<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=799546403794687&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">

Serving Colorado Communities

Perspectives from Advanced Clinical Training and Service (ACTS) Program Participants

minute read

Written by Laura Ramsey on August 7, 2023

When alumni and students are asked about the Advanced Clinical Training and Service (ACTS) program, many share that it was one of the most memorable experiences in the Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) curriculum at the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine (CU SDM).

The ACTS program has served as a national service-learning model for dental schools in the United States for nearly 40 years. The program was created and implemented in 1986 by former and late dean Lawrence H. Meskin, DDS, MSD, MPH, PhD. ACTS was one of the first programs of its kind to immerse dental students in under-resourced communities. It gives students an opportunity to have extended rotations, adding to the dental workforce at community health centers across Colorado, and providing them with life-changing education and additional clinical experience before graduation.

Many students say ACTS was a big factor in choosing CU SDM. More than 35% of the 87 preceptors in these community health centers are SDM alumni and graduates of the ACTS program. Today, the ACTS program remains the centerpiece of the dental school’s legacy of commitment to community engagement and the dental curriculum. 

A Passion for Helping People


Manisha Makhija, DDS (ISP '14), BDS, with her husband and children.

“My exposure to real-world dentistry in the United States was through my ACTS rotations. I was always passionate about helping people, and discovering the need right around me is what made me want to go into public health dentistry,” said Manisha Makhija, DDS (ISP ’14), BDS, who grew up and became a dentist in Mumbai, India. “I have always been in love with dentistry, and seeing the difference I can make in this community is what keeps me going. I know this is what I’m meant to do.” 

Now Makhija is an ACTS preceptor and dental director at the Worthmore Clinic, which serves more than 6,000 refugees in surrounding communities. She has been an integral part of the Worthmore Clinic since its early days, when co-founders Frank and Carolyn Anello, RDH, posted on Craigslist looking for a dentist to join the team. 

What started as a two-chair dental clinic with donated materials now serves 35 to 40 patients daily with 12 chairs and a staff of 20, including four SDM alums: Tasos Belegratis, DDS ’05; Cori Morris, DDS ’21; Troy Markgraf, DDS ’22; and Makhija leading the team.

“Our staff and our patients make up such a beautiful, diverse community,” said Makhija. “This is great exposure for students to see what dentistry and patient needs are like in different parts of the world.” 


Some of the Worthmore team celebrate the newly expanded clinic in February 2023. Left to right: Co-Founder and Executive Director Frank Anello; SDM Associate Professor and former ACTS Program Director Tamara Tobey, DDS '92, MA; Dental Director Manisha Makhija, DDS (ISP '14), BDS; ACTS Preceptor Cori Morris, DDS '21; Co-Founder and Clinical Program Director Carolyn Anello, RDH; and ACTS Preceptor Michael Plous, DDS. 

Paving a Path to Public Health


Jacqueline Merz, DDS '23, MPH '23

“Public health has been my jam from the very beginning,” said Jacqueline Merz, DDS ’23, MPH ’23. “One of the main reasons I wanted to go into dentistry is because I want to serve populations with limited access to care.” 

Merz said her experience in the ACTS program reinforced her passion for helping people. “It challenges us to dig deeper, to understand how much someone’s background and their culture can impact their care.” After completing her ACTS rotations, she learned, “You might have patients who have never been to the dentist, or who don’t speak English as their first language, or who are in a lot of pain. You have to be adaptable. You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.” 

Merz is grateful for how far she’s come in her dental career. “I feel lucky to have learned from some great faculty and great preceptors,” she said. “It’s kind of like cooking; I’m able to pick tips and tricks that I like from different people and create my own little cookbook.” 


Patrick Mugabe, DDS '23; Jacqueline Merz, DDS '23, MPH '23, Sarah Ingah, DDS '23; Thi Le, DDS '23; and Thuy Trang, DDS '23, celebrate together at their white coat ceremony in 2021.

"I'm doing the most good I've done in my whole life"


Wyatt Nguyen, DDS '23

“My parents have always encouraged me to do new things and see new things,” said Wyatt Nguyen, DDS ’23. “My dad is a dentist, but I hadn’t considered that path for myself until I realized how much of a positive impact he has on his patients.”

Nguyen rotated to seven ACTS sites during his senior year, met dozens of patients, dentists and staff, and said every experience was rewarding in its own way. 

“I enjoyed my time in the San Luis Valley, seeing how much people love living there and the community they’ve built. I’m grateful to have helped them in some way.” At the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, he said, “I’m doing the most good I’ve done in my whole life. Getting people out of pain makes me feel good.”

Many ACTS sites are Federally Qualified Health Centers that serve patients with social determinants of health that affect access to care. “It’s a vicious cycle,” Nguyen said. He hopes, one day, to be an advocate for legislation to increase access to care. 


Top Row: Noah Barrett. DS '23; Jeffrey Gius, DDS '23; Logan Aunon, DDS '23; Brendan Reich, DDS '23; and Zane Khattak, DDS '23.
Bottom Row: Hayden Smith, DDS '23; Wyatt Nguyen, DDS '23; and Jacon Taylor, DDS '23.

Community Health as a Career


Stacey Robben, DDS '16

“The ACTS program spoke to me as an aspiring dentist; it’s why I chose CU Dental,” said Stacey Robben, DDS ’16. As a student on rotation at Valley-Wide Health Systems, she met a hygienist who had a remarkable commitment to oral health. “It struck me. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Seven years later, Robben is now chief dental officer at Valley-Wide. “I get to be an ACTS preceptor and stand next to current dental students as they complete their first surgical extractions. They’re full of passion and excitement, and I love watching them learn and grow. It’s a full-circle, rewarding feeling.”

Robben’s advice for future dentists is to keep an open mind. “Community health doesn’t have to be a stepping stone; it can be a career. There are so many benefits. You get to build positive relationships with patients, collaborate with other providers and work towards creating a sustainable future.”