Awards, Dental Hygiene

Students’ Community Focused Projects Target Oral Healthcare Gaps in N.C.

Adam Clark headshot next to Karina Ibarra headshot

Community outreach is a point of pride for Adams School of Dentistry students, faculty and staff. Supporting those that are in need or lacking resources is second nature here, and two dental hygiene students have been recognized for their work in this area with merit awards.

The American Association of Public Health Dentistry recently awarded Adam Clark, BSDH candidate ‘23, and Karina Ibarra, BSDH candidate ‘23 with the Dental Hygiene Student Merit Award for Outstanding Achievement in Community Dentistry. Both students will receive their awards at the 2023 National Oral Health Conference in April.

Clark’s project was to offer oral hygiene supplies and instruction to children at high risk for cavities in the North Carolina Wake and Granville County Public School system through partnerships with local Title I schools. Ibarra created an initiative called Farmworker Labor and Oral Salud Services (F.L.O.S.S.) to cater dental services toward the farmworker population in rural, eastern North Carolina.

Both students have shown a commitment to community dentistry and expanding access to underserved groups, something they hope to keep in mind as they move into professional practice.

“ … what truly motivated me into public health and community dentistry is being able to connect and improve the lives of others on a larger scale. With the knowledge that I have learned through the dental hygiene program and dental school, I have a personal mission to educate the masses and create a more positive and equitable change utilizing previous and new resources that I come across,” Clark said.

Clark in front of a class speaking with a microphone

“Many people are not able to seek dental services perhaps due to transportation, language barriers, etc., and public health allows us to bring the services to them. As a dental hygiene student, I get to implement what I have learned in my classes to educate and answer their questions or concerns,” Ibarra said.

Helping guide Clark and Ibarra through their projects was Sarah Liebkemann, RDH, MS. Liebkemann said both students had clear visions of what they wanted to accomplish and took advantage of resources at their disposal to see their projects through.

“Adam and Karina are natural connectors,” she said. “In pursuit of their projects, they leveraged their relationships with classmates, UNC student organizations, local leaders/organization, companies/businesses, state organizations, and national organizations to positively impact the community significantly in a short period of time. This relational approach is invaluable in community dentistry.”

Keeping their communities in mind is something that both Clark and Ibarra are passionate about. Clark said his Raleigh-based family has always tried to give back, and that’s made an impression on him.

“Coming from a combination of educators, community activists, and three generations of Raleigh natives, giving back to my community was a concept that has always been stressed in my household. I strongly believe that the younger generation has a responsibility to give back, and I wanted to do everything in my power to equip students with the necessary tools to increase and maintain oral health. I specifically chose to give to Wake County Public Schools in Southeast Raleigh because much of my childhood was nurtured in this area.”

For Ibarra, growing up with ties to farm labor in eastern North Carolina inspired her to think about the needs of that community and propose new ways to engage them with dental care.

“Coming from a farmworker background and working in agriculture myself, I have seen first-hand the disparities that my family and community faces when it comes to their health,” Ibarra said. “It is a population that is often overlooked despite their daily contributions to society. I want to shine light on the barriers and dangerous working conditions farmworkers face, including language, socioeconomic indicators, and documentation status.”

For both students, working on these projects is just the beginning of where they’d like to take their careers and the populations they hope to serve.

“Working in contrasting health care settings has allowed me to have first-hand experiences with diverse communities,” Clark said. “The stories I hear from the specific communities I have met while working within a public health setting have left an indelible impression on me and are a large reason why I love public health. Furthermore, what truly motivated me to pursue public health and community dentistry is being able to connect and improve the lives of others on a larger scale.”

“I am interested in public health and community dentistry because we get to provide services directly to the community by meeting them where they are, since many have limited access to dental care,” Ibarra said.

Leibkemann believes both students are capable of leading the way and continuing to focus on public health, ultimately making a difference in the lives of their future patients.

“When energized students are given guidance and resources to lean into their areas of passion, it can shape the trajectory of their careers. The partnerships and connections that these students form with communities during their time at UNC often persist after graduation, thereby resulting in sustainable relationships,” Leibkemann said.