The Ties That Bind

Portraits of top officers from the Korean American Dental Association



10 Jan 24

Ostrow and the Korean American Dental Association have maintained strong bonds since the organization’s founding in 1969.

WHEN SEONHO HA DDS ’93, PROS ’95 ARRIVED IN THE UNITED STATES from Korea in 1991 at age 29, he encountered unfamiliar terrain, including language and cultural barriers. At times, Ha admits, the transition proved daunting and overwhelming.

Fortunately, Ha found an encouraging ally in the Korean American Dental Association (KADA).

Having completed his dental training at Seoul National University (SNU) in South Korea before moving to California, Ha enrolled in the International Student Program (ISP) at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry at USC to earn his DDS degree in the U.S. After Ha concluded his USC studies, KADA armed him with key insights to establish his practice and manage patients while also providing valuable touchpoints with his culture through social gatherings.

“KADA was such a supportive community for me and an organization that helped me find my way in the U.S.,” says Ha, who has run his own prosthodontics practice in Los Angeles for the past 23 years. 

Since 1969, KADA has provided U.S.-based dentists of Korean heritage like Ha a vibrant community of camaraderie, culture and professional support. From its modest roots in Los Angeles with 30 founding dentists, KADA now boasts some 2,000 national members, including nearly 800 in Southern California alone. Its members lead dental offices, train students, oversee research programs, shepherd community outreach programs and drive industry operations. 

But Ha embodies something more than KADA’s mission. He also represents KADA’s mighty ties to USC. 

KADA’s president from 2012 to 2014, Ha is one of many USC graduates to lead KADA over the past 54 years. He is also a former full-time Ostrow faculty member (1996-2006) who continues teaching implant dentistry, fixed prosthodontics and treatment planning at the school as a volunteer faculty.

KADA and USC have long been collaborative, cooperative partners contributing to the vitality and strength of the other.

“From KADA’s very beginning to the present day, its connections to USC are deep and many,” Ha confirms. 


KADA’s origins: Establishing a community


In the late 1960s, Korean immigration to the United States, and specifically the Los Angeles area, began accelerating following the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, which abolished the national quota system and stimulated the immigration of skilled professionals from countries like South Korea. 

Jae In Oh, a graduate of SNU, spearheaded efforts to bring SNU dental alumni in Southern California together — the foundation for KADA’s establishment in 1969. In a foreign land and challenged by language and cultural barriers, the upstart organization offered fraternity and support to a modest group of Korean-trained dentists.

“Though this was a small number of immigrants, they empathized with each other’s plight and were hungry for community,” former two-term KADA president Pilseong Kim ’89 says. “In that way alone, KADA served a critical role.”

Foreign-trained dentists, including those coming from South Korea, who wish to practice in the United States need to complete formal training in a CODA-accredited school. 

Enter USC and its groundbreaking ISP initiative — now called the Advanced Standing Program for International Dentists (ASPID). A first-of-its-kind program for foreign-trained dental graduates, ISP provided the necessary training to help early KADA members and other foreign-trained dentists pass their board examinations and launch their U.S. practice careers. 

“KADA’s connections to USC started immediately because of ISP’s presence, and many members of the association’s founding group completed that program,” says Brian Hong DDS ’89, PEDO ’92, MS ’96. 

Meanwhile, KADA provided additional support to drive members’ personal and professional well-being. It hosted social functions for members and their families and began offering continuing education courses in the Korean language. Then, as now, continuing education stands a hallmark of KADA, which has offered training on everything from CPR and infection control to opioid prescribing, implant dentistry and oral reconstruction over the years.


KADA evolves — and strengthens its ties to USC


As Korean immigration to the United States further increased throughout the 1970s and 1980s, graduates of SNU, Yonsei University, the first private dental school in South Korea, and USC’s ISP continued filling KADA’s ranks. KADA flourished as a vibrant professional organization providing important ties to immigrants’ Korean heritage, particularly in Southern California where the association had its roots and its greatest membership numbers.

