely volunteer their services in a part-time capacity. While it is true that the dental profession is facing a shortage of dental faculty that appears to be getting worse, I believe that today's students who are stepping up to the plate have the potential to make a difference in the future of dental education, contributing their skills as clinical or academic faculty, or paying things forward in other ways.

Needless to say, I have only been a dental student for a few years, but right now seems to be a major turning point for dental education, and I think it's safe to say that we are headed toward a golden age of sorts. I am grateful for being in this place at this time, and I am excited about the future. From my interactions and conversations with student colleagues all over, I know that what I am witnessing at Columbia and in national forums is a microcosm for what is happening on campuses across the nation.

As visionary Brazilian educator Paulo Freire once said, "Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously students and teachers." This nicely sums up the changes we have been witnessing in dental education over the past several years, and I feel grateful, honored, and fortunate to have been a part of them.


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