A senior trip to Guatemala was an eye-opening journey for Adrienne Perry who learned that oral health care does not exist for many adults and children. Dentistry, a foreign concept in many rural areas of the Central American country, would become a quest for the young traveler from Conyers, Ga.

That discovery also reverberated closer to home for Perry, now a dental student at Howard University in Washington, D.C. She is aware that many underserved communities throughout the United States also have scarce access to oral health.

Perry’s understanding of the problem led her to a solution during her sophomore year at Case Western Reserve University. Participation in the Summer Medical Dental and Education Program (SMDEP), a six-week enrichment and training program, placed her on a path to address what the Institute of Medicine calls an “oral health crisis.”

The IOM report, Advancing Oral Health in America, called for a comprehensive government commitment to assuring greater access to underserved communities. African Americans, Latinos and American Indians are disproportionately impacted, with nearly twice as much untreated tooth decay as whites. Research has shown that poor oral health has been linked to diabetes and heart disease—the leading cause of death.

Insufficient financial resources coupled by an uncertainty on how to prepare for a career are two major barriers for prospective students. That’s where SMDEP, a national program for students interested in medicine and dentistry and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, steps into the picture.

Before her SMDEP experience, Perry admits she was apprehensive about tough upper level math and science courses. Shadowing of mentors in dental and medical clinics — coupled with intensive courses in organic chemistry, physics and statistical fundamentals — solidified her confidence in dentistry as a career choice.

“The exposure personally and professionally prepared me for success at Howard,” says Perry. “The opportunity to shadow someone was also critical in solidifying my career decision.”

Perry adds that SMDEP’s principle of forging diverse cohorts from a wide array of geographic, ethnic and racial backgrounds inspired greater confidence.

“We believe that SMDEP has had some influence to the increased number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering dental school, which is exciting,” says W. David Brunson, DDS, senior director for Access, Diversity, and Inclusion Portfolio of the American Dental Education Association (ADEA) Policy Center. Brunson notes that the program, which has operated since 1989, provides a wide range of experiences and information that prepares undergraduates for careers in dentistry and medicine.

Perry, 23, will graduate from Howard in May 2014. She plans to enter private practice near her home town and volunteer with Health Volunteers Overseas to provide dentistry to underserved communities. Noting that many patients tend to trust treatment provided by clinicians who “look like them,” Perry is part of the small ranks of African-American dental students. Only 12 percent of the nation’s dentists are from minority populations suffering the greatest disparities in oral health.

The program will begin accepting applications for its 2013 class on November 1.

SMDEP accepts applications through its web site www.smdep.org. Learn about the SMDEP impact by watching these videos.