Two Tufts Dental Students Lead the Way for Their Peers Across the Nation

As the presidents of dental-student associations, Shafa Nathani and Brandon Wallace learned about advocacy, balancing commitments, and making a difference


Thinking back over her tenure as president of the American Student Dental Association, Shafa Nathani wishes she’d known one thing before beginning her term in 2023. “I wish I would have known that it’s okay to ask for help,” says Nathani, a fourth-year student at Tufts University School of Dental Medicine (TUSDM). “I’m the eldest daughter in an immigrant family, and I’ve taken that role so seriously that I’m a very ‘do it all yourself’ kind of person.”

This year, as she frequently boarded airplanes en route to represent ASDA at dentistry events and traveled to Washington, D.C., to advocate for dental students’ and patients’ rights, Nathani learned that friends and faculty would support her. They did her laundry, took her to lunch, and wanted to hear about her trips when she got back. “I have the best friends in the world,” Nathani says, noting that they’re at TUSDM. She met almost all of them through ASDA.

One of the few friends she didn’t meet through ASDA is fellow dental student Brandon Wallace, D24, whose term as president of the Student National Dental Association (SNDA) ends in July. It’s believed this is the first time that two TUSDM students have presided over the national organizations simultaneously.

Compelling Communities

ASDA and SNDA both have chapters at dental schools throughout the United States, and while their purposes intersect, the mission of each is distinct. ASDA, the country’s largest organization of dental students, works to broadly support dental students’ rights and well-being. SNDA was organized in 1970 to “promote, aid, and support the academic and social environment of minority students,” according to its website. 

That mission compelled Wallace to lead SNDA. He wanted to serve fellow students of color and to meet minority students beyond Tufts, and to understand the scope of their community within dentistry. Leading SNDA showed him “there’s other people out there like you, because you don’t really see that, especially where I come from,” Wallace says. 

The prospect of community also drew Nathani to ASDA. When she moved to Boston from Florida in July 2020, Nathani didn’t know anyone in the area. When she got an email from ASDA encouraging students to join its committees, she applied. “I was really intrigued. I loved being involved with different clubs in high school and college and loved being part of a common goal,” Nathani says. Before long, she was part of the wellness committee at the Tufts chapter. Her leadership grew as she took on more responsibility each year, culminating in her term as president.

Supporting Each Other

Along the way, Nathani discovered her passion for advocacy in dentistry. “I love being a clinician, I love being a dentist, but I also thoroughly love being a part of organized dentistry and being in the rooms where decisions are being made and where change happens,” she says. She has already advocated for issues such as student debt, dental insurance, the rights of medically complex dental patients, and interest rate accrual for post-graduate dental residents. Nathani plans to stay involved with advocacy after graduating in May. 

Beyond the crunch of balancing a national leadership role with her academic and clinical responsibilities, Nathani’s biggest challenge was leading peers. “It put me in an interesting position where I had to set very clear guidelines and expectations and I had to enforce them,” she says. Wallace agrees, noting that as the president of SNDA, he felt the discomfort of holding peers accountable at the executive level. He learned to “carry the weight” of holding people accountable, he says.  “Of course, nobody likes to do that as a leader, but you have to.” 

Wallace and Nathani note that the peers they led were incredibly competent people, making the leap to organization president that much more daunting. “I didn’t realize that I would be in a room full of leaders,” Wallace says. 

And as they navigated the nuances of guiding their respective organizations, Nathani and Wallace, who are good friends, relied on each other. “We talked about being full-time students, and also doing the work of national presidents,” Nathani says. 

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that their lessons from the year overlap. Being ASDA president underscored for Nathani that dentistry, both in practice and in advocacy, is all about people. It also taught her the importance of navigating tough conversations with “the ability to give people the benefit of the doubt and to understand the other person’s perspective,” she says. “We were in a lot of big meetings where people came together and had different opinions, and I learned how to ensure that we found our common goal and dental students benefited.” 

‘Quick to Listen’

Wallace agrees that good leaders honor different perspectives; he also came to understand that good leaders are “quick to listen and slow to speak,” he says. “It's really just managing people. Be a people person, be able to read a room.”

As they prepare to graduate from TUSDM bolstered by dental association leadership, Nathani has one piece of advice for upcoming dental students. When opportunities come up “say yes and speak up” she says. It’s the approach that made her dental school experience as fulfilling as it was.

For his part, students in classes behind his often ask Wallace how he successfully shifted from life in his home state of North Carolina—so different from greater Boston—to life at Tufts and to leading SNDA. He reminds them that they’ve already navigated major transitions: from middle school to high school, and then to college. “It’s doable. Just learn to adapt and work on yourself to get better,” he tells them. “Until you’re actually in the realm of a new thing, you just think it’s impossible.”

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