Graduating Greyhounds 2014: Serwaa Mensah
Growing up in Ghana inspired senior Serwaa Mensah to devote her education and career to making affordable dental care accessible to underserved communities
May 8, 2014
Spotlight on: Serwaa Mensah
Hometown: Accra, Ghana
Degree: B.S. Biology
Class you’d recommend others take: General Entomology with Dr. Rivers in the biology department
Campus involvement: Resident Assistant in Newman Towers (3 years), president of the African Student Union, biology tutor in the Study (3 years), member of Beta Beta Beta (biology honor society), volunteer on Refugee Youth Project and Good Stuff Campaign, studied abroad in Thailand
There’s no doubt Serwaa Mensah is going to be a dentist. Surprising when you consider she had her teeth examined only once when she was growing up in Ghana; that’s the norm in a country with one dentist for every 160,000+ people. The West African nation’s severely underserved population is in desperate need of access to dental care, but change won’t happen without an influx of certified practitioners who are also tireless advocates committed to service.
Serwaa doesn’t just want to be part of that change. She wants to lead it.
Loyola magazine asked this aspiring dentist how her experiences in Baltimore and Ghana have influenced her plans for the future, and helped build a foundation for success.
Why did you choose Loyola?
I was born in Washington, D.C., and my parents moved our family to Ghana when I was 6 months old. I am an American citizen, so when it was time for me to go to college my dad said, “You’re an American citizen. You should take advantage of the fact that you can get scholarships and loans and grants and further your education in the U.S.”
My older sister, Awoyaa, ’07, is the reason I came to Loyola. She picked Loyola randomly out of all the colleges in America. My family didn’t even visit the campus beforehand or anything, but she ended up loving it!
I applied to other schools, but most of them gave me a hard time because I didn’t have a GPA. At my high school in Ghana we don’t have GPAs, so a lot of American universities asked me, “Why don’t you have a GPA?” and they wouldn’t give me aid because of that, which was really frustrating. But Loyola accommodated similar situations before with other international students, so Loyola didn’t have a problem accepting me.
What was it like growing up in Ghana?
At my house in Ghana we have no running water. We have a well in the back of our house and we use a bucket and rope to fetch water from it. The well water is a little salty so we don’t drink it. We have to buy drinking water. Everything else comes from the well. It’s not clean water so we have a system where we have a piece of cloth that we put on each bucket before we fill it, and you sieve the water to filter it.
The electricity situation is horrible. In Ghana right now they’re doing something called electricity rationing, where each area is on a timetable. Where I live might get electricity on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, or maybe 18 hours each day, and the rest of the time you’re in total darkness.
We don’t have a sofa. We have a living room and a dining table with chairs, but there isn’t a sofa for people to sit on when they visit.
Many people in Ghana live in poverty. But poor can be a state of mind, and for me it’s not. I don’t think my mind is poor. Physically this is poverty, and it’s not even the worst of the worst in Ghana. Not everyone lives in those conditions, though. I have friends in Ghana who live in mansions. There is no middle class in Ghana—you’re either wealthy or you’re poor. In Ghana when you’re not up there, you’re down there, and it’s obvious.
What are your plans after graduation?
In fall 2014 I’m entering the DDS program at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, and I am so excited.
I always knew I would be in health field because that’s where my passion is, I just didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do—until my second semester of freshman year, when I attended a career seminar where every week the biology department would bring in a new health professional.
One week a dentist came in, and before that time I had never thought about dentistry at all. I only went to the dentist once the whole time I was living in Ghana, and that was to get my tooth extracted. Nobody talks about the dentist because they’re so very rare: Only 150 serve the entire Ghanaian population of more than 25 million. It’s considered a luxury to go to the dentist. So I thought, this is the kind of thing that I know Ghana needs. I decided to shadow a dentist whose office isn’t far from campus, and I was like wow, this is what I’m going to do. I shadowed her for two years and then I finally applied to dental school.
When I become a dentist, I want to go back to Ghana and teach people this is what you’re supposed to do. You don’t just go to the dentist when you need to get your teeth pulled.
It’s that ‘giving back’ spirit I’ve honed here at Loyola. The spirit of giving back and community service isn’t as strong in Ghana because most Ghanaians are struggling economically. I feel like I’ve been very fortunate. When you get a chance to go to America, people see it as your ticket to success. You’re golden.
