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Large group photo of dental students in their white coats with text Our 2024 Grads

Crafting Confidence One Tooth at a Time: Soon-to-be Dental Graduates Share Their Stories

“The journey has been challenging at times, but it’s all been worth it.” - Nana Adjei, DDS Class of 2024

minute read

It wasn’t easy tackling the first year of dental school online. Listening to virtual lectures for hours on end; finding ways to make connections with classmates through the height of the COVID-19 pandemic — but the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine (CU SDM) Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) Class of 2024 has come a long way since then.

Assistant Professor and Assistant Director of the Advanced Standing International Student Program Kunjan Kakar, DDS (ISP ’10), MS, BDS, has known this class since she interviewed some of them during the application process. “Their resilience and perseverance have been remarkable. I want to say to the graduates: Keep that spirit, and never give up. You are more capable than you give yourself credit for. I am very proud of you all.”

The DDS Class of 2024 is made up of 79 students, each with unique and impressive stories to share. Some grew up in Colorado, some from around the world. Many are the first in their families to go to college. Some found a passion for dentistry later in life, while others have known since they were in elementary school.

But when they were asked, “If you could go back and talk to yourself as a first-year student, what would you say,” a common theme emerged: Most would tell themselves not to worry; that it’s going to be OK in the end. And on May 20, 2024, that will ring true as they will all receive their diplomas, take the dental professions oath and officially become doctors. 


Realizing a Lifelong Dream 

Lauren Wipf is a fourth-generation dentist. “My uncle is a dentist in California, and his dad’s a dentist, and so was his dad. It’s in my blood. I was that girl at show and tell in elementary school saying, ‘I’m going to be a dentist’ ever since I was six years old.”

Her career was decided, but it wasn’t until this moment in clinic that Wipf realized the true impact she’ll have on people as a dentist. “When I finally made my first denture and delivered it, my patient came to her appointment all dressed up — hair done, makeup, new outfit — so thrilled for her new teeth. It was my realization moment. Someone who couldn’t eat, talk or smile the way she wanted is now leaving happy because of the dentures I created. I thought, ‘This is incredible. I’m in a position to literally change lives.’”

Wipf, after a family trip to Italy this summer, will start her professional career as an associate dentist at Capstone Dental in Parker, Colorado. 


Lauren Wipf, DDS Class of 2024

What would you say to your first-year self?

"Dentistry is so much more than grades. As you continue in your schooling, it gets more and more exhilarating. Grades do not define you. Dentistry is multi-faceted and so amazing. It makes me feel like I am exactly where I am intended to be. I’m here for a reason."


With two parents trained in dentistry, Jose Silva has known since he was four years old that he would be a dentist. His family immigrated to the United States from Mexico for his dad to further his dental career, by joining the CU SDM faculty in orthodontics.

“Coming to CU was like closing the circle for me,” Silva said. “I would come to the dental school with my dad on bring your kid to work day. I remember seeing the faculty and residents, thinking, ‘oh my gosh, they’re all doctors, how cool’ and kind of being infatuated with it all.”

Silva and the DDS Class of 2024 started their dental school journey in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic. On top of that, he had recently torn his ACL playing soccer and tore it again just before second year, so he was navigating all the newness in crutches and later a wheelchair. He said, “One of the safe havens I found was therapy. I would advocate for anyone struggling with their mental health, whether it’s imposter syndrome or going through a big transition in your life like dental school, to consider it because it helped me a lot.”

Silva is now looking forward to his one-year General Practice Residency with the Veterans Affairs Loma Linda Healthcare System. 


Jose Silva, DDS Class of 2024  

What would you say to your first-year self?  

“My first year, I had a lot of imposter syndrome. I didn’t think I could make it; didn’t think I belonged. I would tell my younger self to stop comparing myself to others, and to not undersell myself. Things will be very hard, and things will get tough, but we're students. We're still human. It's important to maintain what keeps us human, humble and happy.” 