As the 21st century unfolded, however, KADA’s membership ranks began turning, specifically transitioning from Korean-trained dentists to American-trained dentists of Korean heritage. In 2010, the USC-educated Hong was named KADA president. The organization’s 21st president, Hong, who came to the U.S. at age 12, was the first U.S.-trained dentist to hold KADA’s leadership post.  

“Brian’s tenure as president was the beginning of the organization’s transformation from Korean immigrant dentists to Korean American dentists educated in the United States,” current KADA president David Kim says. “His leading role at KADA was instrumental in helping the organization recruit others like him and helping the association spread its wings.”

Soon after, the American Dental Association (ADA) recognized KADA as an ethnic dental organization, joining others like the Hispanic Dental Association and the Society of American Indian Dentists. That opened the door for KADA to participate in the ADA’s annual president-elects gathering alongside other state and ethnic dental societies while also giving KADA a voice in the ADA’s diversity and inclusion efforts. 

“As much as keeping the identity and tradition of our organization in place was important, so, too, was phasing into the ADA,” says Pilseong Kim, who secured the ADA’s recognition as KADA president from 2014 to 2016. “Being a part of the broader American professional community of dentists gave us a way to contribute more to the profession and the local communities we serve.”

To reflect its growing membership base and honor its mission, KADA expanded its programming with various enterprising efforts. The association introduced a mentorship program matching early-career Korean American dentists with experienced clinicians to ease young dentists’ transition into professional life. KADA also launched an internship program exposing pre-dental students to the profession and its varied possibilities. Initially for Korean students, the internship program now embraces students from various ethnic backgrounds.

All the while, KADA maintained its ties to USC through students, alumni and faculty as well as events. Ostrow faculty members frequently presented at KADA events while KADA members participated in USC community service initiatives as well as Century Club Alumni Association events.

When David Kim first joined KADA in 2006, he marveled at the collaborative relationship between USC and KADA.

“There was so much representation of Korean dentists in the school, both in the student and faculty ranks, as well as a shared commitment to contributing to each other’s success,” says Kim, who was raised in Los Angeles but received his dental training on the East Coast.


KADA prepares for the future


While KADA has transformed from an immigrant membership organization facing language and cultural barriers in a new land to an overwhelmingly Korean American membership of U.S.-trained professionals, the common bonds of Korean heritage and professional solidarity remain, as do the association’s ties to Ostrow.

“USC plays a vital role in KADA’s history and that’s something worth honoring,” says Hong, who chairs Ostrow’s Friends of Dentistry group.

To that point, KADA recently introduced the Korean American Dental Association Endowed Scholarship for fourth-year DDS students in the USC Korean American Dental Student Association who demonstrate leadership qualities and provide community service. 

A long-standing idea of KADA leadership, the scholarship at USC reflects the rich, shared history between KADA and the University, from early KADA leaders who completed the ISP program to the many KADA members who have graduated from Ostrow or served on the school’s faculty roster.

“The scholarship gives notoriety and support to students who may be future leaders in the profession while also recognizing USC’s support of KADA for all these many years,” says David Kim, who aims to continue building the relationship between USC and KADA in ways that benefit the school, the association and the community.

As KADA approaches its 55th year, current leadership is focused on recruiting younger dentists of Korean heritage into its ranks, growing its national footprint through state and regional chapters and continuing to deliver value for members, particularly through continuing education covering relevant professional topics and networking opportunities providing access to jobs and insights on specialty practice areas. The association recently obtained CERP status from the ADA, a stamp of approval for the uniform acceptance of KADA’s continuing education credits for maintaining dental licensure.

“Dentistry is a good profession with an impact on people’s lives,” Pilseong Kim says. “And at KADA, we want all of our members to see that and enjoy a fulfilling professional life through camaraderie and support.”

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