A Match Made at McNamara

Emerson Gonyea, DDS ’23, and Jenna Gardner, MDT ’22

For Emerson Gonyea, DDS ’23, and Jenna Gardner, MDT ’22, the School of Dentistry has been a key part of their love story. Now, it’s a main character in their engagement story, too.

Gonyea and Gardner met on their first day of orientation in 2019 at McNamara Alumni Center. They hit it off immediately. Gardner remembers the moment she saw Gonyea for the first time. “He had on a suit and tie, carrying a backpack,” she said. “He had a great smile.”

Gardner was struck by Gonyea’s friendliness and how he is kind to everyone he meets. Gonyea remembers chatting in line while waiting to get a headshot. The next day, “I wasn’t even thinking about orientation,” he said. “My goal was just to find her again.”

They became fast friends, and within a few months, they were dating. Though they pursued different degrees, their motivations for careers in oral health are similar. They both had their interest sparked by an oral health mentor.

For Gardner, it was her dentist: knowing she was interested in some kind of oral health career, he recommended the dental therapy program. “Every day is different when you’re a dental therapist,” she said. “I love that you get to have a bigger scope of practice and have continuity of care with your patients.”

Gonyea, who was unsure of his career path and shadowed providers while studying microbiology, decided to follow his sister-in-law's pathway toward dentistry. He knew he had made the right decision after volunteering at the Boys and Girls Club in Madison, Wisconsin. “There were kids with dental pain,” he recalled. “Some days, they would be loving life: and then some days, they wouldn’t be themselves because of the pain. I wanted to be part of making that better for them.”

Gonyea and Gardner have not worked together much in dental school, beyond engaging in what Gardner calls “teeth talk” after hard days and connecting the DDS and dental therapy classes through their relationship. However, they both decided to serve on the School of Dentistry Alumni Society board.

Gardner wanted to learn about the opportunities available to her as a dental therapist and connect with a larger community. “It was a chance for me to reach out to the alumni and see the different avenues available to me,” she explained. “And it’s been really great. I feel like there are more opportunities available for me when I graduate because of the connections I’ve made.”

Emerson Gonyea, DDS ’23, and Jenna Gardner, MDT ’22
Emerson Gonyea, DDS ’23, and Jenna Gardner, MDT ’22

Gonyea was looking to get more involved throughout his second year, and the alumni board was taking applications for student representatives. It seemed perfect. “Everyone on the board is incredible,” he said. “It’s been a great opportunity for us to network, and we’re working to help our classmates do the same thing.”

Because the school--and the alumni society--was so instrumental in their time together, Gonyea knew that they had to play a large role when he asked Gardner to marry him. He hatched a detailed plan that involved a room reservation, dental friends helping him decorate, and an alumni board meeting.

“I’m really hard to surprise,” Gardner explained. So Gonyea had to pull out all the stops. He concocted a plan and brought it to Erin Strong Elliot, Director of Alumni Relations for the School of Dentistry. She was immediately in. Together, they worked with the board to create a fake meet and greet event at McNamara, convincing Gardner that she and Gonyea would be getting to meet the people they had mainly worked with over Zoom. When she arrived, she found the room where they had met decorated, and Gonyea ready to propose.

Gardner said yes, and the two have begun slowly but surely planning for their wedding and their future together. They started with a celebration with classmates at Sally’s bar after the proposal.

Gonyea knew that he needed the school to be a major part of their proposal story, because it had meant so much to them throughout their relationship. “I knew I wanted to do it at McNamara,” he said. And having the alumni society involved was the perfect way to keep it a secret. “We are really lucky that the U and the dental school have been part of our relationship,” Gardner said. “It was special to get engaged at the place we met, and I think if he would have done it any other way, I would have been onto him.”

Gardner and Gonyea aren’t sure what the future will hold. Gardner graduates in 2022, and Gonyea will have one additional year in dental school. But they know that their future will include involvement with the alumni society, and with the school that made their love possible.

“The dental school has been such a big part of our story,” Gardner said. “Our families met at the White Coat Ceremony, we’ve worked together in clinic. It’s played such a big role in our relationship, so I know we’ll continue to stay connected once we graduate.”