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Published: August 17, 2017

Future Dentist Finds Purpose, Motivation in Summer Experience in Kenya

Maya Patel ’20 fiddled with the beaded bracelet while she talked about the trip where she bought it. The bracelet, with its black, red and green stripes of the Kenyan flag, connects her to the two UT friends she stayed with for two weeks in Nairobi who also have the bracelet. But even more so, it’s a reminder of the impactful experience she had as a volunteer.

This summer, Patel volunteered with Global Dental Relief, a nonprofit whose mission is to bring free dental care to children around the world. Patel was the youngest on a team of 20 that included American dentists, hygienists and general volunteers. They served about 200 patients a day over the course of six days. Patel said she was changed by the experience.

“Sometimes when you’re just studying and studying, you lose focus. Why am I doing this? But when you go there you realize this is why I’m putting in the hard work. This is why I’m putting in the hours of dedication in my classes,” said Patel, a biochemistry major.

When she moves into her residence hall in a little over a week, Patel will hang the thank you letters the children wrote her, those whose dental visit was made a little easier by a smiling UT student who held their hand.

“You realize there are kids out there who need you, people out there who need you,” Patel said. “Going on one of these mission trips you realize it’s not all about you anymore.”

Patel expressed her interest to learn as much as she could with the mission team, so she served in the operatory helping the dentist, even assisting in a tooth pull.

“I told them I was really eager to learn, so they told me to sit right next to them chairside and start passing them surgical tools. I had to learn very quickly how to aid the doctor in any way I could and watch procedures,” she said. “That’s when I got to see firsthand that it’s a pretty graphic field. That’s when you know it’s either for you or it’s not for you, and it was definitely for me.”

Patel served on a similar mission with the UT organization MEDLIFE UT. In Fall 2016, she joined them at the Remote Area Medical (RAM) volunteer corps’ sponsored mobile medical outreach. At that event, she assisted with dental services providing assistance much like she did in Kenya.

“I got a lot of experience through that — it was eye-opening,” Patel said. “I worked in the dental ward, and I just asked a lot of questions. I think that’s the key. If you want to learn you have to step out of your comfort zone and ask questions. The worst they can say to you is no. The best they can say is sure, let me show you, and that’s what a lot of them did.”

Patel graduated from high school as valedictorian and with an associate’s degree in dual enrollment credits. Rather than cut her time at UT short, she has added three minors (cybersecurity, management information systems and business administration) and a certificate in Spanish. She’s also vice president of UT’s Skull and Bones and a first-year mentor.

“The reason I dabbled in those is that health care is all shifting to the internet and e-commerce,” Patel said. “So if my path as a dentist doesn’t work out, I can still stay in the health sciences in this way, working to protect patients’ data, even developing e-technology with robotic prosthetics or something. There are so many places those minors could take you.”

But her passion right now is dentistry: the mental and physical challenge of it, the ability to localize her focus on one area of the body and the one-on-one interaction.

“The goal for me has really come into focus. Do well in school so I can become a dentist and do these kinds of service missions more often,” Patel said. “I’m not going after the degree for the money, because it is a lucrative career, but this is so much better. The utility and happiness you get from these kinds of experiences is unmatched. It was a very valuable experience for me.”

Have a story idea? Contact Jamie Pilarczyk, Web Writer   
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