DDS, Dental Hygiene, Faculty and Staff, Students

Brunson’s Commencement Address

Dr. W. David Brunson, associate director of the American Dental Education Association Center for Equity and Diversity, gave the keynote address at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Dentistry’s commencement on May 9, 2010.

The American Dental Education Association (ADEA) is the only national association that represents the academic dental community.

Brunson has extensive ties to UNC-Chapel Hill. He received his undergraduate degree as a Morehead Scholar and also received his DDS degree from the University. He was a member of the School of Dentistry faculty from 1982 to 2003 and served as the dental school’s assistant dean for predoctoral education and as clinical professor in the Department of Diagnostic Sciences and General Dentistry.

Excerpts from his prepared remarks follow:

“When Dean Williams asked me to be the 2010 commencement speaker, I must admit I was taken aback. Immediately, I thought I had forwarded the message to my wife, Anne, with the comment, ‘What do you think about this?’ Mistakenly, instead of forwarding the message to Anne, I had hit ‘reply.’ Later that evening, when I asked Anne what she thought about the message, she asked me, ‘What message?’ The next day the mystery was solved when I received a response from Dean Williams that he thought it was a good idea and that I should do it. Well, I am here and I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you. This is an unexpected honor.

“Dean Williams has asked me to tell my story today … I wonder how someone born in the small eastern North Carolina town of Ayden … who graduated from high school in Charlotte … who was very fortunate to receive a Morehead Scholarship to the University of North Carolina … who graduated from the UNC School of Dentistry … who practiced general dentistry in Fayetteville … who had an academic career at UNC School of Dentistry … and now works for the American Dental Education Association … I wonder how did this happen?

“In thinking about this, I have come to the realization that I am where I am because of many great people believing in me, teaching me and mentoring me. I want you to reflect about how you got to this point in your life as I recount my experiences.

“You are here because of your parents and family … I had parents who encouraged me to try many things, to work hard and to achieve.

“You are here because of your high school teachers … I had high school teachers who encouraged me to study and apply for scholarships so that I could go to college.

“Someone encouraged you to consider dental assisting, dental hygiene or dentistry as a career … After college, while working in the Physiology Department at the UNC School of Medicine, then-UNC dental school Dean Jim Bawden convinced me that dentistry was a better profession for me than medicine, so I applied and was admitted to dental school.

“Your educational experience here at UNC has involved excellent teachers, faculty and staff … When I was in dental school, Dr. Clifford Sturdevant taught me how to be precise and see things in tenths of millimeters. Dr. Lee Sockwell convinced me that anything was possible … And Dr. Jack Shankle said ‘Endodontics was for me.’

“Am I correct? Did you not already have a host of teachers and mentors that have helped you to get to this point?

“Now, what do I predict you will find now that you have completed your educational programs? When you go into private practice or continue your education in other advanced programs, you will find new mentors … After graduation from dental school, now 39 years ago, I went into private practice in Fayetteville, North Carolina, with my classmate Stan Griffin, and we learned the importance of collaboration and sharing. In private practice, I was mentored by Dr. Larry Williams of Benson, Drs. Jim Harrell Sr. and Jim Harrell Jr. from Elkin; they all helped me become involved in organized dentistry … in the Academy of General Dentistry and the North Carolina Dental Society. During those years, I was fortunate to be in positions of leadership that allowed me to be involved in the issues that were facing the profession and allowed me to be a part of efforts to address the delivery of better oral health care. In both my private practice and in my leadership roles in organized dentistry, I was guided by the commitment that private practitioners play a critical role in assuring that oral health care is available to children and adults, regardless of socioeconomic background.

