Summer 2016

The Joys of Mentorship

Food and friendship forge bonds between students and faculty that extend beyond talk of classrooms and clinics

By Julie Flaherty

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The faculty/student mentorship program has been around for nearly 20 years. Illustration: Michael Austin/theispot

The conversation starts as soon as the six dental students gather outside practice coordinator Karen Wallach’s office and continues as they walk to a nearby Mexican restaurant. They talk about running to 8 a.m. quizzes, sim clin, favorite health clubs, board exams, doing a first assist with a third-year, Disney World, which externships let you be hands on, which restaurant has the best fajitas, which scrubs are the most attractive shade of blue and which professors are the most passionate about their subject. I would tell you more, but what happens at mentorship night stays at mentorship night.

Wallach, D85, is one of 30 faculty members taking part in the dental school’s popular mentorship program this year. The school matches interested students with a willing faculty member and gives them a stipend to get together casually every month or so to talk about whatever is on their minds. Some groups go out to a restaurant; others order pizza and hang in a spare classroom.

“It’s a nice interaction with the students outside of school where you can discuss things freely,” says Wallach, explaining that office hours, while great, are inherently more formal, and chats in the elevator are often rushed.

The students ask her about where to do their externships, when to take their boards (the earlier the better, she says) and what life is like after dental school.

“It’s a nice interaction with the students outside of school where you can discuss things freely.”

“When you have free time, come down to the clinic and assist,” she encourages a student as they are shown to their table. “The more time you have in the clinic the better prepared you’ll be when it’s your turn.”

Lauren Gerkowicz, D18, says that knowing Wallach from the mentorship dinners when she was just starting dental school helped her when she was grappling with whether to specialize. “I wanted some other opinions, but at that point you don’t know a lot of faculty, you don’t know a lot of staff. And so having this, I felt comfortable being able to talk to her and hear about her story. I enjoyed having that outlet.”

The program, started in the early 2000s, is aimed at first-year students, but many of Wallach’s mentees continue coming to the gatherings throughout their time at the dental school. Tonight she is hosting two first-years, three second-years and one third-year student. And that, she says, is one of the benefits of the mentorship dinners: A student in the Atlantic group practice on the second floor might not know someone from the Fairfield group practice on the fourth floor, so they get a chance to trade stories.

Students can request a mentor in a specific postgraduate program, which is why Paul Levi, D66, DG71, A95P, associate clinical professor of periodontology, often gets aspiring periodontists and researchers in his group. His mentor group seems to grow every year; at a recent dinner (deli sandwiches at the Glickman Library), a couple dozen students from various class years showed up. “I tend to hold onto them,” he says. Some of his mentees have gone on to do research with him, help present at the Yankee Dental conference or contribute to his recent textbook, Non-Surgical Control of Periodontal Diseases.

“They learn from each other and I learn from them,” he says. Recently, he and his mentees debated the pros and cons of lecture capture. The students praised the flexibility of being able to watch lectures at home while doing laundry, and Levi made the case for the dynamic exchange that happens with a live audience.

The mentorship program has become something of an institution. When the school scaled back funding for the program last year, many of the mentor groups decided to meet on their own, paying their own way. Funding was reinstated this year, which means that the next time you’re out at a restaurant near campus, you’re likely to hear things like, “Yeah, the worst part is that lower injection,” or “I’m in Exeter, too!”

Contact Julie Flaherty at

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