Celebrating Our Community
"A Dental Student Living in Harlem": Third-Year Student Ryan Lee's Account of an Experience That Changed His Life

Ryan S. Lee, '10

A June 16, 2008, article in the "Viewpoint" section of the ADA News by NYUCD student Ryan S. Lee, Class of 2010, and president of the NYU chapter of the American Student Dental Association (ASDA), has ignited discussion throughout the profession about how dentists see themselves and how they are willing to be viewed by the larger community.

"A Dental Student Living in Harlem" recounts a period in Ryan's life that led him to re-examine his reasons for becoming a dentist. Although he says he was motivated to move to Harlem by a "shameless search for cheaper rent," his surroundings had the unintended consequence of provoking him to reflect on how the lure of "immense financial success as future dentists" - epitomized for him by the possibility of owning a Maserati - can make "the humanitarian needs around us easy to miss."

As Ryan began to register the impact of the lack of amenities and conveniences in his Harlem neighborhood - such as nearby supermarkets, taxis, after-school programs, and Kaplan SAT Centers, as well as accessible health care - he realized that he had embarked on a journey of self-discovery, or, as he put it, "a path of fascinating lessons and newfound passions I never would have encountered elsewhere." With his feelings of entitlement challenged, Ryan committed himself to trying to close some of the gaps in his neighborhood's needs. He ran for and was elected to the local community board, contacted local politicians to arrange for free volunteer dental care for several thousand residents in his apartment complex, and began free SAT mentoring for local teens on weekends.

Ryan concludes with a challenge to fellow students that is leavened with humor. "If your future vision includes a Maserati," he says, "make sure to park it in Harlem every once in a while."

By showing us the impact on real people of a lack of basic needs, including access to dental care, and by giving us a bird's-eye view of one student's struggle with the ethical and moral issues encountered on the path to becoming a doctor, Ryan has made an indelible mark on his profession, and NYUCD salutes him on his achievement.