Program aims to combat the shortage of dentists and improve access to dental education in New Mexico
Two future New Mexico dental students will have something to smile about, thanks to the New Mexico Higher Education Department (NMHED). The state agency is stepping up to help with tuition costs for New Mexico residents attending Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso’s Hunt School of Dental Medicine in El Paso, Texas.
In an agreement between the NMHED and Hunt School of Dental Medicine announced today in Las Cruces, the agency said it will cover the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition for two New Mexico students who otherwise would be required to pay the higher out-of-state tuition to attend the Texas school. The funds, provided by the New Mexico Legislature, will cover up to $20,000 in tuition per student.
“This agreement is critical because we have such a severe shortage of dentists, dental hygienists and many other types of medical health professionals in the state,” said Harrison Rommel, Ph.D., director of Institutional Finance and Financial Aid at the NMHED. The agency has a strong record of helping future dentists through similar agreements with other universities.
As of 2019, there were 51.5 dentists per 100,000 residents in New Mexico, ranking the state 37th of 50 states and Washington, D.C., in dentists per capita, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.
Doña Ana County, which shares a border with El Paso County, is designated a federal Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) for dentists. Thirty-two of New Mexico’s 33 counties are designated dental HPSAs. Students who live in Doña Ana county, which is contiguous to Texas, qualify for in-state tuition and would not need the tuition waiver to attend the Hunt School of Dental Medicine. New Mexico students from noncontiguous counties would qualify for the NMHED waiver.
“Since we share the region with our fine neighbors to the north, the Hunt School of Dental Medicine is happy to partner with the New Mexico Department of Higher Education to provide opportunities for a dental education for deserving New Mexico students,” said Richard Black, D.D.S., M.S., founding dean of the Hunt School of Dental Medicine. “Much like West Texas, the needs in many parts of New Mexico are great, and we believe this effort will help improve the dental health in communities where it’s needed.”
While helping with the dentist shortage, the agreement also will help provide New Mexico students an opportunity to learn dental medicine closer to home. Before the Hunt School of Dental Medicine, the nearest doctoral-level dental schools New Mexico students could attend were A.T. Still University in Mesa, Arizona, or the University of Colorado in Aurora, Colorado.
New Mexico State University student Felisha Vallabh, past-president of the university’s Pre-Dental Society, is excited about this new opportunity that will provide better access to dental education and transform oral health in New Mexico. At today’s announcement, she shared her story of why she wants to become a dentist.
“As a child, I accompanied my parents to their dental appointments in Juárez, Mexico,” Vallabh said. “I never understood why we spent an entire day traveling across the border for a simple 30-minute appointment. It was not until I was older that I realized my parents received dental care in another country so they could afford my dental care in the United States.”
Vallabh wants to stay near the community that gave her every opportunity to pursue her dreams, and that will be possible through the Hunt School of Dental Medicine.
“More students in New Mexico will be encouraged to seek a career in dentistry knowing they won’t have to move hundreds of miles away from home to do so,” Vallabh said. “I love how the Hunt School of Dental Medicine wants to shape students into excellent clinicians to serve their communities. They introduce students into the clinic early and emphasize the importance of speaking Spanish in the clinical setting.”
In the future, Vallabh wants to return to New Mexico and practice in Las Cruces at a public health clinic with a goal to foster the growth of more educational programs for preventative dentistry, especially for children.
“New Mexico faces a critical shortage of dentists in our communities, with only one dentist per 3,300 citizens, a number three times higher than the national average. The state is committed to opening access for New Mexicans to affordably pursue an education leading to this vital profession,” New Mexico Higher Education Department Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez said. “Students from New Mexico now have a graduate-level training option close to home, and we can increase the number of qualified medical professionals working in our state in the high-need field.”
The Hunt School of Dental Medicine opened in the summer of 2021 with its first cohort of 40 students. It offers a unique education for students through culturally competent, hands-on training and an introduction to early clinical experiences among a diverse population. As part of curriculum requirements, dental students learn medical Spanish, allowing them to bridge language and cultural barriers to deliver the highest quality of oral health care.
A first for any dental school in the nation, Hunt School of Dental Medicine students begin clinical training and patient interaction during their first semester. It’s also the first and only dental school in the nation that requires Spanish-language courses. Sixty percent of the school’s students consider themselves bilingual or multilingual, helping to reduce language barriers during patient care.
The Hunt School of Dental Medicine is the first dental school on the U.S.-Mexico border, and the only one in West Texas. It is one of few Hispanic-Serving dental schools in the nation, with 32.5% of its inaugural class identifying as Hispanic.
Check out our photos from the announcement: