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Dental Student's Global Journey Culminates at UMSOD

Written by Adam Zewe

"Sometimes you plan your journey, but life has its own way," says Derejew Tessema, DDS '16. Tessema traveled through 10 countries over the past two decades before finding his calling at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry.

One of 12 children, Tessema was born to subsistence farmers in a small town in southern Ethiopia. Only 2,000 people lived in the rural village, so opportunities were scarce. Tessema considers himself fortunate that his parents could afford to send him to the closest high school, nearly 60 miles from his home.

As a teenager living on his own, Tessema quickly learned the value of a dollar and the importance of an education. He contemplated attending medical school, but decided to earn an engineering degree and return to his hometown as an architect. "Being able to serve the people I grew up with was a great moment in my career," he remarks.

A few years later, political disagreements forced Tessema to resign and move to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, where he started his own company. Ethiopia was fighting a lingering war with neighboring Eritrea, and a severe recession took hold in the capital. Unable to make ends meet, Tessema again found himself on the move. He relocated to South Africa, where he joined a prestigious construction company and achieved success designing ultra-luxury houses. "Throughout those years, I started to feel a gap in my life. Who am I helping? Our customers are from the rich class," states Tessema.

Seeking an answer to the emptiness he felt, Tessema immigrated to the United States in 2006. He joined an architecture firm near Washington, D.C., but quickly realized that his calling lay outside the t-squares and blue prints he had become accustomed to. Tessema quit his job so he could go back to school full-time.

A career in dentistry appealed to him because of his deep desire to help suffering patients. Grateful for a new opportunity, Tessema volunteered as a dental assistant to be sure the field was for him. During his first week, he watched a compassionate dentist help a woman who suffered from severely bleeding gums. "I was in great wonder that he was able to change one life so much in just one week. I was so happy to see that change," Tessema says.

After being accepted to four different dental schools, he chose UMSOD because of the cutting-edge technology and dedicated faculty. The 40-year-old finally feels a true passion for his chosen career. Looking back, it was a long and challenging journey, but Tessema feels that he ended up in the right place. Facing four years of dental school and a brand new career, he is trying to live out his own advice: "Look beyond the horizon. There is a lot that we can do."

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