When Wallace State dental hygiene student Jenny Barber looked inside the mouths of the children she and three of her fellow students served on a mission trip to Kenya this past September, she saw things you don’t see in American textbooks.
“The state of children’s oral health — it was just so poor,” said Barber, a Huntsville resident who’s finishing her second year in the dental hygiene program at Wallace State.
“Over here, kids brush their teeth as soon as their parents hand them a toothbrush; as soon as they know how. But over there, most of them have never even seen a toothbrush before. It was a totally different experience. It was intense to see some of the things we saw there.”
Barber is emotional as she says this. Like the three other students who made the trip — Casie Hall of Remlap, Elizabeth Vinson of Bremen and Drakken James of Cullman — Barber returns to the stark contrast between rural Kenya and anywhere, America as she talks about her week-long dental hygiene mission at Kenya Relief’s Migori campus.
The trip is the first of its kind, and reflects a partnership between Wallace State Community College and the Cullman-based outreach organization. Part of a new global health outreach and service learning initiative at the school, the project is just one of the ways Wallace State is equipping students with the skills and experience to transcend cultural barriers in their work.
The college also conducts an international short-term educational trip each year, along with on-campus activities and programs related to diversity and cultural enrichment for students and the community.
The four students were selected for the trip based on their academic achievement, as well as their ability to express in an essay what the endeavor would mean for them.
Traveling with the group were Wallace State instructor and dentist Dr. Teresa Ray, as well as dental hygiene instructor Kathy Coy.
Ray said the experience proved to offer far more than any of the students — or the instructors — could have anticipated.
“These students are very compassionate, and I think you can see that in the stories they’re telling,” she said. “They want to go out and help people, and this is just the perfect marriage, I think, of both the need — and the desire — to help. We all saw things that we have never seen before. At the clinic in Kenya, we were working with people who’d never had their teeth cleaned.”
“In a normal dental office here, you might see eight or nine patients a day,” added Coy. “But for the time these students were in Kenya, it was nonstop: from 8:30 in the morning until 6 or 6:30 at night, with only a short break for lunch. They’d spend 20 minutes with a patient, and as soon as that patient got up and walked away, another one came in.
“And this was not in an environment that is set up for dental hygiene. We didn’t have the equipment there to do a thorough teeth cleaning. We just did the best that we could. We just wanted to make sure that they got that basic cleaning, and still, the differences before and after were so dramatic.”
James said the trip forced her group to improvise solutions with the limited tools at hand, and to think quickly and independently in a real-world environment very different from the academic setting where they’d received their training.
“We did the best we can with trying to help, but it’s not the same as working in a dental office here,” she said. “I really loved being able to learn that way. Ms. Coy was really able to help us out; to begin to look at things differently from a global aspect, and to realize how much we take for granted in the U.S. versus so many other places in the world.”
The experience was just as enlightening for the instructors.
“In 40 years of dentistry, this was the most gratifying experience of my career,” said Coy.
For information about international service learning opportunities through Wallace State, visit wallacestate.edu/abroad or call 256-352-8118.