SANTA FE — Future New Mexico dental students will have something to smile about thanks to a partnership between the New Mexico Higher Education Department (NMHED) and Texas Tech University’s Hunt School of Dental Medicine in El Paso.
In an agreement between NMHED and Hunt School of Dental Medicine announced Tuesday in Las Cruces, the agency will cover the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition for two New Mexico students who otherwise would be required to pay the higher out-of-state tuition to attend the Texas school. The funds, provided by the New Mexico Legislature, will cover up to $20,000 in tuition per student. The program has an opportunity to grow to support more students in the future.
“New Mexico faces a critical shortage of dentists in our communities with only one dentist per 3,300 citizens, a number three times higher than the national average. The state is committed to opening access for New Mexicans to affordably pursue an education leading to this vital profession,” New Mexico Higher Education Department Secretary Stephanie Rodriguez said. “Students from New Mexico now have a doctoral-level training option close to home, and we can increase the number of qualified medical professional working in our state in the high-need field.”
“Since we share the region with our fine neighbors to the north, the Hunt School of Dental Medicine is happy to partner with the New Mexico Higher Education Department to provide opportunities for a dental education for New Mexico students,” said Richard Black, D.D.S., M.S., Founding Dean of the Hunt School of Dental Medicine. “Much like West Texas, the needs in many parts of New Mexico are great, and we believe this effort will help improve the dental health in communities where it is needed.”
Because no New Mexico college or university offers medical degrees in dentistry, New Mexicans following this career path must seek options in surrounding states. While several tuition-reciprocity options are available for undergraduate students attending out-of-state schools, these options are limited for students pursuing graduate and doctoral degrees.
Outside of the Hunt School of Dental Medicine, the nearest doctoral-level dental schools to New Mexico are A.T. Still University in Mesa, Ariz., and the University of Colorado in Aurora, Colo.
As of 2019, there were nearly 52 dentists per 100,000 residents in New Mexico, ranking the state 37th of 50 states and Washington, D.C., in dentists per capita, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information. According to the New Mexico Department of Health, both urban and rural communities struggle to recruit and retain an adequately supply of dental providers, and three New Mexico counties do not have a dentist.
Doña Ana County shares a border with El Paso County and is designated as a federal Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) for dentists. Thirty-two of New Mexico’s 33 counties are designated dental HPSAs. Students who live in Doña Ana County already qualify for in-state tuition, but New Mexico students from non-contiguous counties can benefit from the waiver.
New Mexico State University student Felisha Vallabh, president of the university’s Pre-Dental Society, is excited about this new opportunity that will provide better access to dental education and transform oral health in New Mexico. During today’s announcement, she shared her story of why she wants to become a dentist.
“As a child, I accompanied my parents to their dental appointments in Juárez, Mexico,” Vallabh said. “I never understood why we spent an entire day traveling across the border for a simple 30-minute appointment. It was not until I was older that I realized my parents received dental care in another country so they could afford my dental care in the United States.”
Valladbh made it clear that she wants to stay near the community that gave her every opportunity to pursue her dreams, and that will be possible though HSDM.
“More students in New Mexico will be encouraged to seek a career in dentistry knowing they won’t have to move hundreds of miles away from home to do so,” Valladbh said. “I love how the Hunt School of Dental Medicine wants to shape students into excellent clinicians to serve their communities. They introduce students into the clinic early and emphasize the importance of speaking Spanish in the clinical setting.”
In the future, Valladbh wants to return to New Mexico and practice in Las Cruces at a public health clinic with a goal to foster the growth of more educational programs for preventative dentistry in her community, especially for children.
The Hunt School of Dental Medicine opened in the summer of 2021 with its first cohort of 40 students. It offers a unique education for students through culturally competent, hands-on training and an introduction to early clinical experiences among a diverse population. As part of curriculum requirements, dental students learn medical terminology in Spanish, allowing them to bridge language and cultural to deliver the highest quality of oral health care.
A first for any dental school in the nation, Hunt School of Dental Medicine students begin clinical training and patient interaction during their first semester. It’s also the first and only dental school in the nation that requires Spanish-language courses. Sixty percent of the school’s students consider themselves bilingual or multilingual, helping to reduce language barriers during patient care.
The Hunt School of Dental Medicine is the first dental school on the U.S.-Mexico border, and the only one in West Texas. It is one of few Hispanic-serving dental schools in the nation, with 32.5 percent of its inaugural class identifying as Hispanic.