Amanda Robertson treats a patient at the 2018 Mission of Mercy clinic in Grand Rapids in May. The Michigan Dental Association recruits volunteer dental practitioners from around the state to treat hundreds of underserved patients during this multi-day clinic, held every two years at different locations around the state.
Amanda and her longtime mentor, Dr. Andrew Dwan, at the 2016 Mission of Mercy clinic at Macomb Community College in Warren.
This profile is one in a series highlighting School of Dentistry alumni, donors and students.
Ann Arbor, Mich., Sept. 18, 2018 -– The precocious seven-year-old boy in the dental chair has a lot to say and dental student Amanda Robertson is listening patiently and exchanging kid-friendly banter as she moves efficiently through an exam and various treatments.
It’s the annual “Give Kids a Smile!” Clinic at the U-M School of Dentistry and Robertson, in her final year of dental school, projects the calm self-assurance of a much more experienced dentist.
Maybe her confidence comes from working as a chairside assistant in dental practices for more than a decade before starting dental school. Maybe it’s because she is, at age 31, six years older than the typical dental student. Maybe it’s because her non-traditional path included sacrifices like moving back-and-forth between Michigan and California twice during her husband’s deployments overseas with the U.S. Marine Corps. Or perhaps it’s because helping patients was the reason – and now the gratifying reward – that she worked during the day, went to college classes at night and took second jobs on the weekends to pay the bills for several years.
As Robertson nears graduation next May, she is focused on her final dental school requirements and on finding a practice to join or buy into. It’s a destination that’s beyond what she imagined as a kid when she first became fascinated with teeth and decided in high school to pursue dental assisting.
“I’ve always liked teeth,” she says. “When I think back as a kid, and I would watch TV or someone talking, I would look at their teeth.”
As a high school junior in Standish, Mich., Robertson enrolled in a career program with the local intermediate school district. She attended regular high school classes for a couple of hours each morning, then spent the rest of the day learning about dental assisting. She liked it enough that in her senior year she continued the program with an internship in the office of a local dentist, Dr. Andrew Dwan (U-M DDS 1996). Before she had graduated from high school, she was already a part-time employee there.
Amanda and Michael Robertson were married a few months after she graduated from high school. Taking a leave of absence from the Dwan clinic, Amanda moved to California as Michael prepared for his second deployment to the war zone in Iraq. When he deployed several months later, she returned to Standish and resumed her work with Dr. Dwan. A year later, she again moved to California while Michael prepared for a third deployment, this time to Japan and southeast Asia. She worked as a dental assistant at practices in Costa Mesa and San Clemente during the several months until he was deployed, then she returned to work for Dr. Dwan in Standish. Her chairside assistant position was filled while she was away so she accepted a position at the office’s front desk, where she learned about scheduling, insurance, accounting and the other daily necessities of a dental practice. While it might have seemed like a step backwards, she viewed it as a way to broaden her understanding of dentistry and to improve her skills in working with patients.
“Over years of working in the dental field, my love for dentistry continued to grow.” she said. “I was an assistant to dentists who helped people get out of pain, restored function and brought back smiles. I was front desk staff and watched people walk in doubting their appearance and they walked out with confidence and were pain free. I was happy, but I wanted something more -– I wanted to be the one who provided the treatment to patients.”
As she continued working for Dr. Dwan, she investigated what it would take to become a dentist. “I thought, you know what: I think that I can do more. Like maybe I don’t want to be an assistant. Like maybe I don’t want to sit behind the front desk. Like maybe I can do the rest, so I started going to school part-time.” That meant working all day at the dental office, then commuting 30 minutes to Bay City for night classes at Delta Community College. She often ate dinner in the car on the way. After the last class, usually around 10 p.m., she would drive back to Standish, then pull off the same schedule the next day. On weekends, she worked as a waitress at a bowling alley and as a bartender to help pay for tuition.
After receiving an Associate’s Degree, she enrolled at Saginaw Valley State University to pursue a bachelor’s degree and fulfill the prerequisites for dental school. By then, Michael was out of the Marines, had earned his own bachelor’s degree and was employed, so finances were better. Amanda switched to part-time at the office and took classes at Saginaw Valley full time. By 2015 she had logged the science and math requirements, but was a few classes short of the actual bachelor’s degree. “When I was applying to dental schools, I called Michigan and told them I’m older and don’t have a bachelor’s. Am I competitive enough? Should I even put an application in? And they said, yes, absolutely. So I said, OK, we’ll see where this goes.”
