The Role Model Within
“I want people to look at me and say, ‘He made a difference for those who couldn’t do much for themselves.’”
Eric Brown, 24, is off to a good start. Whether mentoring his peers, helping underserved children access free dental care, or setting up health clinics in Nicaragua, the second-year student at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) School of Dentistry is already changing lives for the better.
As an undergraduate at the University of California, Riverside (UCR), Brown applied to SMDEP in 2008 with a desire to explore dentistry. He hardly expected that he would make the cut for the UCLA site. When it happened, he began to imagine possibilities never before within his reach.
That summer, volunteering in the UCLA health clinic, he gained a hands-on understanding of what it’s like to be a patient in a clinic. “For the first time, I was in a situation where I could actually make a difference,” he says. “I pictured myself doing that in the future. It motivated me to keep pushing forward.” He returned to UCR even more certain of his decision—and of himself.
“For me, everything stemmed from SMDEP,” he says. “It’s where I gained the skills and the confidence to become a leader.”
“Giving back doesn’t always have to be connected to dentistry. I like finding other ways to help people.”
The drive to help others is a bright thread in the tapestry of Brown’s life.
As a high schooler, he worked for Kaplan, visiting area schools to tell other students about the SAT and the ACT and what they needed to take those crucial tests. As an undergrad at UCR, he served both as a peer mentor with the Medical Scholars Program and the Health Professions Advising Center and as co-president of the university’s Future Dentist Club.
As UCR’s liaison to Give Kids a Smile, an annual nationwide event, he helped provide free dental care and education to underserved children. And before leaving UCR with his bachelor’s degree in biology, he joined a mission trip to Nicaragua, where he helped set up clinics and provide access to dental care in underprivileged areas.
He’s shown no sign of let-up at UCSF. In his first year there, Brown was on the Dental Students Panel at the 11th annual UC Davis Pre-Medical and Pre-Health Professions National Conference, offering insights and guidance to undergraduates thinking about dental school.
“Giving back doesn’t always have to be connected to dentistry,” he says. “I like finding other ways to help people, not only with their health but also mentally—talking to them, encouraging them. I want to lend a hand any way I can.”
A Passion for Science
A role model himself, Brown has a well-earned appreciation for their value. The native of Fresno, Calif., has no recollection of his parents; he and his siblings were raised by their aunt in humble circumstances.
“I’m committed to working with underserved communities. That’s what got me interested in health care in the first place, and it’s exactly what SMDEP does so well.”
The only member of his family to attend college, he chose UCR in part because of its distance (both literal and figurative) from his hometown. “I didn’t know where my path would take me if I stayed in Fresno. I have four older brothers; two of them are homeless and one was in and out of jail as a teen,” he explains. By contrast, his fourth brother and a younger sister both have good jobs—one in Texas, the other in Nevada—and are building stable lives for themselves.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life,” Brown says. “I thought college was a good opportunity to start fresh in a new place.”
Preparing to enter UCR but uncertain where his career options lay, he applied for the university’s FastStart program—an intensive summer curriculum designed for incoming students who, like Brown, come from underrepresented communities and have an interest in science.
“I fell in love with physiology in high school, so I applied thinking about a career in the sciences.” The accelerated program in general chemistry, biology, and pre-calculus was nearly more than he could manage. “I struggled the whole summer,” he admits. “But I also found a real passion for science there.”
Throughout those five weeks, he considered an array of science and health professions, ruling out medicine because he couldn’t visualize himself as a doctor. “I didn’t think I could handle it.”
On further reflection, he thought about his childhood dentist, who had been a role model to him growing up. “Most kids go to the dentist and are terrified,” he says. “For me, it was always a good experience. The dentist was really engaged and made it fun. I didn’t have a stable father figure, and he was someone I could look up to.”
“If I could be like anyone, I would be like him.”
Having set his destination, it was time to map out a route. FastStart presented Brown with a vehicle; SMDEP provided the fuel.
Through FastStart, he discovered the Medical Scholars Program, a community of aspiring health professionals at UCR who offer leadership and support to disadvantaged students. As a freshman in the program, he benefited from his peers’ mentorship as well as career development tools and guidance. That, in turn, led him to SMDEP.
“For the first time, I was in a situation where I could actually make a difference. It motivated me to keep pushing forward.”
At the program’s UCLA site, Brown immersed himself in the particulars of both dentistry and health disparities. “I’m committed to working with underserved communities. That’s what got me interested in health care in the first place, and it’s exactly what SMDEP does so well,” he says. “It allowed me to identify concrete ways to help people. It really solidified my career choice.”
He entered his sophomore year at UCR fortified by inspiration. “After SMDEP, everything changed,” says Brown. “It was like a light switched on.”
The experience gave him the confidence to become a peer mentor, pursue leadership positions at the university, and get involved in the community. Gwen Hill, his UCR mentor and pre-dental adviser, points to his co-presidency of the school’s Future Dentist Club as an example.
“He felt strongly that the organization should be an integral part of community efforts to address oral health disparities and provide care to the underserved,” she says. “After consulting with dental professionals on how best to do that, he worked hard to make it happen.”
Bolstered by SMDEP, Brown applied for the UCLA PREP program, designed to help students from underrepresented populations improve their chances of being accepted to medical or dental school.
“Every time an opportunity came by, I reached for it,” he says.
That’s not to say there weren’t obstacles. The core classes for his biology degree were grueling, and Brown labored through all of them. With his girlfriend, a pre-med student at the time, he studied hard and fought for the grades he needed to get into dental school.
He did hit a stumbling block with his initial Dental Admission Test (DAT) score. “I had to take it again,” he says. With his applications to dental school already submitted and everything on the line, he gave it all he had. “I had a goal, and I was confident I could do it. That helped me push through.“
Accepted to six dental schools, he decided on the University of California, San Francisco, where he was awarded the prestigious Osgood Scholarship for academic achievement.
The Tools You Need
In addition to his coursework, Brown remains active in efforts to increase the pipeline of dental and medical students from diverse backgrounds, including work with the Student National Dental Association (SNDA). “We do a lot of outreach, trying to improve minority representation at our school,” he says.
“SMDEP is a great foundation if you plan on going into health care. It will give you the tools you need to succeed.”
At UCR, Brown was an unofficial ambassador for SMDEP, which he believes is essential to that pipeline. “I always made sure the students I was mentoring knew about it. I explained what it did for me, and told them why they should apply.” Now, as he draws closer to the goal he set for himself that summer, he’s still spreading the message.
“SMDEP is a great foundation if you plan on going into health care,” he says definitively. “It will give you the tools you need to succeed. It gave me the confidence to say, ‘I will be a health care professional.’”
He hasn’t chosen a specialty—“I’m leaning toward general dentistry because it gives me the opportunity to help more people,” he says—and he’s not sure where he’ll practice once he’s completed his dental degree. But Brown is unequivocal about his objective.
“I want to work in an underserved community. I’m open about the location, but I know it will be a place where I can be of some help.”