Amelia Wilson perches on a bench just inside the entrance of the Todd Road Head Start Center in Knightdale, North Carolina, holding a Play-Doh toy and a tangle of plastic necklaces. She’s a curious sight for the children walking into school clutching the hands of their parents and caregivers.
The preschoolers approach cautiously. Amelia smiles broadly, welcomes them over and greets the grown-ups. Then the fun begins.
With Amelia’s help, the children get to become dentists, building doughy teeth, then drilling and extracting them with plastic toy dental tools. All the while, Amelia is talking with them and their parents about what it’s like to go to the dentist and the importance of dental health.
At the end of each session, the children get to choose a necklace – red, green or pink – with a little capsule that will hold a lost tooth. They walk away smiling, proud of their new knowledge – and clearly delighted with the new treasure hanging around their necks.
A master of nutrition student in the Department of Food, Bioprocessing and Nutrition Sciences, Amelia visited the Head Start center several times during the spring semester. And she’s planning more visits in the fall, plus an extended educational session for parents. It’s all part of her goal to become a dentist.
Read on to learn more about Amelia and her plans for the future.
Why did you choose to pursue a master of nutrition degree?
I chose that path because I eventually want to be a dentist. So I think by getting my master of nutrition I’ll be able to bridge the gap that seems to be present between this idea of overall health and wellness related to nutrition and our teeth.
What made you want to become a dentist?
No one in my family is a dentist, so it wasn’t anything like that. It was a lot of things, though. My mom is a nurse, so I grew up in the hospital, and she passed down to me this love of taking care of others, and dentistry is very much a service job, so I think I got that from her. But I also grew up taking dance lessons from the age of four, and then I have my dance minor from NC State. And it gave me this attention to artistry and aesthetics, and dentistry is very much about that as well, whether you’re doing veneers or whatever it is, it’s very visual. So I think that led me towards dentistry as well. And once again, I’m very passionate about nutrition and I think there is a big gap there, so I’m not sure how I want to tie that into my practice as a dentist.
How did you get involved with Head Start?
So in my program, you can create or do research or any kind of project that you want to make out of it. So I knew that my advisor, Dr. Goodell, worked hand-in-hand with Head Start, and I asked her if there was anything related to dentistry that I could do there. She encouraged me to create oral hygiene lessons for parents and children. And so that’s where I started, and then the semester kind of took off from there.
Tell us about the Head Start experience.
I didn’t know that these were going to be morning drop -off lessons. I was kind of hoping that parents or guardians could come in and spend 30 to 45 minutes four or five times with me, and that would be great.
But one of the directors said, “Why don’t you do a little quick lesson at morning drop off?” I was afraid people would be in a rush and they’re going to want to get to work, and I just decided to do my best. So I just went with it, and it turned out much better than I anticipated. And I think it just took little educational extenders to get parents to want to come over and talk with me and the kid as well. So definitely very different than what I imagined, but at the same time I got the message that I wanted to portray across.
What’s the most important thing that you want to accomplish? Is it the focus on the child, or the parent, or both?
I would say the focus on the parent. I’ve learned in my studies here at NC State that parents are the gatekeepers and are very much so involved with being positive role models, and if a child watches their parent floss and brush twice a day then they’re more likely to do it. So I’m trying to just instill both of those … Remind the parents that it’s important for them to take care of their teeth as well while also guiding the child, and hopefully turning on a little spark for them.
What’s your favorite part?
My favorite part is seeing kids get excited about taking care of their teeth, for sure. Because I feel like that age it’s like they are still formative and happy about it, and I can make it into a game. And I also work as a predental intern for an orthodontist, so as you can imagine that’s a lot of teenagers, and they just don’t want to take care of their teeth at all. But just seeing the kids excited to take care of their teeth is gratifying.
Tell us about your internship.
I work for a local orthodontist, Dr. Matthew McNutt, and before he entered dental school he was a predental intern, and he just did lab work and assisting with minor appointments, taking photos, all of the behind-the-scenes work. So after he graduated dental school he started his own internship program where you could actually learn and teach, and I get to learn all about how you run a practice and the business aspect of dentistry. So that experience has been invaluable to me about communicating with people the importance of taking care of their teeth. I’ve learned a lot, so I’m very, very grateful for the experience.
Tell me how your experience at NC State has helped prepare you for your career?
This past semester with Dr. Goodell I took life cycle nutrition and we talked a lot about parenting practices, and the thing that’s related to nutrition that I think is also very similar to dentistry is behavioral modification, and that’s something very difficult to change. So learning positive parenting practices and how to engage children is, I think, the biggest thing that I’ve learned regarding dentistry. And just how important the psychology behind health is.
What advice would you give someone who might want to follow in your footsteps?
Look at the prerequisites early. And navigate the resources that NC State gives you, because NC State gives you every resource that you would need to be accepted to dental school.
You can make a difference in the lives of students like Amelia!
This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.