Art and Dentistry

In between classes and clinics, Army Reserve Captain Sherleen Tran loves to do anything art related “I really love artarts and crafts, painting, drawing, singing, dance. I also love to nap. I shared with an orientation group once, if you can take a nap, take it.”

A Colorado native, Tran studied public health at the University of Colorado Denver. She worked as a certified nursing assistant for two years and loved the patient interaction but missed being able to work with her hands artistically.

She shadowed a general dentist who said, “You’re going to wear many hats in this profession, and one of those hats is an artist.”

Tran said, “I ended up really loving dentistry because I realized that it is this intersection between art and science. And it was something that I had always been looking for.”

After graduation, Tran will spend a year in General Practice Residency with Denver Health. 


Army Reserve Captain Sherleen Tran, DDS Class of 2024  
What would you say to your first-year self?  
“Thank you for taking good notes. I wish you slept more. It's ok if you fail because it just makes you a better dentist in the end. I learned a lot from my mistakes.” 


Maria Gabriela Rodriguez Mantilla had a beautiful childhood in Colombia which sparked her love of art, from coloring books to dancing. Her family moved to Saudi Arabia for three years where she discovered how much she enjoyed talking to people and making strong connections. She didn’t always know she’d pursue dentistry, but she said, “looking back at it now, I feel like little seeds had been planted slowly throughout my lifetime.”

In high school in Colorado, she shadowed a dentist for a semester through an internship program. “I wasn’t sure I loved the day-to-day of dentistry,” she recalled, “but what really got me was seeing an extraction on a kid. It was the coolest thing I could ever see in my whole life, and after that, I was like, ‘That’s it. I’m going to be a dentist.”

Rodriguez Mantilla found a strong community at CU. “I guarantee I can find a friend on every floor of the dental building. I’m proud that I’m friends with so many faculty, staff and students.”

After graduation, she will move to Illinois where her husband is in medical school; she will work as an associate dentist in Peoria. 


Maria Gabriela Rodriguez Mantilla, DDS Class of 2024  
What would you say to your first-year self?  
“Everything will be fine. I’d tell her to be strong, confident, to trust yourself, trust the process. Because there is so much ahead and so much hope. You're a lifelong learner and you will always be a lifelong learner.” 


Global Dental Graduates

Nana Adjei was born and raised in Ghana, West Africa, and has lived in the U.S. for 10 years. He discovered in college that dentistry had the perfect blend of all the skills he wanted to utilize, mainly between creativity and science.

He said, “The journey has been challenging at times, but it’s all been worth it. What makes me most grateful that I chose CU for dental school is the amazing people I've had the opportunity to meet. The connections and relationships I've built here are truly invaluable. I also appreciate the training here at CU Dental.” He mentioned the Advanced Clinical Training and Service (ACTS) program is “unparalleled in its ability to provide quality education and experience to students.”

Adjei will start a one-year General Practice Residency program at Denver Health after graduation. He said, “I look forward to continue growing and developing my skills to provide the best possible care for my patients.” 


Nana Adjei, DDS Class of 2024  
What would you say to your first-year self?  
“Stick with it. It will get better, I promise. Keep grinding, but also have fun along the way.” 


Class President Kaeun Julia Kim is a classically trained violinist from Seoul, South Korea. She moved to the U.S. when she was 10 years old and played the violin for over 20 years before realizing senior year of college, “it wasn’t something I saw myself doing the rest of my life.”

So, she decided to close her musical chapter and open a new one with dentistry. Working as a dental assistant, she fell in love with the patient interactions and the progress she could see in their oral and overall health.

When she started dental school, Kim set a goal: to make the most out of the next four years. She became class president her first year and has held the position since. She said, “It's been one of the greatest rewarding experiences. I was able to get to know a lot of my classmates on a personal level, and I felt very honored that they trusted me to represent the class.”

Kim will join Thornton Valley Dental in Colorado as an associate dentist after graduation. 