“You will find that you will have the opportunity to contribute to the educational experiences of those who follow you … Throughout my 11 years of private practice, I was also fortunate to be involved in part-time teaching at the UNC School of Dentistry. This led to a developing interest in academic dentistry. I was encouraged to join the UNC School of Dentistry as a full-time faculty member by Dean Ben Barker and Dr. Ted Roberson. Throughout my career at the School of Dentistry, I was mentored by Dean John Stamm, Drs. Ron Hunt, Dan Shugars, Ken May, Bill Maixner, Carolyn Booker and also very significantly by Rebecca Wilder, Larry Keith and Chancellor Chris Fordham. I soon came to recognize the value of the educational experience when students from diverse backgrounds come together. When I became assistant dean for predoctoral education, my commitment to diversity was enriched by these mentors who helped me develop and implement the steps necessary to turn my commitment for diversity into action.

“In 2003, I retired from the School of Dentistry. I entered a new phase of my career. I became a member of the American Dental Education Association’s (ADEA) Center for Equity and Diversity. With direction from Dr. Rick Valachovic, executive director of the American Dental Education Association, and Dr. Jeanne Sinkford, ADEA’s associate executive director and director of ADEA’s Center for Equity and Diversity, this position allowed me to help develop and implement dental education’s role in the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP). I am the co-deputy director of SMDEP and have the opportunity to meet and influence young people from disadvantaged and low-income backgrounds to become interested in dentistry and medicine, to help them develop academic skills, to successfully apply and be admitted to dental schools (as well as medical schools) and to become the practitioners we need in our professions.

“Another passion of mine is helping to encourage dental and allied dental students consider careers in academic dentistry. With funding originally from the American Dental Association and currently with funding from ADEA, the American Association for Dental Research, and the ADEA Gies Foundation, the Academic Dental Careers Fellowship Program creates opportunities for allied dental and dental students to participate in a one-year fellowship that includes mentoring, teaching and participating in all aspects of academic dentistry. Since 2006, 33 students from 21 dental schools have completed the fellowship, including two recent UNC graduates. Seven students are currently participating in this year’s program.

“The point of my telling you all this and asking you to reflect on how you got to this point is that as child from a working class background, I never thought of dentistry as a career and never imagined all the places dentistry would take me. And this could be and will be the same for you.

“You are now graduating from one of the best dental schools in the nation. The UNC School of Dentistry got to this place because of vision, strong leadership, excellent research, committed faculty, excellent students, supportive staff, financial support, and – very importantly – alumni support. The School emphasizes the value of diversity in providing the most outstanding educational experience … incorporates research into the curriculum … commits to a diverse student body … provides community-based educational experiences … and promotes the value of giving back to the community. I am proud to be a graduate of this institution because of these important values.

“What I have discussed up until now is the important roles that teachers and mentors have played in my career and have hopefully encouraged you to reflect on yours. But of course we all know that none of our professional life is possible without strong support from our families and significant others. And I have certainly received that kind of support and I am sure that you have also. At this moment, when you are about to graduate, please don’t forget to thank those who have supported you along the way.

“So all of you have now completed this phase of your education, and where you go and what you do now is your choice. I encourage you all to become involved in your profession and find those mentors who will help you grow and develop. I am sure that you realize that your education is just beginning. I recall that I was amazed at what I learned just in the first two months of my private dental practice.

“In closing … I offer you the following challenges:

“I challenge [those] of you completing your dental assisting program to be involved in the team approach to delivering outstanding oral health care. You are a critical member of the team.

“For [those] of you finishing your dental hygiene programs, I challenge you to value the special relationships you will develop with patients and your important role in providing high quality oral health care.

“For our … DDS graduates, I challenge you to not isolate yourself, but become involved in organized dentistry and in your community, be committed to providing care to those who have difficulty accessing care, and support dental education by mentoring, by teaching and by giving.

“For all of the advanced dental education students, my challenge to you is to continue the search for knowledge with your research and to use your knowledge and skills to allow others to follow in your footsteps.

“And to all graduates, I challenge you to remember where you came from, to use your talents to their fullest, to follow your passions and encourage others to enter this fulfilling profession of dentistry.

“I thank Dean Williams for this opportunity and once again, congratulations to all of you. You are the future of our profession, and seeing you here makes me feel great! Thank you.”