Mathias Dunwoody’s heart was set on becoming a dentist. The son of a pastor and grandson of a barber, the Detroit native insists service to others was a natural choice that followed the path taken by the men in his family.

Once he learned about the Summer Medical and Dental Education Program (SMDEP), a free six-week program that nurtures the next generation of doctors and dentists, Mathias, 22, said his aspirations were transformed into a solidified plan.

The program seeks students completing their freshman or sophomore year. The participants are assigned a mentor and treated to intensive science and math classes, and exposure to laboratory, rigorous study, financial planning workshops and career counseling.

Mathias, mindful of grim statistics in his community, says the SMDEP opportunity comes with a debt that he has to pay. “I’ve seen the huge gaps and disparities in Detroit and this is my opportunity to improve the health of my community,” offered Mathias who was accepted to SMDEP program at Howard University in 2006.

The death of Deamonte Driver of Maryland illustrates the unmet needs Mathias hopes to meet. It began as an untreated toothache that led to an abscess, then an infection that traveled to the brain and killed the 12-year-old boy. Deamonte’s mother could not afford dental insurance or pay out-of-pocket for the $80 tooth extraction.

Since the boy’s death in 2007, a team of outraged Black dentists formed the Deamonte Driver Project, providing mobile dental services to low-income neighborhoods. Mathias Dunwoody vows that people like himself can close the huge health care gap.

His experience at SMDEP, which provides an entryway to many minority students, opened the door to an internship in Washington, D.C. with the National Dental Association and acceptance at Howard University College of Dentistry this fall.

The first of his siblings to attend college, Mathias plans to return to Detroit when he graduates in 2014. He said he’ll open a holistic center that complements dental health with external and internal well-being.

“You can help to combat some of the ‘negatives’ by being a positive influence in your community,” he said. “I try to be an example by making good choices and sticking to it. That’s how you can make it.”

SMDEP is funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the nation’s largest philanthropy dedicated to health and health care. The program is operated on 12 university sites across the country with 80 students at each location.

For more information about SMDEP visit