An Officer and a Dentist: from Scholarship to Service

By Louise Knott Ahern

For Savana Brown, Class of 2021, it all comes down to helping people.

“Ever since high school, I knew I wanted to be a dentist,” said 23-year-old Brown, a current second-year student at the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry. “I have always had an obsession with oral hygiene and also helping those in need. I realized I could satisfy both through dentistry.”

And, as it turns out, through the U.S. Navy.

Brown is one of 26 Dugoni School of Dentistry students who are enrolled through the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP), which funds students’ medical or dental education in exchange for future military service in the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy or U.S. Air Force. After graduating, the new doctors will serve as active-duty dentists on their assigned military bases for three or four years, depending on the terms of their scholarships. 

Though there is no limit on the number of military students that the Dugoni School of Dentistry will accept, the number who are enrolled each year varies widely from five to 30, according to Marco Castellanos, director of financial aid.

Their reasons for serving are as varied as their backgrounds. Brown comes from a military family and decided to seek the scholarship because she wanted to use her dental career to give back in as many ways as possible. Others, like 23-year-old Lindsay Treppa, Class of 2021, will be the first in their family to serve.

Savana Brown

Class of 2021
Age: 23
Hometown: Lake Tapps, WA
Undergraduate: Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo
Military Branch: U.S. Navy

Why she chose the Dugoni School: “I was initially intrigued by the three-year intensive program, and then when I began to do more research, I realized that the school prepares you well for not only getting a job after school, but also later on in life through the curriculum and excellent educators and doctors who work with us in the clinic each day.”

Future plans: “To me, military service means dedicating my life to serve our country however I am needed. I will attend Officer Development Training in Rhode Island for five weeks before assuming a position as a dentist on a Naval base somewhere in the United States. I hope to work in a private practice and eventually have my own shortly afterwards.”

“I will be the first member of my immediate family to serve in the military, so it has been quite a learning curve for me and will continue to be through officer training,” said Treppa, who serves as a California Dental Association student representative. “I am often thanked for my service, and while I feel like I have done nothing for my country while being in school, I know that my future contribution to the oral health of military families in the U.S. Navy, wherever I end up, will make a difference in their lives.”

The U.S. Navy represents the bulk of the Dugoni School’s HPSP students, with 17 students on Naval scholarships. Three students are enrolled through the U.S. Army and six through the U.S. Air Force. The scholarship covers all tuition and fees, and students also receive a monthly stipend for living expenses of approximately $2,100, according to Castellanos. For many HPSP students, the financial benefits are often what first appeals to them about the program. 

Patrick Gomez

Class of 2022
Age: 23
Hometown: Las Vegas, NV
Undergraduate: University of Nevada, Reno
Military Branch: U.S. Navy

Why he chose the Dugoni School: “Dugoni is the best dental school around. My dad, aunt and cousin all went here, and I am proud to say I go here as well. This place challenges you to be the best dentist you can be, while still being a warm place to learn with peers and faculty. I couldn’t picture attending any other school.”  Future Plans: “My plans are to specialize in oral surgery, and then to serve in the military as an oral surgeon. Then I am going into private practice in Denver.”

“When you’re still paying off your undergraduate educational costs and then looking forward to $500,000 more of debt, it’s a daunting number,” said 29-year-old Steven Leung, Class of 2022, who will serve in the U.S. Army after earning his DDS degree. “So finances were definitely a factor.”

But though the financial aid is what first catches their eyes, it’s not the factor that usually closes the deal for most students once they meet with recruiters and other military students. It’s about giving back.

Lindsay Lanilyn Treppa

Class of 2021
Age: 23
Hometown: Clayton, CA
Undergraduate: University of Southern California
Military Branch: U.S. Navy

Why she chose the Dugoni School: “After my college experience in Southern California, I was eager to return home to the Bay Area, where most of my family lives. I believe it is important to make connections where you want to be, and the Dugoni School has an exceptional presence. The academics, clinics and facilities are world-class and students can thrive here. I already had my scholarship in place so when I got my acceptance it was the easiest ‘yes’ I’ve ever made.” Future plans: “During the payback period of my military career, I expect to move to a place I have never lived before,” she said. “I want to gain skills and knowledge from the senior dentists. I am interested in serving on a base in another country, to expand my understanding of how our practice in the states differs from that of foreign cultures.”

“My parents are immigrants, and I’ll be the first in my family to serve in the military,” said Leung, who is president of the Class of 2022. “I’ve always wanted to give back to my country. In high school, I participated in the Junior Navy ROTC and really enjoyed the sense of responsibility it instilled, the duty. There is a lot of humility in taking on this position.”

To qualify for a Health Professions Scholarship Program, students must meet certain physical and academic requirements and be U.S. citizens. They must also have earned their undergraduate degree and been accepted to a medical or dental school.

Steven Leung

Class of 2022
Age: 29
Hometown: Milpitas, CA
Undergraduate: University of California, San Diego
Military Branch: U.S. Army

Why he chose the Dugoni School: “The standard of care we hold ourselves to at the Dugoni School was definitely a driving factor for my decision.” Future plans: “During my service, I will request to be stationed out of the country. Being in the Army gives me the chance to branch out and see the world. I’m very interested in policy making and volunteering, and either private practice or corporate dentistry would be my next step after the military.”

During the course of their education, they are required to remain full-time students but are not required to participate in active military service. After they graduate—and after basic training—HPSP participants are given the rank of captain in the Army and Air Force or lieutenant in the Navy and will be stationed at a military base, either in the U.S. or overseas. 

“There is a lot of humility in taking on this position.”

–Steven Leung, Class of 2022

Patrick Gomez, Class of 2022, is looking forward to the commitment. Dentistry is in his blood. His father, aunts, both grandfathers and his maternal great-grandfather were all dentists. His uncle is an oral surgeon. So there was never a question in his mind that he would follow in his family’s footsteps…or give back to his community.

“My grandparents immigrated with their families from the Philippines and were able to make a good life here in the U.S.,” said Gomez, an American Student Dental Association (ASDA) representative. “I chose to serve in the military because it is a way to give back to the country that gave my family an opportunity to thrive. My cousin went to West Point and is serving in the Army, and my uncle is a retired Army colonel. I seized the opportunity when a recruiter came to talk to my pre-dental society, and I saw this as a great opportunity to serve and for my dental career.”

“I chose to serve in the military because it is a way to give back to the country that gave my family an opportunity to thrive.”

–Patrick Gomez, Class of 2022

Students say they expect the lessons from their military service will carry through into their dental careers, and vice versa.

“One of the main lessons I have learned from military service that I have brought with me to my dental studies is the value of preparedness, hard work and communication,” Brown said. “I have been told that once you get good at doing dental work, the hardest part is staying organized and communicating efficiently with patients and others. I am looking forward to applying these aspects of military service to my studies and for future patients.”

Treppa said her dental education has prepared her well for military service. “The curriculum has made me more organized and an efficient learner,” she said. “Through my positions with CDA, SCOPE and Philippines Dental Outreach I have improved my confidence and leadership skills, both of which will be of importance as a lieutenant in the Navy.” 

Louise Knott Ahern is an award-winning journalist, fiction writer, editor and writing coach, and is the founder of LKA Publishing.