The Faces of USC: White is not always right in the dental industry (Text)

Djavan Wharton-Lake hopes to inspire future generation of black dentists

The many brown faces at USC’s Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry belong to students from India, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran and Egypt. But there is only one African-American student in all of the graduate dentistry programs.

Dr. Djavan Wharton-Lake, a 30-year-old dual citizen of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago and the United States, says his graduate program is internationally diverse but not domestically diverse enough. Nationwide, fewer than 4 percent of American dentists are black, according to the Center for Studying Health System Change.

Lake, in an Annenberg Media story published this fall, says he rarely sees people who look like him while walking the halls of USC’s dental school.

The story recounted the experience of John Alexander Somerville, the first African-American to attend USC, and the only black student in the dentistry program. Somerville graduated in 1907, and more than a century later history is repeating itself.

“I walk around these halls and rarely see people who look like me,” Lake says. “That’s so far-fetched to think about now since the America you walk in is so diverse.”

Somerville’s story inspired Lake, who says he wants to be a motivating force for black youth, too. He hopes to set a standard for youth as a way to “pay it forward” like Somerville paved the way for him.

“He’s as much a pioneer as anybody else in this country,” Lake says. “That’s a big deal. Without him, there would be no me. He should be recognized somewhere in the school.”

Lake “pays it forward” by volunteering at middle schools like Dean L. Shively Middle School in South El Monte. He talks to students about the steps he took to become a dentist, the importance of education and serving in your community, and about being a well-rounded person.

“‘If he’s doing that I can do that,’” is what Lake hopes youth will say when they see him as a dentist. “It’s important to have these black faces in any kind of professional setting to show the young folk that it’s possible for them to do it.”

He can sense his influence through interactions with patients who are surprised to see a young, black dentist. He hears well wishes and “God bless you” from these supportive patients.

Lake was inspired by his dad, Dr. Lennox Wharton-Lake of Washington, D.C., who is also a dentist.

“My father has been my role model, not only as the professional he is but as the person and man that he is,” says Lake, who’s never had a cavity …


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