One thing Shelby Schultz is passionate about is encouraging others – not just those in her personal life, but also in her academic and professional circles. As the inaugural president of the UTHSC College of Dentistry’s newly formed Student Professionalism and Ethics Association in Dentistry (SPEA), she has made it her goal to uplift her peers.
“Something I’ve tried to do as much as I can is making sure people know they’re worth being seen and worth being heard and that there’s no one right way to accomplish your goal,” Schultz said.
In a way, Schultz became the SPEA leader by accident. When Paul Luepke, DDS, MS, FACD, associate professor and interim associate dean of Clinical and Extramural Affairs in the College of Dentistry, learned the college had no SPEA chapter, he reached out to student leaders to see if anyone would be interested in starting one, and Schultz responded.
“I very briefly skimmed the description of SPEA and I thought, ‘Yeah, that sounds cool,’” she said. “I’d like to start focusing more on a very professional and confident approach to practicing dentistry, since I have only 18 more months in school, so I thought I’d give SPEA a try.”
Schultz attended the national organization’s annual meeting, and when she returned home, she hit the ground running to create the UTHSC chapter. It now has an executive board with Schultz as president, a vice president, treasurer, and secretary. A couple dozen students have expressed interest in joining SPEA, and according to Schultz, doing so would be for their own benefit.
“At the national meeting, it was just the most encouraging, warm, positive group of people I have ever been around all at one time,” she said. “That’s really the goal. We really want to be able to build people up in what their standards of care are right now, so when we are more independent and on our own after school, we’re confident in our ability to deliver that care.”
In a similar way to how she became the SPEA president by accident, Schultz’s interest in dentistry started accidentally as well. Her first attempt at higher education didn’t go as planned. She couldn’t find an area of study that felt right for her, so she decided to take a break. When she went on a medical mission trip with her church, she discovered something she didn’t expect.
“I was never interested in science or any kind of health profession, but oddly enough, just being in rural Honduras and having an opportunity to work at the kind of makeshift dental clinic they had, it felt like it clicked for me,” she said.
Back home in Central Arkansas, Schultz started working as an orthodontist’s assistant and decided dentistry was the career for her. She went back to school at the University of Central Arkansas, continuing to work at the orthodontist’s clinic while completing her undergraduate degree.
When the time came to choose a dental school, staying close to home was important to Schultz. While the proximity is what initially drew her to UTHSC, it was the energy on campus that made her decision easier.
“I remember being super nervous and terrified because I had no idea what I was doing, and it felt like a huge process to apply to dental school, but everybody at UTHSC was very welcoming,” Schultz said. “I felt that they asked thoughtful questions in the interview, and it felt like a really calm and just a good place to be.”
Now in her third year in the College of Dentistry, she hasn’t been let down.
“It’s been lovely. It really feels like a family,” Schultz said. “I’ve been very fortunate to have professors who are just as passionate about dentistry as they are about helping us learn and figure out what works best for us.”
After graduating in 2024, Schultz wants to take her passion for encouraging others back to Central Arkansas. She plans on practicing general dentistry and hopes to spread her passion for that, too.
“My goal is to make people the most excited to be general dentists, just because there’s so much possibility and so much to explore.”
This story was initially published in the Winter 2023 issue of Dentistry Magazine.