Julia Kim, DDS Class of 2024  
What would you say to your first-year self?  
“I would say to keep giving it your all. It will work out in the end. As a music major, I didn't have the strongest science background, therefore I knew I had to put in a lot more work than my colleagues. Back then, I didn't know if it was ever going to end, but there really is a light at the end of the tunnel!” 


Helping Patients Smile 

Eva Biznichuk came to CU from Tuscon, Arizona. Her most memorable experiences at CU Dental were in the clinics. She said, “Working closely with faculty and growing to befriend my patients brought me an immense sense of fulfilment. To date, working with Dr. Gozalo to design a unique denture that allowed my patient to smile again has been a highlight!”

Biznichuk was president of the CU Special Cares Club and hopes to work with special health care patients in the future. She is one of two graduates in the DDS Class of 2024 who will do a residency in dental anesthesia.

“After my three years of residency in Brooklyn, New York, my plan is to provide safe anesthesia to children and those with special health care needs as they receive dental care.” 


Eva Biznichuk, DDS Class of 2024  
What would you say to your first-year self?  
“I would tell myself to Facetime and visit my friends and family more often. Personally, nothing is more important than the people you love, so making sure to stay as connected to them as possible is something I could have done better. I wouldn’t skip birthdays and celebrations. It’s going to be okay, even though we don’t always believe it!” 


Danny Carney initially wanted to study medicine but always thought dentistry could be an option too. In college, when he had to have a cavity filled, his dentist let him hold a mirror to watch the procedure. “It blew my mind,” he said. And he was hooked.

Carney’s undergraduate degree in public health inspired a passion for learning about access to care. He said, “Endodontics is an area where I can make an impact in people’s lives in helping them keep their natural teeth for as long as possible. It’s an area that needs increased advocacy. And I also just want to help people get out of pain.”

He recalled a meaningful conversation with a patient about their dental anxiety and how he could improve their experience. “It was one of the more impactful patient experiences because I was gaining the patient's trust and helping them have a little bit more faith and trust in me. It was an influential moment for me, learning just how important it is to be on your patient’s side and be an advocate for them.”

After graduation, Carney will move to New York City to complete a General Dental Residency at Mount Sinai. He hopes to become an endodontist. 


Danny Carney, DDS Class of 2024  
What would you say to your first-year self?  
“I'd probably tell myself to relax and calm down a little bit. Dental school is tough. You are constantly being evaluated on things you aren't good at yet. So, I would tell myself that it's going to be okay – that it will work out.”  


Rayna Vollmer spent a lot of time in the dental chair as a patient growing up. She shared, “I have had two jaw surgeries, and in the process, I interacted with several specialists who were instrumental in my treatment and helped me see dentistry as a future career.” As a sophomore in high school, she decided to learn more about her surgeries and became more interested in the field.

In the clinics at CU Dental, she recalled working with a highly anxious patient who needed a lot of work: “She agreed to take it one appointment at a time. By the time we were beginning to address her dental caries, much improvement could be seen in her home care and oral hygiene. After the first two fillings were complete, she sat in the chair and cried. She was so thankful, happy and proud of the progress she was making. She told me that she was overjoyed to have a healthy mouth and teeth that she wasn’t embarrassed to smile with.”

Vollmer said that was a memory that will stick with her as she works through the beginning of her career. “It tells the story of why dentistry is important and the good that our profession can do for patients and for our communities.”

Vollmer will begin her career as an associate at a private practice in Sterling, Colorado. 


Rayna Vollmer, DDS Class of 2024  
What would you say to your first-year self?  
“I would encourage myself to be more willing to let my curiosity guide my learning. While the presentations and foundational knowledge are critical, I wish I would have asked more creative and curious questions to expand my thinking and exposure to a broader scope of clinical situations.” 


Congratulations to all the incredible individuals, and soon-to-be dentists, in the CU School of Dental Medicine DDS Class of 2024. 


Header image: The CU School of Dental Medicine DDS Class of 2024 received their white coats in May of 2022. 

Topics: Alumni, Students