Filling A Special Need

Cynde Mai portrait


08 May 24

After spending time in Ostrow’s Community Oral Health Programs, Cynde Mai is energized to use her dental degree to give back to medically compromised, geriatric and other patients with unique needs. 


IT’S NOT OFTEN YOU FALL into dentistry, but that’s how Cynde Mai MS ’20, DDS ’24 found herself in the field.

“I grew up hating the dentist,” she says. “Everyone is surprised, including me, that I chose this profession.”

Mai’s parents, both from Vietnam, came to the United States as refugees. Mai and her brother are the first in their family to go to college.

“Honestly, I was the worst student growing up,” she says. “My parents were starting their lives in a foreign country, with no family. When we were born, they knew we needed education to survive, but my parents barely spoke English and weren’t sure how to help.”

Mai went to community college before transferring to Cal Poly Pomona, and was considering a career as a pharmacist until she received an invitation from a friend to volunteer.

In 2016, Mai assisted during a screening day at the San Gabriel Pomona Regional Center, a non-profit providing dental care and other services to individuals with developmental disabilities.

“It opened up this door,” she says. “With pharmacy school, I felt a level of isolation. Dentistry is so hands-on; I could interact with patients.”

Mai not only chose to pursue dentistry, but to become a provider that is able to treat patients with special needs.


An Eye Opener


“Not every dentist is well-versed or trained to treat this group,” she says. “Seeing how this marginal-ized community has such limited access to care, I was determined to bridge this gap.”

A provider at the regional center saw Mai’s potential and hired her as a dental assistant. For two years, Mai mainly practiced house-call dentistry, treating a range of patients, including those in end-of-life care.

“It opened my eyes to this whole different world of dentistry I never knew existed,” she says. “It’s a privilege to help care for these patients.”

Mai is a recipient of the highly competitive National Health Service Corps (NHSC) Scholarship, a program that awards scholarships and stipends to students dedicated to serving communities in need. In exchange, scholars commit to providing care to underserved populations for the same amount of time students receive NHSC support.


The Highlight of Dental School


After graduation, Mai will spend three years at a federally qualified health center — treating a range of people, from children to geriatric patients.

Mai says her training at USC provided a solid foundation for treating patients wth diverse medical complications and behaviors that often accompany individuals with special needs.

“I was given a lot of tools from amazing faculty members and mentors to add into my toolbox going into practice,” she says.” “USC has so many opportunities; I made it a point to take advantage of them and really take charge of my own education and training.”

During her time at USC, Mai worked in a variety of settings, from children’s community oral health programs to Ostrow’s Dr. Roseann Mulligan Special Patients Clinic, treating medically compromised, disabled and elderly patients.

Mai also became the Class of 2024 secretary, a student ambassador, ushering in new dental students and a student director for the USC Mobile Clinic, which treats patients from the Central Valley to San Diego County. Mai helped orchestrate up to 70 volunteers treating more than 100 patients — including chldren of migrant farm workers, veterans with PTSD or other challenges —  over the course of a weekend.

“Being in that student-director role, seeing my classmates work so hard for the same goal of helping those marginalized communities, was such a full circle moment for me,” she says. “Being a part of the Mobile Clinic was the highlight of my dental school experience.”

As graduation approaches, Mai is trying to slow down and reflect. “I have to remind myself to take a step back and see that I really did what I set out to do,” she says. “Sometimes I’m still in disbelief and wonder ‘Who let me get this far in life?’”

As for advice for prospective students, Mai says to seek out as many opportunities as possible, surround yourself with an amazing support system, help those who come after you and enjoy the process.

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