From dental school to active Navy service
When Taylor Mikkalson graduates from the DDS program at the University of Minnesota in May, she’ll have a different job than most students waiting for her.
As her classmates go off to practice in various settings, Mikkalson will say goodbye to her undergraduate and graduate alma mater and head to the Marine Corps Air Station in Beaufort, South Carolina.
Mikkalson is part of the Health Professional Scholarship Program through the United States Navy, which funded her dental school tuition in exchange for a four-year pledge to serve. This summer, she’ll start a credentialing tour, which involves rotating through specialties and the station’s comprehensive care clinic. Throughout her time, she’ll serve as an active duty officer, Lieutenant, “to promote operational readiness among my patients,” she explained.
Deciding to commission was a difficult choice for Mikkalson, but she had someone to look up to in the process: her brother. Mikkalson is a triplet, and her brother was one year ahead of her in school due to her decision to take a gap year. “No, our third triplet isn’t a dentist,” Mikkalson joked. She’s a physician’s assistant.
Family was important to Mikkalson growing up, so she valued the example her brother set in commissioning. But that didn’t mean the decision was easy. “Making a four-year long commitment four years prior to it happening isn’t an easy task.” Still, she felt pulled to serve, and she’s proud of her choice.
A few days after she officially commissioned, Mikkalson’s decision was reaffirmed when her dad pulled out an old cigar box that had belonged to her grandfather. “In it were old photographs from my grandpa, of his time serving as a medic in the Navy,” she recalled. “I’ve never met him, so this was a very pivotal moment in which I felt connected to him. I realized how life comes full circle.”
Other than a five week Officer Development School experience, most of Mikkalson’s dental school experience so far has been fairly typical. She’s been part of the University of Minnesota for eight years now, competing in cross country and track as well as studying, and she’s loved every minute.
“The U has been more like a family than a program,” she explained. “The undergraduates call us the ‘blueberries,’ because we walk around campus in our navy blue scrubs.”
The importance of family values and connectedness that Mikkalson’s family inspired in her has been reinforced by her time at school, too. “We are a family here. No matter which role you play, we’re one team, one fight. Everyone is looking out for one another and willing to assist.”
She credits the family she’s found at the School of Dentistry with her success in the program. “The highs and lows of this rigorous learning experience would have been so much less enjoyable without my classmates, professors, patients and mentors along the way,” she said. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today without the people who have supported me and molded me into the future medical professional I’ll soon become.”
In addition to her studies, Mikkalson provided dental care to the San Blas Islands community off the coast of Panama—where she learned the value of a smile and that she should never take showers for granted—and served as a preclinical tutor for first- and second-year dentistry students.
“My first two years in the preclinical lab weren’t the most enjoyable,” she recalled. But helping other students learn from her experience has been rewarding. “The students teach me just as much, if not more, than what I’m teaching them” when she tutors, Mikkalson said.
When she steps across the stage in May and goes out into the world, Mikkalson will take all these experiences with her—and she’s confident they’ll make her a better officer and a better dentist.
“Dentistry is a purpose-filled profession where I can use my hands, be creative, and work in a team-oriented environment to serve our patients to the best of our ability,” she said. “It has all the elements to constantly challenge me to improve the fine details of every procedure. It’s the combination of the outlook and teachings of dentistry, and the people in this program, that make it such a unique place to become a well-rounded professional.”