Help for a Clinic's Helpers

Dental students become mentors to kids from Madison Park, a technical vocational high school in Boston

dental student with assisting high school student

Who were these teenagers? Alexandra Bassett, D14, first noticed them on the postgraduate floor at One Kneeland, where they were quietly lending a hand with suction or passing along instruments during procedures. She knew they were dental assisting students who showed up regularly but without much fanfare.

Curious and not particularly shy, Bassett struck up a conversation with them, and discovered they all went to Madison Park, a technical vocational high school in Boston. They were also full of questions: about Tufts, about dentistry, about careers, about applying to college, about everything.

“We ended up just going to a room and talking,” Bassett says. “They were just on the edge of their seats about what I was saying.”

So last year, when Bassett was awarded an Albert Schweitzer Fellowship for a community service project, she knew just what she wanted to do. She started a mentoring program that teams each Madison Park student with a Tufts dental student, someone who can answer their questions about dentistry and career opportunities after high school. In return, the dental students get a chance to hone the leadership and support skills they will need in their careers, when they’ll be working elbow-to-elbow with dental assistants, hygienists and other members of the dental care team.

The mentoring program builds on Tufts’ 18-year partnership with Madison Park. That relationship was the brainchild of Ruby Elder-Bush, who graduated from Tufts’ former dental assisting program in 1971 and later became a hygienist. When she began teaching dental assisting at Madison Park in 1993, she remembered her great experience at Tufts and knew it would be a good place for her students to do clinical rotations. So twice a week, she escorts about eight students to the Tufts dental clinics, where they don gowns and masks and help with patient care.

Long-term Relationships

When Bassett suggested a mentoring program, Elder-Bush welcomed the chance to get her students more connected to the dental students.

The plan is for each high school student to work with the same dental student on each visit so they can develop a rapport. Previously, the assisting students would work with whichever dental students they were assigned to that day. There have also been luncheons where the high schoolers and their mentors can talk informally.

When Bassett sent out an email to the Tufts students asking for volunteers, she quickly had 70 “I’m interested!” replies. But only a core group was selected as mentors.

Bassett hopes the mentors will encourage their high school partners to work hard and take risks, whatever career path they decide on. She advised one student who was wondering what she would need to do to apply to a particular college that she should call the school and ask certain questions. “She said, ‘I can’t do that; it’s so embarrassing,’ ” Bassett says. “But that’s what you need to do. You need to put yourself out on a limb.”

Connecting with Teens

Bassett knows more than a little about the high school mentality. After college, she spent a year as a Phoenix AmeriCorps Urban Fellow at a charter school in Chelsea, Massachusetts, that targets former dropouts, previously truant students, teenage parents and recent immigrants. She taught, tutored and counseled students, doing whatever was needed to help them succeed in school.

“I knew I wanted to do something for one year that would help others,” Bassett explains. “I don’t come from a medical family, but I do come from a teacher family. I knew teaching was an accessible way to do it.”

Assistant Professor Natalie Hagel, who has been Bassett’s faculty mentor at Tufts and is also the lead mentor for the Madison Park program, says it made perfect sense that Bassett would be drawn to the high school students.

“She loves this age group,” says Hagel.

Most of the Madison Park students are still figuring out what they will do after high school. While some plan to go into dental assisting, others are looking beyond, to hygiene or orthodontics, or to completely different fields, such as criminal justice.

Tatyana Nembhard, 18, a senior at Madison Park, is attracted to careers in health care. “You are helping people. You really get to know people, to build a connection with them, like I’ve seen here,” she says of the Tufts dental clinics. “I like it.”

Later, Bassett explains, “We’re not trying to sell dentistry. We’re trying to sell being happy with what you are doing.”

Bassett and Elder-Bush are making other tweaks to the dental assisting program. They developed a “reflections” worksheet that Madison Park students can use while they work to check off what procedures they helped on, a crown impression or bridge prep, for example, and jot down any dental jargon they didn’t understand. There is also a spot to “give advice to the student dentist about how they worked with you.”

Not every dental student is comfortable having a third person there while they treat a patient, Elder-Bush says. “But this is something that they have to get used to. This is what they will do once they graduate and they start their own practice. They will have staff; they will have assistants. We’re hoping this is a nice exchange for us.”

Bassett has worked hard to ensure the program will continue once she graduates. In addition to the Albert Schweitzer Foundation, she sought support from Tufts’ Tisch College Fund for Civic Engagement, which has provided money for the luncheons, guidance for her and a training session for the dental students about how to be reliable mentors. She encouraged students in the Tufts chapter of the American Association of Public Health Dentistry Club to take on the mentoring program as an ongoing project. Several D15 students are now involved, which will help ensure continuity.

This article first appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Tufts Dental Medicine magazine.

Julie Flaherty can be reached at

Back to Top