Where it went was acceptance into the dental school currently ranked No. 1 in the country and No. 1 in the world. Robertson’s 12 years of experience working in dental practices, dating to those first days in the career training course in high school, left her well-prepared for what to expect, but isn’t dental school supposed to be really tough? “Dental school is really tough, it really is,” she answers. “I expected when I came to dental school that it would be the worst time of my life. Because I expected to have no free time and not be able to hang out with anyone. But I’ve met some of the best friends that I could imagine and have had some of the greatest times. I mean dental school is hard, but being able to be with people who are going through the same stuff is nice, and you make good friends. They are all going through the same struggles. People handle it differently so that’s interesting to see, but it’s not the worst time of my life, which I’m thankful for.”
It’s been a busy three-plus years. Her CV contains a long list of volunteering at public dental clinic programs: Mission of Mercy sponsored by the Michigan Dental Association, before and during dental school; Victors for Veterans dental clinics; Special Olympics Special Smiles; Hope Dental Clinic; Bay Cliff Health Camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She has joined two School of Dentistry Global Initiatives trips abroad -– to Corfu, Greece, and to Chichicastenango, Guatemala. It was her second service mission to Guatemala; she and Dr. Dwan went there before she started at the dental school. Among student organizations, Robertson was elected president of the Schoolwide Student Council for 2017-18 and has served as vice president of the Class of 2019 for the last three years. In those positions and others, she has collaborated frequently with Dr. Renée Duff, Assistant Dean for Student Services. “I have often relied on her perspective on student life and for her amazingly positive approach to leadership roles within her class and schoolwide,” Duff said. “Leadership is not always easy and Amanda has handled it with maturity, confidence and unparalleled positivity.”
Robertson said she is too busy to think too much about either the past or the future at the moment, but she and her husband have always focused on goals. “Mike and I talk a lot about the hard work we have put in to get where we are today, both professionally for him, as well as for me,” she said. “We push each other to always continue to learn and grow, and help someone when we can. I am from a very small town. Thinking back to my childhood I can’t say that I knew one day I was going to become a dentist. I always envisioned myself being successful, but didn’t always know what that meant to me.”
She credits Andrew Dwan for his mentoring from the very start of her venture into dentistry, through her moves back and forth to California and during those hectic times when she was taking college classes while working at his office. “I have found myself explaining dental treatment the same ways in which he did and using the same techniques to perform dentistry that I didn’t even realize I was learning when I was his chairside assistant,” she said. “He has shown me that dentistry can be fun, rewarding and of great benefit to patients. I am forever grateful for the time he invested in my skills as an assistant, the confidence he showed in my ability to be a part of the dental team and his continued mentorship.”
Her first step after graduation? “Well, I know I’m headed out of this building, but other than that I have no clue,” she said during a recent interview at the dental school. “I want to go into private practice, but where that is, I’m not sure. Wherever the best opportunity is, I’d be willing to go. I’d really like to either partner or buy. I wouldn’t mind being an associate for a year or maybe two, but I’m a little bit older in the crowd, so I need to start focusing on my future. So buying in would be important.”
Robertson said the story of her journey to a DDS degree is an example of the adage: You can really be anything you want. “I don’t think that there is a certain path that is set forth and you can’t deviate along the way,” she said. “I never expected to take a break for a few years before attending college after high school, or that I would be working two jobs and attending college at the same time. But I did, and I am still achieving my ultimate goal of becoming a dentist. Hard work and persistence pay off, and I am so glad that I never gave up on my dreams.”
The University of Michigan School of Dentistry is one of the nation’s leading dental schools engaged in oral health care education, research, patient care and community service. General dental care clinics and specialty clinics providing advanced treatment enable the school to offer dental services and programs to patients throughout Michigan. Classroom and clinic instruction prepare future dentists, dental specialists, and dental hygienists for practice in private offices, hospitals, academia and public agencies. Research seeks to discover and apply new knowledge that can help patients worldwide. For more information about the School of Dentistry, visit us on the Web at: www.dent.umich.edu. Contact: Lynn Monson, associate director of communications, at email@example.com, or (734) 615-1971.