Interest in Helping Native Americans Leads Student to Dental School

Shanon Black, mother of three, pursues healthcare field to work on reservations
Shanon Black

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Shanon Black '22
Hometown: Lawrence, Kansas
Degree Program: Doctor of Dental Surgery
High school: Lawrence High School

An interest in healthcare and a focus on making a difference for Native American communities led Shanon Black to the UMKC School of Dentistry.  While the program is as challenging as she expected, the mother of three is successfully juggling school and life.

Shanon Black knew she wanted to be on the frontline of health care and make a difference for Native American communities. Initially, she was focused on medical school because of the shortage of native doctors on reservations. But one of her professors suggested she explore dentistry.

“I decided to take a look,” Black says. “A representative from the UMKC diversity office visited Haskell University later that week.”

Shanon Black in dentistry lab

Black, who had completed her associate’s degree, had enrolled in Haskell to finish her bachelor’s degree in environmental science when the youngest of her three children went to school. But it didn’t take her long to realize that her heart was in healthcare. After attending the informational meeting, Black realized that many of her interests were a strong fit with dentistry.

"I could tell that this school cared about the students and not just student numbers." - Shanon Black

“Dentistry is on the frontline of healthcare, which is important to me. And I used to make jewelry and really enjoyed it, so I’m familiar with crafting small objects and the need for perfection.”

That night, Black researched the need for native dentists. At the time there were fewer than 100 native dentists in the United States. According to the American Dental Education Association, of the more than 11,000 dental school applicants in 2018, only 23 were Native American.

“There are never enough Native American dentists to reach all the geographically isolated reservations,” she says. “So there is a great need. After I discovered that, I decided that dentistry was where I needed to be.”

Shanon Black in lab with goggles

Black shadowed dentists and dental specialists as part of her research to decide if dentistry was right for her. She was fascinated by pretty much everything she saw.

“I learned that dentistry is awesome. I knew I was moving in the right direction.”

She applied to the dental program at UMKC and other schools. After her interview, she knew that UMKC was where she wanted to be.

“Everyone was so enthusiastic, kind and accommodating,” she says. “I could tell that this school cared about the students and not just student numbers. The prospect of dental school was a little daunting, and everyone at UMKC made me feel like I was already family and I hadn’t even been accepted to the program yet.”

Black has discovered that academically dentistry is similar to medical school and challenging on many levels. Last semester she was enrolled in 25.5 credit hours and managing the lab work from three labs. 

Shanon Black at UMKC School of Dentistry

“It’s a lot of pressure,” she says. “But there are a lot of support programs, too. As intense as it can be, it’s good to know that there is tutoring, administration and peer groups that can see me through the rough times. No one has ever made me feel like a burden when I have gone to them with fears. I have only ever been met with concern, compassion and problem solving. This attention has been vital in navigating the coursework.”

Beyond coursework, the dental program has taught Black a lot about herself.

“I’ve learned that control is an illusion and my fight to be in control is and will always be a losing battle. So I need to be able to roll with what comes my way and stop trying to master plan everything. I also learned that I can’t accomplish my goals alone.”

Shanon Black

From staff members to upperclassmen to her fellow classmates, Black is constantly inspired by their dedication and service to others.

“I’m surrounded by people who entered the program to care for people. All of them want to make the world a healthier, happier place for everyone. It makes me want to constantly do better.”

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Published: Feb 25, 2020