Ski-U-Mah Life is a weekly feature from GopherSports.com that highlights some of the more than 700 Minnesota student-athletes outside of their athletic accomplishments. This week, cross country and track athlete Rachel Wians is featured.
Rachel Wians hated going to the dentist as a kid.
Growing up in Middleton, Wis., she never looked forward to her semi-annual checkups. It then may have come to a surprise to her parents when early in her college career, she decided to pursue a career in the dental field.
A member of the Gophers cross country and track teams, she is just two semesters away from earning her undergraduate degree in physiology, and already has her next step planned.
"I actually really didn't like going to the dentist as a kid, so it's kind of ironic that I decided on this career path now," Wians said. "I had a really great dentist, despite not enjoying it."
Dentistry made an early impression on her for other reasons. Her older brother, Zachary, was diagnosed with autism as a child, which can make dental cleanings or effective brushing hard because of sensory issues. Rachel took note of the accommodations their family dentist made.
"The population of people with disabilities is a pretty underserved population," she explained. "And not a lot of people will take on patients like that because they are more difficult, depending on their sensory issues and the different pathways you have to take."
The profession appeals to her brain as well. She credits that to the influence of her parents, Chris and Dawn.
"I think dentistry offers a lot of the right side and left side of your brain coming together and doing diverse things with it," Wians said. "My mom is very right-brain; she was a design major in college and did interior design. We would do art camps in our home studio and she has done real estate and advocacy - she's kind of the jack of all trades. My dad is a pharmacist, he's the opposite - he's the left side where he's super analytical and logical in mathematics and science."
Choosing a medical career is one of the more difficult academic paths one can take. Wians is able to balance her course load with her athletic career by being wise with her time.
"It's a challenge but I think when I'm busy is when I'm the most successful," she said. "I know, `OK, I have an hour here or a half hour, I can sit on my phone and look at Instagram, or I can study this chapter in psychology'... taking those bits and pieces of time throughout the day and using them efficiently."
It helps that she has a built-in support system in her own apartment. She lives with three of her teammates in Emily Betz, Kelsey Sather and Abby Lange. Lange is also a physiology major, and understands Wians' delicate balance.
"Our pre-reqs have been challenging, but it's been really nice having each other to study together and ask questions," Lange explained. "We keep each other on track and motivate each other. Also we are really excited to finally get into our physiology classes, getting through some of those tough classes to ones that are more interesting has been motivating."
On the cross country course, Wians doesn't let her professional pursuits overwhelm her.
"I don't know if I'm thinking about teeth while I'm racing," she said with a laugh. "But I think there's things about distance running and sports in general that apply to the dental field - having those skills of work ethic and working as a team. In dentistry you're working with a patient and also a dental assistant - there's a team aspect to it as well."
The practice regimen of a distance runner is detailed and thorough - much like preparing for a career as a dentist.
"There's a lot of behind-the-scenes work that's going on in cross country; no one is cheering you on as you're doing your long run on a Sunday morning," Wians explained. "But when race day hits, you have to step up to the plate. The same with dentistry; that's all dental school is, your preparation before you hit the big stage of your career."
Is she ready for the big stage, with a real person in need of dental services? Not quite yet.
"I haven't had a patient in front of me, but at the dental school prep course I went to, you have a mannequin and I think that was my first experience," Wians said. "Where I've done shadowing and peeking over the dentist's shoulder what they're doing, it's a totally different experience when you have the hand piece in your hand and you're the one actually doing the treatment."
Rachel took a shortcut on her career path recently. Just two weeks ago, she decided to accelerate her course load and graduate this May, finishing in three years.
"I feel like I'm ready for dental school," she explained. "My undergraduate career will be done in the spring and I could take a gap year, but I know this is what I want to do, 100 percent, so I'm ready to take the next step."
She already has great experience under her belt. After nannying at home the last three summers, Wians stayed in Minneapolis this summer and worked three jobs, including at the U's dental school in the orthodontic faculty practice.
"I helped with exams, taking photos, taking notes during exams, cleaning chairs... it's fun getting to interact one on one with patients, whereas not many dental clinics offer opportunities like that for undergraduate students," she explained of the job she will continue through the school year.
Wians also interned at Children's Dental Services in Minneapolis.
"I got the chance to mainly work on administrative projects - I made pamphlets on teeth cleaning for infants, things like that," she said. "Also, talking to insurance companies about a certain patient's benefits - things that were totally out of my comfort zone. It was fun to see how a clinic like that is run and also getting to shadow, being in the clinic and peeking over the shoulder of the dentist."
Finally, she spent time as a summer camp inclusion specialist, a job with a personal connection.
"I was a support person for individuals with disability in parks and rec programs," Wians explained. "I got to be paired up with various individuals throughout the summer at different programs. The one that I worked most hands-on with is a four-year old, getting to do arts and crafts. Your primary focus is making sure that individual has the same inclusion that all the kids are, and blending in and incorporated in the normal classroom setting."
All three helped cement her desire to become a dentist, particularly wanting to specialize in pediatric care.
The classic holiday film Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer features a scene in which the young elf, Hermey, is accosted for not enjoying toy making. When asked what he does want to do instead, he memorably answers, "Someday, I'd like to be a dentist." Mocking from the head elf ensues.
Has Rachel gotten a similar reaction from her friends and teammates about her dental aspirations?
"I think people think it's nerdy that I'm so into it, but I totally embrace it," Wians said. "Up in my room right now on my wall I have an impression of teeth and a tooth that I waxed, I have it displayed because I did it and it makes me excited about my career. When I see the dental students walking down the street in their blue scrubs, I think, `Gosh I can't wait to be one of them!'"
"I'm really excited for her," Lange added. "It's been really cool this past summer when she'd come back and share stories about work. I'd see her light up when she would talk about it. You can tell it's something she's very passionate about... I think she will be an amazing dentist."
Rachel's parents share her enthusiasm too.
"They can't wait to get a free dental treatment from me," she declared with a smile.
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