A commitment to hard work and a remarkable ability to connect with patients are among the extraordinary qualities shared by the 2023 recipients of the University of Maryland School of Dentistry (UMSOD) Dean’s Scholarship for Leadership & Excellence: Stephanie Colon, DDS Class of 2024, and Wongelawit Tadesse, DDS Class of 2023.
Now in its third year, the scholarship honors and supports two students annually who succeed in the classroom and in the clinic, who demonstrate promise as leaders throughout the school and community, and who aspire to continue in public service.
“We are deeply committed to offering the support our remarkable students need so that they can maintain their focus on academic excellence and professional development,” said Mark A. Reynolds, DDS ’86, PhD, UMSOD dean and professor. “Each year, I am more and more impressed by the achievements and contributions of the students considered for this honor. This year is no different: I am very pleased to have this opportunity to support and celebrate our 2023 recipients.”
And now, please meet this year’s recipients of the UMSOD Dean’s Scholarship for Leadership & Excellence:
Stephanie Colon, Class of 2024
It can be said that Stephanie Colon has particularly deep empathy for her patients.
Throughout her adolescence and early adulthood, the third-year dental student suffered from flareups of searing back pain that typically abated after a week or so. But in September 2022, the pain reoccurred and didn’t go away.
Throughout her second year of dental training, Colon endured myriad doctor’s visits, tests, and procedures as medical experts searched for a diagnosis. She struggled to ignore the pain while maintaining a 4.0 grade-point average. Ultimately, she was told that she needed spinal fusion surgery.
Colon was an avid soccer player and gymnast as a child, and doctors now told her she was suffering from a long-ago fractured vertebra — a common injury for gymnasts. That fracture, and a congenitally missing bone, also misdiagnosed, necessitated the spinal fusion surgery. (Because of the pain, she gave up gymnastics as a youth but continued playing club soccer through her undergraduate years at the University of Maryland, College Park.)
Despite the severity of her back injury, Colon said, “I was not ready to give up my passion: I truly learned how much I was willing to sacrifice to realize my goal of helping others through my profession as a dentist.”
She turned to her family for advice. Originally from Puerto Rico, her father and mother — a radio broadcast engineer and an accountant, respectively — moved to Anne Arundel County from Italy, where her father was serving in the U.S. Army and where Colon was born.
“We agonized for months,” Colon said. Together, they considered her options: Give up dentistry, decline the surgery and work through the pain, or take a year off from school and hope the pain subsides.
“After my first day assisting in the pre-doc clinic as a D2 student, I realized there was no way I could continue in the dental field without at least trying the surgery,” Colon said. “I called my mom on the way home from school and told her that living with the pain was no longer an option.”
Colon’s surgery, which occurred June 21, 2022, meant that she missed the entire summer clinic session. Instead, she spent six weeks recuperating and undergoing physical therapy aimed at strengthening her core so that she wouldn’t reinjure her back while standing for long hours or leaning to reach for an instrument.
“There were good days and bad days,” she said. “I was really worried about keeping up.”
In March, she was told that Mark A. Reynolds, DDS ’86, PhD, UMSOD dean and professor, wanted to meet with her. Imagine her surprise when she entered his conference room, and the dean, surrounded by faculty and staff members, announced that she was a recipient of the $25,000 Dean’s Scholarship for Leadership & Excellence.
“I was at a loss for words,” Colon said. “It was definitely a good surprise, but the best part was telling my family. The surgery was a sacrifice for them, too. To show them it was not for nothing really means a lot.”
These days, Colon is maintaining her 4.0 GPA, serves as social media coordinator for the Hispanic Dental Association, and chairs the Class of 2024’s social committee, the student body’s community service committee, and the American Student Dental Association’s lunch and learn committee.
After graduation, she plans to complete a residency and to continue advocating for greater access to oral health care.
“The challenges I faced allow me to form more personal connections with my patients, mostly because I am grateful that I was able to see patients just six weeks after surgery,” Colon said. “I am so grateful for this recognition and honor.”
Wongelawit Tadesse, Class of 2023
Two early experiences have had a lasting impact on Wongelawit Tadesse, a fourth-year dental student, and her approach to dentistry.
One was her first visit to a dentist’s office at age 7. “I remember I had a lot of cavities and pain, and when I came out, it was all fine,” she said. “I thought it was magic.”
The other was having lived in Ethiopia for eight years as well as a year in both Uganda and South Africa before her family emigrated to the United States. “I have always had an understanding that people come from varying backgrounds that shape their unique identities,” Tadesse said, adding that the experience has helped her connect and build relationships with a range of patients and led her to be adamant about the need for improving global oral health.
Additionally, she recalls how hard her parents worked to build a new life for their family. “The opportunity to be in this country and have this career is huge,” Tadesse said. “I was happy in Ethiopia, but I remember how eager they were to come here. Then I saw all the possibilities that were before me.”
As a teenager growing up in Alexandria, Va., she attended West Potomac High School and opted to enter a program that allowed her to qualify as a dental assistant. In 2013, after graduating from high school, she attended the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., where she majored in health sciences. She subsequently held positions first as a dental assistant and then as a National Institutes of Health research assistant before entering UMSOD in 2019.
Tadesse has been heavily involved with UMSOD’s chapter of the Student National Dental Association (SNDA), a national organization that promotes and supports the academic and social environment of minority students. As a second-year dental student, she also served as chair of the SNDA’s community service initiatives committee, overseeing an array of programs from virtual tutoring for Baltimore youths to delivering canned goods to a local organization that assists the needy and those experiencing homelessness. She also has volunteered at oral health screening events and worked at Impressions Day during which undergraduate students visit UMSOD and learn about oral health professions.
After graduating in May, Tadesse will begin three years of obligated U.S Air Force service and plans to attend an Advanced Education General Dentistry residency at the Joint Base Langley-Eustis near Hampton, Va. Moving forward, she hopes to complete a master’s degree with the goal of entering the dental public health sphere. “Whether it happens clinically or with policy, I want my career in dentistry to be about advancing this profession and making dental care more accessible,” she said.
In March, she was told that Mark A. Reynolds, DDS, PhD, UMSOD dean and professor, had requested a meeting with her. When she entered the dean’s conference room, Reynolds, who was surrounded by faculty and staff members, made the surprise announcement that she was a recipient of the Dean’s Scholarship for Leadership & Excellence.
Noting that the transition from student to resident involves large expenses, Tadesse said the $25,000 scholarship will relieve some of the stress and allow her to focus on her studies. “Now I can really enjoy my final days of dental school. It will allow me to end this experience on a high note, and I’m grateful for that,” she said.
Since childhood, she has been convinced that a smile is “the easiest and most universal way to connect with another person,” Tadesse said.
“I saw how integral a dentist can be to someone’s day-to-day interactions, and I knew this was the profession for me,” she said. “And it will be amazing to be part of something that makes it possible to affect policy and improve lives.”
Thanks to UMSOD’s Scholarship Supporters
The Dean’s Scholarship for Leadership & Excellence is supported primarily by UMSOD’s “Socks for Scholarships” fund-raising effort launched in late 2019 during the University of Maryland, Baltimore’s Catalyst Campaign.
“This scholarship represents a community-wide investment in the future of our outstanding students made by hundreds of alumni, faculty and friends,” Reynolds said. “I am deeply grateful for that — and I am proud that Ms. Colon and Ms. Tadesse will serve as ambassadors of the school.”
If you’d like to support UMSOD’s Dean’s Scholarship for Leadership & Excellence, please visit: www.dental.umaryland.edu/give/sock23.