At Tufts Dental, An Anti-racist Vision

Being one of the most diverse dental schools in the country is just the start. There’s still work ahead, says assistant dean

Jeanette Sabir-Holloway was 22 years old before she went to school with anyone who wasn’t African American like herself. After a childhood of segregated schools, and an undergraduate degree from historically Black Spelman College, she became one of a handful of African American students at Indiana University’s dental school some 40 years ago.

The isolation she felt then prompted her career-long commitment to mentoring students of color and creating diversity in dental education. She founded the organization Increasing Diversity in Dentistry (IDID) in 2010. In 2016, she arrived at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine (TUSDM) as director of admissions and outreach. Recently, she was appointed assistant dean for inclusion and diversity at TUSDM.

The landscape at TUSDM today is considerably different than the one that greeted Sabir-Holloway in Indiana four decades ago. Tufts is among the most diverse dental schools in the country, with a first-year class that’s 19 percent Black/African American; 13 percent Latinx; 32 percent Asian or Asian-American; and 36 percent white. “Our diversity spans across ethnicity, race, religion, and all across the board,” Sabir-Holloway said. 

Yet, there is hard work ahead if both the university and the dental school are to become anti-racist institutions and respond to the calls for greater racial justice that are echoing throughout society, Sabir-Holloway says. And it’s work the whole community must embrace. “We can only begin to heal by listening and learning from each other,” she says.

Tufts Now: How did IDID, the national pipeline program for underrepresented students in dentistry, develop?

Sabir-Holloway: I was selected to serve on the Indiana University dental admissions committee. People would say there were not enough qualified Black applicants, but they were not putting the pieces together. I saw where the applications of many applicants could be improved, if they had had some assistance navigating the process—what they needed to study, how to practice for the Dental Admissions Test, ways to improve their application along the way. Many first-generation college students don’t quite navigate the path to professional school correctly.

I developed an idea for a network of mentors. I went to several historically Black colleges to start a program to assist their students in becoming better prepared for dental school. The National Dental Association Foundation started funding me. From that, IDID is now a network all over the country. We started with 13 students; there are now 500 or so graduates and students in the network.

You have said that Tufts is likely the most diverse dental school in the country, with a higher percentage of Black and Latinx students than any other, with the exception of dental schools affiliated with minority-serving institutions. What makes Tufts a leader in this area?

If you go back to the ’90s, [Dean Emeritus] Lonnie Norris and [Executive Associate Dean] Mark Gonthier, then associate dean for admissions, made diversity a priority, and started building a pipeline. Under the leadership of [former] Dean Huw Thomas, Associate Dean for Admissions Robert Kasberg and I started relationship-building with applicants. You have no idea what it means to students to receive a phone call or email from us. Our priority has been to make sure our classes are representative of what America looks like. There is outreach from the Student National Dental Association [established to advocate for minority students in dentistry] and alumni cohorts. During the admissions process, we always connect applicants to other students who could possibly influence them to choose Tufts.

We have two very strong programs that are pipelines into our classes and have very low attrition rates. In 2016, TUSDM created the conditional deferred acceptance program, which is for students whom we feel are not ready for the upcoming class, but who deserve a chance for the following year, if they meet certain conditions. For example, if they don’t have strong enough academics, we tell them to do a master’s program in biomedical science. Those students do very well when they come to Tufts. There is also the residential non-degree program, where students can take didactic courses on a non-credit basis alongside our first-year students.

We received an initial grant from the Dental Pipeline National Learning Institute of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to create a symposium—which we have continued every year—for underrepresented college students interested in dentistry, which brings students to the Boston campus in May. It’s a very successful program and one that makes Tufts stand out to applicants. [This year’s symposium is on hold due to COVID-19.]

In your new position, what do you see ahead for TUSDM?

A standalone course for dental students exploring the health care system in the U.S. and racism as a social determinant of health will launch in September. I will be working with faculty, staff, and the TUSDM associate dean for faculty development to create programming to assist faculty members.

Since President Anthony Monaco has made it a priority for the university to be viewed as anti-racist, the dental school has committed to doing our part by creating action items that will make a difference in our community. We will be building a wall of photos to display the diversity in our history and of our community because we believe in celebrating the many forms of diversity here. We also have created a diversity task force within the dental school. We have recently received many anti-racist training opportunities and resources from the office of the provost to help guide our journey.

At the university’s Day of Reflection, Commitment, and Action for Racial Justice, held on the national observance of Juneteenth, members of our community tuned in to TUSDM’s “Hear Our Voices” presentation and heard our students, staff, and faculty share their experiences. It was almost shocking to some people to hear what they heard—it was very uncomfortable, to have to recognize that this systemic racism does exist and see how our students were feeling during this time. It was a very powerful moment for our community. But that’s just the beginning.

Helene Ragovin can be reached at

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