Grant to fund scholarships for dental therapy learners who will practice in rural settings

Dental therapy students standing together smiling for picture.

Thanks to a grant from the Minnesota Department of Health, two dental therapy students will be supported in their future plans to work in rural Minnesota after graduation.

When Danae Seyffer, MDT, clinical associate professor of dental therapy, learned that the Office of Rural Health and Primary Care at the Minnesota Department of Health was offering funding for professions that increase access outside the seven-county metro area, she knew the Division of Dental Therapy could benefit. She quickly applied, resulting in the Dental Therapy Health Professional Training Scholarship, a $55,000 grant that will support two dental therapy students who wish to work in rural Minnesota after graduation. 

“It’s always been a challenge to get providers into rural areas, and this grant provides additional support to students considering it,” Seyffer explained. “Sometimes, when students consider practicing in rural areas, they aren’t sure how they will pay their loans back or have enough support. This grant will provide helpful funding, and will also allow us to connect them with other providers in rural Minnesota.” 

This grant is particularly special, as it is the first grant the division has received that directly supports individuals who will practice in rural Minnesota. In addition to the scholarship support, the recipients of the grant will work with Seyffer and her team to pursue partnerships and mentorships with alumni already practicing in rural areas. “Whether it’s a dentist, a dental therapist or someone else in the community, we will help them build connections and ensure it’s a successful transition,” she explained.

The 2024 recipients of the scholarship are Reilly Wahlers, BSDH ’25, MDT ’26, Pedro Lopez Vega, BSDH ’23, MDT ’24. 

Watching her mom work as a dental assistant in the local dental office inspired Wahlers to pursue a career in oral health. “I liked the atmosphere, and all the friendly people that worked there,” she said. After beginning her dental hygiene studies amid the COVID-19 pandemic and working as a dental assistant in her hometown of Grand Marais, she got to know and work with a dental therapist for the first time.

Reilly Wahlers headshot.

“Having this experience of seeing firsthand what a dental therapist does really caught my attention,” she said. “I like the expanded treatments that dental therapists are able to provide, and understand their importance in helping and serving rural communities.” 

After graduation, Wahlers plans to return to Grand Marais, a dental health professional shortage area, and “serve the people of this community that I know and love.” She looks forward to “increasing access to oral health care, along with contributing not only to oral health, but overall health.” 

Receiving the scholarship “helps alleviate a great amount of stress and worry,” Wahlers said. “Not having to constantly think about finances allows me to have my primary focus on my education. I look forward to building relationships throughout my career with patients and colleagues. I value the outstanding education that I am receiving, and I look forward to sharing it with others!” 

Lopez Vega, who grew up in the small town of Postville, Iowa, and whose experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic drew him to dental therapy, says practicing in a rural location “would be a homecoming for me, I look forward to becoming part of the solution to provide access and care for those with unmet needs..” 

His time at the School of Dentistry has made Lopez Vega “more acutely aware of the need for dental providers in rural areas.” In his third year of studies, Lopez Vega has spent time working at the CARE clinic in Red Wing, MN, as a dental hygienist. “Many of my patients are unable to access care,” he said. 

Pedro Lopez Vega headshot.

After graduation, Lopez Vega plans to keep working at the CARE Clinic in Red Wing, eventually becoming an Advanced Dental Therapist. He feels “humbled” to have received this scholarship. 

“I think providing scholarships like these will encourage more dental providers to consider rural areas and increase access,” he explained. “I am grateful to be a member of the Dental Therapy community, and hope more opportunities like this are provided for future students”. 

And as he prepares to start that life very soon, Lopez Vega is grateful for the community he’s had alongside him.

“I want to congratulate and recognize my fellow dental therapy students on our upcoming graduation. It’s been a long and challenging road to get here, but we made it,” he said. “I couldn’t have done it without the support and guidance of so many wonderful people and classmates who have helped me along the way. From late-night study sessions to countless plastic teeth used in the pursuit of perfection, this journey has been unforgettable.”