Lighting a Fire Within
“My most vivid memories are of caring for, and being cared for by, my loved ones,” says Cora Neville, 21.
“I want to be the person who lights a fire within others—SMDEP reinforced that for me.”Cora Neville
It’s little wonder a career in health care is a natural fit. As a young child, Neville took care of her mother and great-grandmother as they fought the diseases that eventually took their lives. Her brother, Edward, assumed custody of Neville and her younger sister when he was just 23, working multiple jobs so he could provide for them.
He also was a devoted caretaker and confidant. “I remember how he would do our hair and cook, just as my mother did, while I watched my little sister and helped with chores,” says Neville. Now a senior at Long Island’s Hofstra University, she is determined to make him proud by achieving her twin ambitions: to become an orthodontist and, more importantly, to give back.
Through the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP), her resolve reached full flower. “I met people from different backgrounds and broadened my horizons. I realized I want to help people from all cultures—not just my own.”
To appreciate how far Neville has come in her young life, it helps to understand where she started.
Her home town of Wyandanch, N.Y., could generously be called “underserved.” The hamlet has a per capita income of less than $18,000, along with high crime and substandard schools that earned it the title of “most economically distressed community on Long Island.”
She was raised there by her mother, who suffered from diabetes and, later, cervical cancer. Recounting how she became her mother’s caregiver, Neville says, “My mom was in a lot of pain, and I couldn’t just sit there and do nothing. So I started cooking healthy meals. I arranged all her pills, and even prepared and administered her insulin.”
Neville was 9 years old when her mother succumbed to cancer and her brother took on the childrearing responsibilities for both her and her sister. The girls moved in with their great-grandmother, who was battling dementia and eventually Alzheimer’s. There again, Neville took on the role of caregiver.
“I made sure she took her medicine, and I re-taught her mundane activities like bathing or tying her shoes,” she explains. “All the while, I had to reintroduce myself to her.”
Against that backdrop, one might have expected Neville to choose internal medicine, oncology, or perhaps geriatrics. As it happened, a classic adolescent rite of passage opened her up to a specialty she hadn’t considered.
Of her orthodontist, Neville says, “She gave me a new, confident outlook. It stayed with me for the whole two years I had to wear braces, and it’s been with me ever since. That’s when I knew I wanted to be an orthodontist.”
“I needed braces,” she says. “Walking into the orthodontist’s office, I felt so ashamed and frightened.” After assuring the nervous girl that she would be fine, the orthodontist pulled out high school photos of herself sporting a mouthful of wire and brackets.
“She really eased my anxiety,” says Neville. “Looking at those pictures made me feel so much better!”
“Most of all, she gave me a new, confident outlook,” she adds. “It stayed with me for the whole two years I had to wear braces, and it’s been with me ever since.”
Neville marvels at how that one experience had such a profound effect. “Looking back, I’m amazed by the way it changed my life—from the way I viewed myself to the career I decided to pursue. That’s when I knew I wanted to be an orthodontist.”
An Essential Course Correction
Before she could arrive at her goal, however, she had to get out of her own way. “I liked school, but I had an attitude problem,” she admits. An encounter with a middle school substitute teacher altered her perspective—and, as it turned out, her life.
“I was an instigator, but I was smart enough to get out of trouble,” she recalls. “Then this substitute came in, and she was so confident. She told us to sit down and open our books, and I was like, ‘No, we’re not—the kids run this classroom!’” To Neville’s astonishment, the teacher kicked her out of the class. That was the turning point.
“Being kicked out like that forced me to think about what I was doing,” she says. “It made me realize how important school was to me, and to my future.” Neville and the teacher, Katrina Crawford, have remained close since then.
For her part, Crawford describes Neville as “reliable, consistent, dedicated, passionate, giving, and optimistic. Her plan to become a health professional and give back to underserved youth fits her quite well.”
“As an educator and a mentor, I’ve watched her grow,” she notes. “She seeks perfection in each and every area of her life, educational or social.” Those qualities, Crawford believes, are at the heart of Neville’s success.
Today, Neville repays Crawford’s encouragement by mentoring others. “Mentoring is one of my passions,” she says. “I’m involved with the Girl Scouts, and I tutor students who are studying for the New York Regents [the state-administered assessment exams].”
“I’m inspired by teachers,” she adds. “If I could be a dentist and also a teacher that would be ideal.”
She got a heady dose of inspiration at SMDEP. “I had never seen so many African American professionals dedicated to helping young, aspiring physicians like me,” she says, with a hint of awe. “It showed me that my dream of becoming an orthodontist is within my reach.”
“I loved that SMDEP catered to dentists and not just doctors,” Neville says. “A lot of places assume that if you’re interested in a health career, you want to be a doctor. Dentistry doesn’t get the same attention.”
Neville learned about the program through a friend, Samantha Malvasio, who—along with some online research—convinced her to apply.
“I loved that SMDEP catered to dentists and not just doctors,” she says. “A lot of places assume that if you’re interested in a health career, you want to be a doctor. Dentistry doesn’t get the same attention.”
She selected the Howard University site in Washington, D.C., for her six-week session. “I chose Howard because it’s diverse. It was a good contrast to Hofstra, which is predominantly White.”
The curriculum included an ethics course, during which the facilitator, Virginia Brown, explained that such classes are not compulsory at many dental schools. “That was surprising to hear,” says Neville, who as a Health Science major at Hofstra is required to take ethics classes.
Brown drove home the idea that a career in medicine requires selflessness, great character, and values. “She told us, ‘If you’re pursuing a medical profession just to make money, then this is not the field for you.’” That resonated with Neville, who adds, “I believe as doctors we need to be compassionate and stick to our mission, which is healing—and healing doesn’t always have to come from medicine.”
Equally surprising was the hands-on nature of the experience. “I went in expecting courses and shadowing, but I didn’t realize there would be dental office visits and clinicals. I didn’t know I would actually be touching patients. I loved having that chance to serve underrepresented minorities like me.”
“SMDEP made me more well rounded and better able to communicate and be sympathetic to diverse cultures,” she says. “It made me a better person.”
Dreams Into Real Life
Looking ahead to dental school, Neville has dubbed Howard her top choice, with the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and New York University also in the mix. In the meantime, she works part-time as a home health aide, providing elderly, disabled, and ill patients with bathing, dressing, and housekeeping services as well as companionship.
She acknowledges that thinking about how long it takes to get through dental school can be overwhelming. “When I say I want to be an orthodontist, a lot of people say, ‘You’re going to go to school for all those years? You really think you can do that?’”
“My brother did so much for me. It’s important that I pay it forward,” says Neville.
But Neville, reflecting on the sacrifices her brother made to take care of her and her sister, says she feels driven to succeed—for him and for her family even more than for herself. “Edward did so much for me. It’s important that I pay it forward,” she says simply.
Her SMDEP experience has only bolstered her determination. “I want to be the person who lights a fire within others—the one who motivates them to go out and accomplish their goals.”
“SMDEP reinforced that for me,” she says. “It showed me I can bring my dreams into real life.”