Professors who are also veterans prepare military scholarship recipients for the life ahead
When Nasreen Saroor, D24, moved to the Boston area in January 2021, it was a big change from the life she’d been living on an Air Force base in Missouri. She wasn’t yet in the military, but her husband was a senior airman.
On the base, Saroor and her husband had been surrounded by military families. They all shared a similar lifestyle and understood its nuances, even as Saroor completed her first semester at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine (TUSDM) remotely. In Massachusetts she was on her own, with her husband back in the Air Force community.
While looking for ways to pay for dental school, Saroor learned about the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP), which pays for students’ tuition in return for several years of military service, similar to the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) for undergraduate students. Medical, dental, and other health science students are eligible, and scholarship benefits include a monthly stipend and book reimbursements. The Army, Navy, and Air Force participate in the program. “It gives health professionals the chance to serve their country,” says HPSP scholarship recipient Olivia Marino, D24.
Once accepted into the selective program, Saroor learned about the HPSP club at TUSDM. “The HPSP club was a way that I could connect to that military life without actually living with my husband as a military spouse,” says Saroor, who is now an Army second lieutenant and club co-president with Marino, who is an Air Force second lieutenant. “It was nice to have someone understand the parts of military life and dentistry that can make it a very hard lifestyle.”
Assistant professor Igor Lozada’s experience was similar. When he began teaching at TUSDM in May 2022, Lozada, who is a commander in the Navy, sought out fellow military members. He met Eduardo Olegario, D95, an Army lieutenant colonel who has advised the HPSP club since 2020. Before long, Lozada became co-adviser. According to the club’s military structure, Olegario serves as commander, Lozada as executive officer.
Being in the military “is a very unique path both in dentistry and life in general,” says Marino, who says her aim is to help people while giving back to the country. “I will get experience that I wouldn’t initially get in private practice with all of the technology, the education, and the leadership opportunities the Air Force provides.”
Professor Emeritus Charles Rankin, D79, DG86, an Air Force veteran, started what would become TUSDM’s HPSP club in 2002. Olegario took over when Rankin retired. This year, 30-plus students are on the club’s e-list and eight serve on its board. They represent the Army, Navy, and Air Force. While a few are veterans or National Guard members, the majority are dental students who will serve for the first time after graduation. “I love helping the students progress. After they graduate, they have to go into active duty,” says Olegario, an assistant professor of comprehensive care at TUSDM. “So I feel like my job is to get them prepared for that military life.”
It’s a life familiar to Olegario, who joined the Army Reserves in 2001, six years after completing dental school. After the September 11 attacks that year, he was deployed to Iraq for four months. In 2010, he went to Kosovo for three months, and his most recent mission was to Kuai, Hawaii. In addition, he serves as deputy commander of clinical services of the 455th Dental Company for Fort Devens (Massachusetts) U.S. Army Reserves.
In Iraq, he learned first-hand the importance of dental officers’ work. To stay awake on patrol, soldiers “chug down sodas and energy drinks; they chew on candy,” Olegario says. “By the time they’re on missions and they’ve been there for a year, their teeth get blown out from all the sugar and energy drinks.” Olegario and other dental officers were constantly busy trying to save teeth or extracting them, ensuring that dental problems didn’t hamper the mission.
Beyond that, many military lessons have seeped into Olegario’s work as a dentist. The Army has taught him to be more patient, to delegate, and to do things “by the book,” he says, even at a civilian clinic. “In the Army, everything is very organized, and as an officer, you learn to be a leader,” Olegario says. “So those aspects play into my civilian world.” He also lives out military values; wherever he goes, he says, he represents the Army.
At TUSDM’s HPSP club, Lozada and Olegario “give us insight into what our career will be like and help us prepare for that,” Marino says. Saroor agrees. “They are friendly, they’re great leaders,” she says. “I think it’s important for us to see we are dentists, but we are military first; having those role models on the clinic floor shows us how they interact with other patients, sailors, soldiers, whatever the case may be.”
The club also serves as a resource for the extensive paperwork required of HPSP scholarship recipients, and HPSP alumni return to speak to current students. Each spring, Lozada and Olegario also prepare the group for the pomp of the military initiation for graduating HPSP dental students.
It’s not all pomp, though. The club typically sponsors a team in the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) 5K for Veterans’ Day to raise money for the organization. Moreover, “we go into the Boston community and screen veterans to be patients at Tufts,” Marino says. “We do social events, hang out, I think this year we’re interested in starting some physical training together.”
Looking ahead, Saroor hopes the club can grow. “We want to include the full military community at school. We invite a lot of the faculty members who are former military—there’s a large military community at Tufts,” she says. With more people, the club can “do more good in our community at large, and with veterans specifically.”
As she contemplates her next steps and a couples’ military career, the most important thing Saroor has gleaned from Olegario and Lozada is about family life and balancing "being dental high-level officers, faculty at Tufts, and doing things with their families on the weekend. I’ve talked to them about family life and what to expect,” she says. “They’ve taught me what kind of leader I want to be.”