Go into the dental hygiene classes at the University of Mississippi Medical Center’s School of Dentistry, and one student might give you pause.
After all, it’s not every day that you see a guy in Instrumentation or Radiology Lab. Hieu Vuong is the only male in the program, and the first to enroll since 2018.
The Pass Christian resident is good with it. In his first year, he’s not one of the girls – but definitely more comfortable than when classes began last fall.
“One of my questions during my interview was how many males have been in the program,” said Vuong, who received his associate degree from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College before enrolling in the dental hygiene bachelor of science program.
“I had a good understanding that the field isn’t popular to males. But to be fair, I don’t think many males have thought about this career,” Vuong said.
“At first, it was a little nerve-wracking. I didn’t know what to expect. But now, we’re all just good friends. I don’t think they consider me any different.”
As a first-generation Vietnamese-Chinese American, Vuong said, “I’m accustomed to being the only guy in the minority. Even though I get highlighted for being the male in the class, that’s not a bad thing.”
Fellow first-year student Colby Smith said she didn’t expect to have male classmates when she started the two-year dental hygiene program, which requires students have two years of prerequisites to be accepted.
“He keeps it fun,” she said. “He’s definitely his own self. It’s not awkward. He blends in really well.”
Vuong competed in tennis in community college and has played sports all his life, something he finds time to do outside class. “I knew I definitely wanted to go into the dental field,” he said. “After finding out what the bachelor’s program offers, I knew I could go back to dental school later.
“I decided to get my foot in the door and take it slow, and I’ve enjoyed every bit of it.”
The feeling is mutual, said Dr. Sandra Horne, professor of dental hygiene and Vuong’s Instrumentation teacher. In Instrumentation, students learn how to clean patients’ teeth using tools to gently probe and scrape around the teeth and gums in order to remove calculus, or hardened plaque.
“Hieu is a welcome asset to the class. He brings a calmness with him. He stays calm under pressure,” Horne said. “I think it’s because he played sports all his life.
“He works through a process, and that’s an advantage for him. He’s fun and has a good sense of humor.”
Will Vuong ever be seen as just one of the girls?
“No. No,” said Elaina Lam, a first-year dental hygiene student from Biloxi.
“He brings out the best in people,” she said. “He’s always looking out for other people. He’s a really good classmate.”
Vuong says getting a bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene presents opportunities to him and his classmates. “We can practice in marketing. We can go into teaching. We can practice in the community,” he said.
“Working in the dental field gives you a sense of a connection with your patients. You’re interacting with someone who’s not your coworker,” Vuong said. “They might be a complete stranger at first, but you care for them over time and you can see the progression of your work. You see how you can better their dental care.”
Horne and the dental hygiene students agree: Vuong is a keeper.
“In my Periodontics class, we talk about the immune system and its response. Neutrophils (white blood cells that protect against infection) are the first cells to go into battle,” Horne said.
“I made Hieu the leader of the neutrophils,” she said. “He just goes with the flow. He’s OK with being singled out.”
(University of Mississippi Medical Center provided pictures and information)