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Incoming dental students connect during first-ever Alumni + Student Send-Off

UTSD alumna Rita Cammarata, DDS '96, meets virtually with a number of students.
UTSD alumna Rita Cammarata, DDS '96 hosts a virtual send-off meeting for incoming DDS students from the Greater Houston Area.

Nine UTHealth School of Dentistry at Houston alumni hosted virtual receptions for 92 incoming Class of 2024 dental students during the first-ever Alumni + Student Send-Off, on Aug. 2 via Webex.

In January, the PACE Center outlined plans for the event, inspired by McGovern Medical School’s annual student send off, where small groups of students connect with an alumni host at a small networking dinner.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event was expanded to accommodate a virtual platform. The online format allowed the Class of 2024 to safely meet alumni and current dental students from their hometown regions.

“The Send-Off was a great way to connect with the UTSD community,” said Maria Attia, a first-year dental student.

“Not only did I get to meet my classmates in a small group virtually, but I also got to meet wonderful alumni who, despite graduating almost 20 years ago, are still very much connected to UTSD. This really showed me just how much USTD cherishes its students as well as its alumni, and how this institution is truly committed to the idea of being a large family.”

The alumni hosts encouraged the incoming class to ask questions about UTSD and living in Houston, among other topics, and advised them of the value of forming connections before stepping foot on campus.

“Since I teach at UTSD, I told them that they had to keep up with the workload and not be afraid of their faculty; We are here to help,” said David N. Frey, DDS ‘79, professor and chair in the Department of General Practice and Dental Public Health.

“I am always willing to help, if possible and I hope to lead them by example in Organized Dentistry.”

Likewise, Sherry Van Wart-Noblett, DDS '88, advised students to take the material they learn during school and apply it to clinical settings and even within private practices.

“I was amazed at how much Dr. Wart-Noblett recalled from her basic science education, despite being in private practice for so many years,” Attia said. “She advised us to synthesize everything we’re learning in an ongoing fashion, so the information transforms from random facts to applicable information that helps provide better care for patients.”

In addition to Cammarata, Frey, and Wart-Noblett, Steve Koo, DDS '99, '07; Kathy O'Keefe, DDS, MS '85, '00; Rita Cammarata, DDS '96; David Fray, DDS '79; Carlos Cruz, DDS ’95; Charles (Chuck) Hoopingarner, DDS '73; and Nina Leifeste, DDS '88, '89, shared tips and keys to success with students residing in areas throughout Texas, beyond the Mississippi River, and as far west as Arizona.

“Although we were ‘virtual’ there was a bit of intimacy to the reception,” Cammarata said. “Once we get to meet face-to-face, it will be exciting to see if their virtual persona matches the real person.”

For the past several years, the PACE Center at UTSD has been focused on initiatives to connect students and alumni through communication, education, and events. The vision of Dean John Valenza, DDS ’81, has been to set all students on a path to success from Day One.

The Alumni + Student Send-Off was established to link students to success through new relationships with their classmates and distinguished alumni.

“Hearing other student share their own fears about dental school made it feel like I was not alone, and that we were all in this together,” Attia said.

The PACE Center hopes to strengthen connections and mentorship between alumni and students perpetually through similar receptions and meetings in the future.

“I think this could become the tie that binds the students to the UTSD family once they graduate,” Cammarata said.

UTHealth Houston is also developing an online network platform that will expand alumni and student connections in the future. For more information, contact PACE Center Director Taressa Visor at [email protected].

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