The lab at the new Woody L. Hunt School of Dental Medicine is equipped with dummies and all standard dental tools. Incoming students are required to spend a minimum of 20 hours in the lab each week. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Next month, Texas Tech University Heath Sciences Center will welcome its inaugural class into the Woody L. Hunt School of Dental Medicine. The dental school will be the first of its kind in a border city.

“We’re small but we’re growing,” said Dr. Richard Black, dean of the school and a former private practitioner of 39 years in El Paso.

The school will welcome 40 students, who will be spending the next four years not only learning but also working with the local community.

“You have to get here, learn what to do, and do it on live patients,” Black said.

On top of the many things students will learn, Black said digital dentistry will be taught to keep up with the modern and technological ways of work.

“When I had to make a crown when I went to dental school, there were 146 steps in making that crown, from when that patient walked in the door till they walked out,” Black said. “Now there’s five.”

Dr. Richard Black demonstrates the use of dummies in the dental school’s lab, where students will learn how to perform the hands-on aspects of dentistry. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

With the latest technologies, Black explained that students will be able to digitally create, mold, and print whatever a patient may need. For a person with a tooth decay or cavity, students will be able to create a filling or crown the same day a patient arrives.

In a room filled with over 20 dental mannequins with teeth and gums that can be individually removed, Black said students are experiencing a professional setting in their classroom.

“Basic things like learning how to sit, from learning how to take decay out of a tooth are taught,” Black said. “All the equipment that would be in the dental clinic is here.”

In the coming years, the school will expand to include an oral health clinic that will be open to the general public. Black said the clinic will give El Pasoans more dentistry options at a reduced cost.

“We’re terribly underserved,” Black said. He said more than half of the state’s dentists practice in the five most populous counties: Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Fort Worth, and Austin. “So the rest of Texas is underserved.”

Incoming student James White said he has already seen how desperately other cities need dentists.

Coming from Mission, Texas, White has been working as a dental assistant for the past 13 years at Lakes Family Dental. He said he’s excited to come to El Paso, which resembles much of his hometown.

“El Paso really mirrors what I see here at home and my plan is to come back and serve my community,” he said.

Black said the school was intentional in choosing students who come from underrepresented dental communities so students have the option of returning home and serving their communities.

Freshman student Daniela Garza said this is a “once in a lifetime opportunity” that she and her other 39 classmates will be experiencing as the inaugural dental school class.

After being rejected by other dentistry schools due to not having the qualifications, Garza said this is the perfect ending to her story.

“It feels really great because this means so much more to me now,” she said.

Garza, who will be coming from the border city of Eagle Pass, Texas, said she is excited to return home and serve her community.

“There’s a need for dentists back home and this will allow me to address that,” she said.

The Woody L. Hunt School of Dental Medicine is the first dental school in West Texas. Its inaugural cohort of 40 students will start classes in July. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

For El Paso, having few local options and the expenses of dental insurance can be a burden for some families and individuals that may tempt people to cross the border for their dentistry needs. Black says not only will the local community benefit from the dental school, but so will the economy.

“The more options you have, the more competition you have, the better off the city is,” he said.

El Paso dentist Paul Ro agrees that the school will have lasting positive impacts for the city of El Paso.

“I’m excited for our local economy because we’re receiving more professionals but also creating an influx of young professionals,” Ro said.

The first dentistry school in West Texas allows for more educational opportunities.

“A lot of El Pasoans who may have not thought about going to dental school can,” Ro said “It’s an option for them because it’s in their city now.”

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.