PORTLAND — One of the primary reasons the University of New England founded its College of Dental Medicine four years ago was to address a shortage of dental care in rural parts of the state, according to state leaders at the time.
Now, with the graduation of the first class of dentists last Saturday, the dental college on the Portland campus of UNE has begun to fulfill its mission.
About a dozen in the class of 62 are planning to stay in Maine to practice dentistry, college officials said, and several have taken positions in underserved areas of the state.
That’s the case for Adam L’Italian, 28, who is originally from Enfield and plans to provide dental care at a federally funded health clinic in Lincoln, a town of about 5,000 in Penobscot County.
L’Italian said in addition to a staff dentist, the clinic also offers primary care and behavioral health services. He said while the clinic has had dentists before, recruitment is difficult due to the clinic’s rural location and the available salary.
In fact, L’Italian said the clinic had been searching for a full-time dentist for nearly a year before he took the position.
After his dental license is approved by the state later this spring, he will be able to provide comprehensive care to patients 40 hours a week.
L’Italian graduated from Mattanawcook Academy in Lincoln and then attended the University of Connecticut, where he studied physiology and neurobiology, which focuses on the nervous system.
Although L’Italian had always been interested in dentistry as a potential career, he took two years off and worked as a dental assistant before deciding to commit to dental school.
“My mom is a dental hygienist and I spent a lot of time in dental offices growing up,” he said.
What he most likes about dentistry, L’Italian said, is that a dentist is “part engineer, part artist and part doctor. Plus, I really like using my hands.”
“I knew I wanted to go to dental school, but felt I would be remiss if I didn’t make sure it was what I wanted,” he said. “I wanted to get a good handle on the work first,” he said of his years working as a dental assistant.
L’Italian said it was always his hope to live and work in his home state, which is why he was so pleased when Maine’s first and only dental college opened its doors in August 2013.
He said the UNE dental program is unique because students spend a lot of time in the community providing dental care under the supervision of licensed dentists.
While his first couple of years in dental school were spent on what L’Italian called “bookwork,” including studying anatomy and pharmacology, the next 2 1/2 years were spent providing direct patient care.
Just this year, for instance, L’Italian participated in a series of 12-week externships in places such as Belfast, Millinocket and Houlton.
“We’re really making a difference in rural areas simply by providing more access to care and more manpower,” he said.
L’Italian admitted to having some concerns about attending a newly created dental training program, but said overall the College of Dental Medicine provided a “good experience,” along with an ability to do procedures that often aren’t available to dental students at other, more established colleges.
“There were ups and downs, but I would say UNE did a good job of mitigating any issues and preparing us to be clinicians right from the get-go,” he said.
At the May 20 graduation ceremony, Jon Ryder, dean of the College of Dental Medicine, said, “It is deeply gratifying to witness this graduating class entering the professional world. They have demonstrated remarkable dedication and hard work.”
“I am honored to welcome them as colleagues in oral health care and I look forward to seeing the impact they will have on the many patients and communities they will serve,” Ryder added.
Danielle Ripich, UNE’s outgoing president, said “this historic occasion marks a tremendous milestone for the university (and) for dentistry in Maine and northern New England.”
The College of Dental Medicine was founded with the help of a $5 million bond approved in a statewide referendum in 2010.
It includes an Oral Health Center that not only provides education to the next generation of dentists, but also offers services to people in the region who often can’t afford dental insurance or regular dental care.
College of Dental Medicine graduate Lynne Cataldo receives her diploma May 20 from UNE President Danielle Ripich at Cross Insurance Arena in Portland.
Adam L’Italian, right, with his wife Danielle and dog Pete, is a native Mainer and member of the inaugural class at the College of Dental Medicine at the University of New England in Portland.