Tuesday, 31 January 2023

New MCHC dentist proves grit and hard work pay off

Dr. Connie Austin. Courtesy photo.

UKIAH, Calif. – MCHC Health Centers dentist Dr. Connie Austin not only provides excellent dental care, she inspires disadvantaged youngsters who have big dreams.

Austin is a shining example of what can happen when you pursue your goals relentlessly, and her story is a reminder of the importance of a mentor in children’s lives.

Austin grew up in Mississippi with two sisters, cared for by a single mother who did not go to college, but who championed her children’s educations nonetheless.

Austin did well in high school and had dreams of becoming a dentist, but when she realized she had to continue with physics in college, she did not have much confidence, so she began reassessing her goals – considering becoming a dental hygienist rather than a dentist.

“If I’d had a counselor or someone to encourage me, I probably would have continued on my original path, but I was scared. I hated physics. If I’d known how much harder it would be to learn it later in life, I would definitely have stuck with it in high school,” she said.

Shortly after beginning college, she fell in love and began thinking about getting married and starting a family, and that solidified her decision to forego becoming a dentist.

“I didn’t want to wait forever to start a family,” she explained. She got married, but never had children, and seven years later she and her husband divorced.

By this time, she was well established in her career as a dental hygienist. She continued to work for a dentist in Houston, Texas for years, while one dentist periodically nudged her – asking her if she was happy, telling her she was a great hygienist and could certainly become a dentist.

Over time, his message sunk in; she realized the barriers to her becoming a dentist had disappeared. She had confidence that if she worked hard enough, she could pass the required courses, and she had no one to care for but herself, so she decided to go back to school.

The test to become a dentist is called the Dental Admission Test, or DAT. It is a standardized test that assesses competencies in areas important to dentistry.

The test includes four sections: Survey of the natural sciences (including biology, general chemistry and organic chemistry), perceptual ability test, reading comprehension test, and quantitative reasoning test. A person can take the DAT up to three times but must score well by the third attempt or be permanently denied.

Austin had always done well in school, so she signed up for the DAT figuring it would not be too difficult for someone who had spent the last 15 years as a dental hygienist. She did not study much and was very disappointed when she did not score high enough. The test was much harder than she anticipated.

She reasoned that if she studied, she would do much better, but working full-time and being an adult learner was more challenging than she expected. She took the test a second time, and did far better, but not well enough. It was a moment of truth: How much did she want this?

She was inspired by Randy Pausch’s book titled “The Last Lecture.” Until then, she had not put her full determination into this goal. This all changed. She studied during every lunch break. Instead of going home after work, she went to the library to study.

She decided Pausch was right: “Road blocks are for people who don’t want it bad enough.” On her last attempt on the DAT, her score improved dramatically.

During her first year in dental school, she became a National Health Corps Scholar, a prestigious scholarship program that pays for college tuition and a monthly stipend in return for service in an underserved area.

She finished dental school followed by an Advanced Education in General Dentistry residency, then began working at MCHC Health Centers in July.

She chose MCHC because she liked the community and organization. She said, “It’s a great program.”

She especially enjoys the focus on dentistry for children and also appreciates the integrated approach to care – having medical, dental and behavioral health professionals work together to help patients. “I really like the family element here,” she said.

She feels grateful that she now has the opportunity to do what she always wanted to do, and she also feels a responsibility to pay it forward.

“My mom never finished eighth grade, but all of her children went to college. She told us to shoot high,” she said, “But she didn’t always know how to help us. I never had a mentor in that sense.”

So, Austin says she wants to provide that mentorship. She currently has a foreign exchange student from the Netherlands living with her and she is making community connections, so she is in a better position to help others.

“You can always find a reason not to do something, to justify not taking action. But that doesn’t get you where you want to go,” she said.

Dr. Austin is one of two dentists who are National Health Corps Scholars at MCHC, a local non-profit organization providing access to comprehensive healthcare for people in Ukiah, Willits and Lakeport.

MCHC Operations Officer Jill Damian said, “MCHC is proud to bring compassionate, well-trained providers to our region,” and she noted that all MCHC health centers accept Partnership (Medi-Cal), Medicare, Covered California insurance and other insurance.

Learn more at www.mchcinc.org.

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