After this experience, I know I have to go back. There’s no way I could just be a dentist in the U.S. because I wouldn’t feel fulfilled. I’ll practice here first, because I want to give back to my American community, but then eventually I want to go back to Ghana. And later on in life I want to teach!
How did you develop your passion for service?
My mom passed away the day after I left to come to America, right before I started at Loyola. Recently it was the four-year anniversary of her passing, and I was reflecting on how far I’ve come and how much she influenced me. We were poor, but my mom was someone who opened her arms and our home to everyone, even though we didn’t have much. We regularly had kids sleeping over at our house that I didn’t even know. My mom would say, “Their house is worse than ours,” I would think, “Whose house is worse than ours?” My inspiration for giving back started with her and it was nurtured at Loyola.
My mom was a very loving, giving person. She was always smiling. That’s what I remember of her. Even when she was sick for the three years before she passed, she would still be positive. I was in boarding school at the time, and I could only go home to see her every few months… She just wanted to know how I was doing, how school was going. It was never about her—she was incredibly selfless and caring.
How did your experience at Loyola prepare you for the future?
These four years transformed me.
I think back to myself in freshman year: I was very timid, I didn’t understand my abilities, and I thought I was just here to study. But Loyola really provided various platforms for me to realize there are so many things I can do. I never thought I would tutor, I never thought I would go abroad— and I’m already abroad in a sense. I never thought I would do research.
If you take advantage of everything Loyola has to offer, you will really shine.
Who were your mentors while you were a student at Loyola?
Dr. David Rivers and Dr. Timothy McNeese are two professors I absolutely love. They’ve given me so many opportunities and have really shown me the way. I consider them family. They encouraged me to go abroad even though I knew I would be applying to dental schools when I returned, and the dental schools wouldn’t view the science classes I took in Thailand favorably. Dr. Rivers told me, “Just go. You’re going to have the time of your life.” So I went and didn’t take any science classes, and when I returned I had my most successful year academically at Loyola.
Dr. Rivers also encouraged me to apply for the Hauber Fellowship, which I was awarded, and it allowed me to conduct research with Dr. Bernadette Roche over the summer between my junior and senior years. We researched a plant species that is able to grow in environments with very high magnesium and low calcium levels (toxic to most plants); but it can also grow in regular soil. So we were trying to figure out if those plants, when removed from toxic soil and put in regular soil or vice versa, would do better or worse.
I also spent two semesters doing research with Dr. Rivers, who specializes in bugs. I never thought I’d like insects, but Dr. Rivers makes it fun.
What advice would you give an incoming student who isn’t following the traditional path to college?
Always put a positive spin on everything. It’s up to you to turn everything around.
Also, reach out to people who will listen to you, to your story.
My story could have easily been a sob story: I could have been crying that my mom passed, that I’m poor, and use those as excuses to not do well and not focus in school, but for me that was the deepest motivation, knowing that there was no backup plan. I told myself, “You have to do this. You have to get into dental school. There is no plan B.” That’s how I pushed myself.
I talked to other people taking the dental school entrance exam, and they said, “You’ll probably have to take it twice.” I said no—because first of all, it’s about $400 to take the exam. Not only that, but you have to buy all of the books to study for it.
I couldn’t afford to take a preparatory class like most other prospective students, so I just studied for it myself, and I told myself, “You have one shot.” That $400 is a lot of money, a lot of hours of work for me to make that money, and I don’t have my parents to help me. I told myself, “You really are on your own, but you can do it.”
And I did.
What are you looking forward to most in the next chapter of your life?
I’m looking forward to actually having patients and building a relationship with them. Over the past two years while I’ve been shadowing, I’ve seen the relationship that my mentor dentist has built with her patients. She remembers the smallest details about every patient. I can’t wait to do the same.
And as a black woman, I want to be a role model, in a sense, for other black women like me who might not realize their potential.
But ultimately, I’m really looking forward to practicing in underserved communities and leading the movement to increase the availability of affordable dental care in Ghana.
To read more stories about this year’s Graduating Greyhounds, visit our 2014 Commencement page.