Global Health Nexus, Summer 2002

A Semester Abroad: From New York to Copenhagen

By Dr. Menka Sinha, Class of 2002

In fall 2001, at the beginning of my senior year, my classmate Azar Boujaran and I traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, to participate in the NYU College of Dentistry’s first-ever semester-abroad program for predoctoral students. Over the years NYU Dentistry has hosted many international students, but this was the first time it had sent its own students abroad for a formal exchange program. Although I was excited about this opportunity, there was a fair amount of anxiety about being in a foreign country during my senior year. However, as the departure date approached, our doubts were assuaged by Dr. Stuart Hirsch, associate dean for Development and International Programs, and his colleagues Dolores Spinelli and Ron Eckhardt. They all worked very hard to facilitate our introduction to Danish society and, afterward, our return to New York. The trip turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It allowed me not only to expand my knowledge of the world and the dental profession, but also to grow as an individual.

Denmark, the smallest of the Scandinavian countries, has a population of approximately five million people. There are only two dental schools in the country, the larger being Copenhagen University, which houses the Panum Dental Institute. The institute’s five-year dental education program is divided into semesters, with students generally entering directly from high school. Azar and I were integrated into the ninth semester, also known as the “international semester,” because of the presence of foreign students and the fact that most classes are held in English. Other exchange students came from England, Belgium, Norway, and Greece, so we had the opportunity to become acquainted not only with Danish dental techniques and culture but also with a broader European perspective.

The first few days were spent learning about our new surroundings. The state-of-the-art Panum Institute is extraordinary. Every student has his or her own cubicle in the general clinic, complete with private sink and desk. Clinical assistants and nurses are usually available to mix alginate or prepare IRM.

I was placed in a clinical group with five other students. Our mornings consisted of a rotation clinic in either oral surgery, pediatric dentistry, or emergency care. In contrast to NYU Dentistry, students at Copenhagen University do not generally follow a patient through the entire course of treatment. Instead, once a patient enters the system, he or she is placed on a waiting list for a crown, endodontics, filling, bridge, etc. The students then select from the waiting list the procedures they would like to do.

Early afternoons were spent in classes, and late afternoons were spent in general clinic sessions. In addition, thanks to the miracle of video conferencing, we were able to participate long distance in the NYU Dentistry seminars that we were not able to attend in person.

The faculty-student interactions are very different from what I had known at NYU Dentistry. No one is called “doctor.” All teachers are addressed by their first names, and the result is a more casual but nevertheless extremely professional teaching environment. Other differences are the frequency with which students challenge their instructors and the attitude toward preservation of tooth structure. Oral surgery was almost always the option of last resort.

While it was a great experience, the trip was not without its challenges, chief among them adapting to a foreign language. Although virtually everyone speaks English, the principal language is Danish. This could be especially difficult in pediatrics, where many young patients hadn’t yet learned English in school. But we always managed to communicate. “Tell-show-do” became “show-do,” with parents or dental assistants acting as interpreters.

The experience has given me a new perspective on what it means to be a dental professional. Many of the people I met impressed me deeply, whether it was a patient saying a simple “tak” (thanks), or the Danish breakfast I enjoyed on Friday mornings with my group. We often take for granted the impact that other people have on our lives, especially patients, fellow students, and professors. Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons I took away from this experience was a deepened appreciation not only of a different culture and dental school, but also of my own.