By age 26, Brandon Powell was living the life he’d always envisioned for himself.
For four years, the 6-foot-3 point guard had been jetting around Europe, climbing the ranks of professional basketball teams in Germany and Austria. He got to travel to exciting places, play in front of adoring fans, and earn a decent living via a sport he’d loved since age 5. But one day on the court he began to feel a twinge of dissatisfaction. “I realized there is something more to me than just putting a ball in the hoop,” recalls Powell. “I wanted to give something back to my community.”
Five years later, at age 31, Powell is immersed in his second year at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine, an institution he chose from an illustrious pool of offers for two main reasons: Its location, at a state-of-the art new medical campus rich with opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration; and its array of new initiatives aimed at boosting student diversity.
“I interviewed at some of the top dental schools in the country and would say the resources we have here are bar-none the best. No one can compete with this.”
Long path to dental school
Powell’s long path to dental school was neither easy nor conventional. With a father in the Air Force, he moved from Ohio to Alabama to Japan to Colorado as a kid, shooting hoops everywhere he went in hopes of someday getting a basketball scholarship. He did, at Loyola University in New Orleans. But he didn’t stop there. “I’m one of the few who can say he went to five colleges in five years,” jokes Powell. His college basketball career led him to schools in Louisiana, Kentucky, Colorado, and finally Missouri Baptist University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
After a stint playing exhibition ball in Las Vegas, he was off to Europe. Just hours after he stepped off the train in Graz, Austria, his prospective coach pitted him against another American player for a game of one-on-one. The winner got the job. He won. “People always glamorize professional sports but in reality they can be extremely cutthroat,” he recalls.
After four years, Powell had had enough. He returned to the states and – at the urging of a childhood friend who was a dentist – set his sights on dental school. But he had serious doubts. “I started to wonder ‘Am I too old? Have I wasted all this time playing basketball? Can I actually succeed in this?’” he recalls. “But I soon realized that my obsession with being the hardest-working, most-dedicated athlete could transfer straight into being a competitive student.”
A unique opportunity at CU
Powell spent two years completing science prerequisites at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, and commuted to the CU Anschutz Medical Campus on Saturdays and every day during summer to participate in the Undergraduate Pre-Health Program. (The 13-month program aims to increase the number of underrepresented individuals in healthcare, by exposing undergraduate college students to courses, mentors, and internships on the campus.) When it was time to apply to dental school, Powell applied to Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Connecticut, and CU. With stellar grades and an impressive extracurricular portfolio he got into all four. But at CU he saw a unique opportunity.
“I felt like CU was moving in an exciting new direction in terms of diversity, and I really wanted to be a part of that movement.”
‘A role model for others’
In 2015, the School of Dental Medicine hired Kenneth Durgans, Ed.D., as its first-ever dedicated Associate Dean for Diversity and Inclusion. The school has also increased financial aid offerings for people with diverse backgrounds, ramped up outreach and recruitment from historically underrepresented regions, and boosted multicultural education of faculty members. In fall of 2016, 31 percent of incoming students were from diverse backgrounds and the school has doubled the number of diverse students coming in for interviews.
“The research is clear: It is imperative to the healthcare of the entire community that we have providers from diverse backgrounds,” says Durgans, noting that patients often feel more comfortable going to dentists who look like them, and young people interested in dentistry as a career can benefit from having mentors who share a cultural background. “Brandon is the kind of student we like to brag about. Once he gets out there and starts serving the community, he will be an important role model for others.”
Powell says he’s not sure quite when that day will come. He could be a practicing dentist after four years of school. But he’s strongly considering staying on to specialize in maxillofacial surgery, which would enable him to help patients who have been disfigured by trauma or cancer. His advice to others considering a career in dentistry? Use the strength you’ve gained from whatever you’ve been doing and use it to hunker down and work hard.
“It’s a serious commitment, but if you go after it relentlessly and stick with it, you have a great shot at success.”
Guest contributor: Lisa Marshall