Commencement Spotlight: Robert Violette, School of Dental Medicine

Why did you choose UConn?

When I was looking at dental schools to apply to, UConn was always my number one choice. I had the privilege of already being a Husky for my undergrad and got to personally see what makes UConn Dental so special. The combined biomedical curriculum with the medical students was exciting as I knew it would make me a well-rounded clinician and I really loved that the class sizes were kept small. The facilities are new and updated which showed me that there is a continued investment in the education and dental care that is happening here. The aspect that really sealed the deal for me was the community that is fostered here. I had the opportunity to visit UConn Dental a number of times during undergrad and was always awed by the warm and welcoming environment that is housed here. Students and faculty were always chatting with each other in the hallways and classrooms, and you could just tell everyone was happy to be here. I knew I wanted to be a part of that community more than anything else and realized that was where I belonged. Half of my wardrobe was already blue and white thanks to my four years in Storrs, so that helped make my decision, too.

Why did you choose to enter dental school?

I wanted to be a dentist for as long as I could remember. Growing up, I loved working with my hands and was always busy with one project or another. I also realized how much I loved working with the public and how exciting it was to meet new people and form meaningful connections. As a bonus, science was my favorite subject in school, so much so that I majored in molecular and cell biology at UConn. Dentistry is the perfect amalgamation of all of those aspects that I loved. I get to work with my hands in nuanced and creative ways, exercise my brain with the different biological and scientific demands of the job, and most importantly work with some incredible people both as patients and as colleagues. Dentistry is also a field that is constantly advancing new techniques and refining traditional ones, so I certainly know that I will never have a boring day while on the job.

What are your plans after graduation?

After graduation I will be attending Danbury Hospital for a one-year residency in general practice. I hope to learn incredible new skills to bring to my future patients and to build even more confidence in my dental work. After the residency I plan to stay in Connecticut to practice with the hope of owning my own practice one day.

What activities were you involved with as a student?

I knew these four years would fly by so I made sure to get as involved as I could as early as I could. One of the first programs I was involved in was the Urban Service Track where I completed a two-year didactic and service-learning curriculum focused on inter-professional efforts to improve health of underserved communities and volunteered in community health settings. I was an active member of the American Student Dental Association where I served as the social chair for two years, planning and preparing social events to promote community and connectivity among members of this organization. I, along with several other classmates, also travelled to Maine in our third year to provide free dental care to our community members in need, marking the first community service trip after the start of the pandemic. I also had the honor of serving as an Admissions Representative where I represented the University to prospective dental students by providing a forum for them to have their questions about our school answered.

How has UConn prepared you for the next chapter in life?

Without question, UConn has made me feel like I am graduating as a very competent general dentist. Through our rigorous coursework, I feel as though there are few dental problems that I will encounter that I won’t have some understanding on how to tackle. Outside of the classroom, however, UConn has developed my interpersonal skills more than I ever thought possible. Every interaction I had with faculty taught me to continually put my patients first and to center my care on their needs. UConn emphasizes that there is a whole person attached to those teeth which may sound silly at first, but I understand how it can be easy to get tunnel vision and just focus on the dental concerns. With our biomedical background and constant mentorship from faculty, I have learned how critical it is to get a full understanding of a patient’s medical history and their motivation behind dental care, ultimately leading to a more positive patient experience in the end.

What’s one thing that surprised you about UConn?

The biggest surprise I had with UConn was the incredible dynamic between the faculty and students. I was used to the dynamic of college where, even though they were always available for help, it was clear that the professors were the ones in charge. However at UConn Dental, from the day I stepped foot into the classroom I felt as though I was treated more as a future colleague and less as simply a student. Obviously I had much to learn, but faculty would consistently ask for my opinion and take those opinions seriously. It made learning in this environment exciting and engaging and made me more comfortable at the end of the day.

Any advice for incoming first-year dental students?

My advice to incoming first-year students is to keep as open a mind as possible. The next four years offer you the best opportunity of your life to completely transform yourself educationally and professionally. Just as it was in undergrad, these four years fly by so it is important to open yourself to as many opportunities as you can. Allowing yourself to be immersed in every practicing field of dentistry at UConn truly makes you a better dentist overall. Do not be afraid to get out of your comfort zone and take solace knowing that there is always someone right behind you to guide you along the way. Lastly, this is the time to make mistakes. Dentistry tends to attract the highest achieving students who aren’t used to struggling in school and this can be the biggest obstacle to overcome. Realize that it is alright to fail as long as you learn something along the way. It is much better to make mistakes when we have the backing of fantastic faculty members versus when we are out there in the real world.

What’s one thing every student should do during their time at UConn?

At the risk of sounding corny, every student during their time at UConn should take the time to thank all of those around us who make our education possible. There is a robust support system built into UConn Dental, from practice leaders and patient care coordinators who ensure we are on course to graduate and that our patients are receiving appropriate care to the faculty who build our foundations of dental education to the support staff and assistants in the clinic who are always there to lend a helping hand. So take the time to tell those around you that you appreciate them! This degree is certainly not achieved in a vacuum.

Who was your favorite mentor and why?

This is easily the most challenging questions. Every person I encountered at UConn, be it staff, student, or faculty, shaped me into the person I am today. I have never had the pleasure of being in such a supportive environment before and I truly believe everyone here acted as a mentor to me in one way or another. However, if I had to choose one person, it would have to be Dr. Paolella. I have known Dr. P since my freshman year of college where she would often speak to the Pre-Dental Society and offer her words of wisdom on how to navigate the admissions process. She was the first face I associated with UConn Dental and set the stage for the type of applicant that best fits the program. Transitioning into dental school she was essentially our UConn Dental “mom”, knowing everyone’s name before we even knew each other’s and always checking in to make sure we were adjusting to our new school well. Dr. P had an open door policy and I now think back on all of the times I stopped by for some advice and to snag a chocolate or candy that she would always have ready for us. In my third year at UConn Dental I was chosen as an admission representative and had the opportunity to witness first-hand the love that she has for this school and for her students.

What’s one thing that will always make you think of UConn?

I know I have made friendships for life at UConn and it is those faces that will always remind me of the school I called home for the last eight years. I have met some of the most interesting, kindhearted and funny people at this institution. Although we may be going off on different adventures after graduation, I know in my heart that we will always carve out time in our busy lives to see each other. And when we do, we will undoubtedly reminisce about the blur that was dental school. The backdrop to all of those stories will be the school that brought us together. It was the community I witnessed at UConn that first made this school my number one choice for dental schools, and it is that same community that allowed me to find my home away from home and something I could never forget. The giant face shields we were distributed when clinical activity resumed after the start of the pandemic will be a nice little reminder too.

What was it like training to be a dentist during a pandemic?

To put it simply, training to be a dentist during a pandemic was a challenge. At the beginning of the pandemic, every day brought with it new updates to guidelines and procedures. Personal protective equipment had to be used thoughtfully and scheduling patients when capacity was limited could be a headache. Despite all of the challenges, the pandemic presented an opportunity to learn how to handle a major interruption in normality with the security of having faculty and staff around me at all times. I truly believed I grew more as a clinician by living and learning through the pandemic than I would have if my time in dental school went by without incident. I found myself becoming more flexible to adversity and to start thinking outside of the box to still provide my patients with the best care possible. All the while, we had the full and complete support from the faculty and staff at the school who did everything in their power to support us students through the unprecedented times.