Stephanie Bernard'19: Time in Jamaica Launched Her Dream to Become a Dentist

When Stephanie Bernard left her South Florida home as a teenager to live in Jamaica for three years, she was not expecting to return enthusiastic about dentistry. But that’s exactly what happened.

Ms. Bernard was entering eighth grade when her parents offered her and her two younger siblings the opportunity for a different life experience. They could move in with their grandparents in Black River St. Elizabeth, a rural village in Jamaica.

Life in Jamaica was definitely different. “When you go there from a town like Coral Springs, where everyone is privileged, you start to notice the differences in the clothes that people are wearing, missing front teeth, things like that,” she says. “You start to notice it even as a young child.”

One of the most noticeable differences was the lack of access people had to health care. “And dentistry tends to be last on the list prioritywise,” she adds.

Her grandparents were very involved in their local church and it was there that she met a dentist who provided oral care for their community. In her conversations with him, Ms. Bernard realized just how much opportunity dentistry offered to help the underserved.

“If you don’t have a nice smile, that’s the first thing that someone will notice about you,” she says. “You go for a job interview, school, whatever it is, it’s the first thing that people will see. And if you don’t have a great smile it can hinder you so much.”

When she returned to the United States, Ms. Bernard finished high school and enrolled in Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, where she was one of just a few pre-dental students. “I had a great mentor, a local dentist, and he told me to just shoot for the stars. Columbia’s possible. Just apply and see what happens,” she says.

Ms. Bernard was accepted to seven dental schools. “I’d call my mom after every interview,” she says. “After my Columbia interview, she said, ‘Hold on! Go back! I can’t even understand what you’re saying!’ And that’s when I knew that this is where I wanted to be.”

Now in her second year at the College of Dental Medicine, Ms. Bernard is already heavily involved with community service. She volunteers in the free clinic in Harlem twice a month, tutors local middle school students, and visits schools to give oral health information to elementary students.

Eventually, she plans to give back to her Jamaican community. “They have people who come and give back and the community is so grateful and so receptive,” she says. “There is so much opportunity to help with dentistry.”