Friday, August 9, 2013

Progress: My Journey As An LDS Female Dentist

I've come along way in the past 8+ years. And so have LDS women in dentistry (and maybe other careers?). At least in my little corner of the Midwest.

I was thinking about this today after receiving a message from Thalia, another female LDS dental colleague. She mentioned she has had a hard time finding other LDS women in the field. I remember similar searches in my past.

When I was at BYU I became the president of the very exclusive and prestigious club, Women in Dentistry. It was a very exclusive club including about 3 members, including myself. Unfortunately, the exclusivity had less to do with the criteria and much much more to do with lack of interest.

I felt pretty alone. I happened to have another girl in my ward who was also applying for dental school, Ashley Sheffield (who strangely enough just happens to be Abe's cousin...small world), Tara Huntsman, and another girl I unfortunately cannot remember her name. I don't think Ashley was in the club and there was another girl who came to lunch with us once from NY. But that was it. Pretty slim pickings considering I applied with about 200 other BYU students (male).

Part of my lonely experience at BYU had to do with disparaging comments from dates and even a religion teacher who told me I was listening to Satan by going to dental school. I became somewhat defensive and was pretty ready to leave BYU by the time I was done (partly, maybe due to the fact I was also living at home for my last semester due to the high cost of dental school applications, a long distance boyfriend, and limited social life -- working, lacrosse, applications, interviews, married friends, home singles ward all made that hard).

So, I was very pleased when I was contacted by Laura. She was a dental student at the University of Iowa. She was also LDS (and a mom!), looking for other women like her. We started corresponding and after some encouragement I decided to apply to the University of Iowa. She let me stay with her for my interview (including driving all around Eastern Iowa to catch my flights), gave me advice, put in a good word for me, and next thing you know, I was committed to attending the U of I when I had previously never even considered it as an option. I feel very strongly she was led to find me and I still consider her one of the big influential people in my life (dental school choice, husband, residency, etc all happened after coming to Iowa).

It was a great fresh start in Iowa. I didn't get hassled much at all about being a woman but I was certainly "famous." Upon my arrival it seemed everyone knew who I was, "Oh, the Mormon girl dentist." People seemed overall quite supportive minus a few comments here and there. I would admittedly get super annoyed when I would have this almost universal conversation with new acquaintances:

Jane Doe: So, what brings you to Iowa?
Erin: Oh, I'm here for dental school.
Jane Doe: Oh, so are you becoming a dental assistant or a hygienist?
Erin: I'm becoming a dentist.
Jane: Oh, like a hygienist dentist?
Erin: No, like a dentist dentist.

Abe teases me about these conversations and warned me to be patient and not too annoyed with the questions. After we got married I would have similar conversations but with a new twist:

Jane: So, where are you from?
Erin: Utah
Jane: What is your husband doing here?
Erin: He's a medical student. What do you do?
Jane: Oh, we're in law school.
Erin: Wow, that's great! You both are in school together? That's so cool.
Jane: What! No! My husband is in school. (Implied duh.)
Erin: Oh...sorry. So what do you do?
(Notice it usually wouldn't result in asking what I do)

But, that was 8+ years ago. And 6+ years ago. And now I'm wondering when it stopped. Because somewhere along the way it has. I don't remember the last time someone asked me about being a hygienist or an assistant (except for patients who very often confuse me with the nurse or assistant). They usually don't ask me why I am in Iowa and questions about my husband's profession seem more as a clarification for how it fits in with my busy schedule. I'm guessing that people get clued in by others now so they don't have to ask. I remember over hearing one such conversation, "Oh, and this is Erin. She's our Relief Society (LDS women's group) dentist. She's like way smarter than any of us."

So, I guess with some understanding of who and what I am, comes the trade-off of the scary old girl at church. Or the couple who is too busy to want to socialize (we still like to do fun things when we are available...and have enough energy).

And now we come full circle. I was contacted by another female LDS dental student, who happens to be interested in Oral Surgery. And seems to feel a little alone.

And I think about then and now. Then: Erin, the female LDS dental student.
Now: Erin, one of two female dentists, one of two dental residents at church. Now, with two female dental students at church. And at least two other LDS female dental students (maybe more, I can't keep track anymore) that I know.

I'm not sure if this is a trend elsewhere or just at the University of Iowa but it's pretty cool. I'm willing to give up my notoriety to be the old scary girl.

Especially when it means suddenly I'm not alone anymore.

And maybe Thalia, you aren't either.



Mom said...

No matter the religious beliefs, the culture, social mores, or statistics say, I see the Lord's hand in guiding you to where you are today since about 5th grade. I know it, you know it. So no matter what anyone else wants to believe, you are doing what you are meant to do. You rock!

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tara said...

Hey Erin!! Loved this! (And the little shout-out!!). So true but I agree it has gotten much better. It seems like it is becoming the norm for LDS women to seek out higher education or work outside the home that I get a lot of respectful comments now instead of disparaging "so you don't want to be a mother?" attitudes. Laura Chorak (Millroy now) was with us at BYU too and is finishing her Endo residency. I'm practicing in Denver and have a 9-mo old little boy. It's hard but we can definitely balance it all! (Stepping down from soap-box now). So proud of how far you have gone!!! You were (are) an inspiration to a lot of us!

Erin said...

Tara! Thank you so much for your nice comment. So glad you said hi. I've been following you on FB feeling like a creepy stalker, not sure if you remembered me, but so happy to see how you are doing. What a darling baby you have and so glad to hear you are balancing being a mom and a dentist. I would love to hear your tips! And yes, Laura! Thank you for reminding me her name, I was so annoyed I couldn't think of it.

It is so nice to hear others had similar experiences even though it is too bad, I'm glad I wasn't the only one. I always got the "so you don't want to be a mom" question, too.

And Mom, you are the best! Love you. I know you are right...I'm definitely doing what I am supposed to be doing.

Tawnya said...

I have always looked up to you but never thought of you as old. You are awesome and everyone knows it. We are all just so intimidated by your sheer awesomeness! :)

Ally and Matt said...

I just stumbled on your blog! I'm an LDS female OB/GYN and loved reading this story. I can't believe that someone actually told you that satan was whispering to you! I've actually always wondered why there aren't more LDS female Dentist's(great hours and great pay, who doesn't want that?). I understand that might not apply to you completely as an oral surgeon, but still. I added you as a friend on facebook because there's a facebook group of LDS female physicians that I thought you might want to be a part of. Thanks for being such an awesome example!!