Walters State graduate Garrett Salansky wants to help people smile with confidence. He prefers toothy grins like the one he recently flashed for a former professor who helped him with his successful application to the University of Tennessee College of Dentistry.
“That was such a joyous moment,” Salansky said of opening his acceptance letter. “And sort of surreal. It was a long road to get there.”
The academic road for Salansky was made a little shorter thanks to summer classes and about 30 hours of coursework he completed through dual enrollment while still in high school. The pre-professional health programs major, and 2014 Walters State graduate, started thinking about dentistry during his senior year at Morristown West High School.
“I had earlier thought I would go into some area of engineering,” he said. “Morristown West has a phenomenal math program. I had a big love for that and a lot of my friends did, too. But I began to realize that I’m more of a people person and I wanted to pursue a career where I could influence people’s lives.”
His inspiration to pursue dentistry came by way of his own positive experience with braces and the interactions he had as a patient of Morristown orthodontist, Dr. Mark McKenna — who was among several dentists Salansky was able to shadow in preparation for applying to dental school.
“I loved having braces because they made me want to smile again,” Salansky said. “I thought Dr. McKenna had a pretty neat job with helping people smile, and that planted the thought of dentistry as a possibility for me.”
Once the decision was made and Salansky was on the Walters State campus full time, he gained more inspiration from faculty members like Dr. Matthew Smith, the chemistry professor who recommended him for dental school.
“Dr. Smith really helped me fall in love with all the science classes I was taking,” Salansky said. “I spent more time with him than anyone. He definitely made me fall in love with chemistry.”
Salansky is among many pre-professional health majors, Smith said, who have made the decision to begin their degrees in dentistry, medicine, veterinarian medicine or pharmacy before beginning coursework full-time at Walters State. Students like Salansky learn more than scientific principles and formulas from Smith and other professors in the Division of Natural Science.
“I work at teaching them things, other than chemistry, that are going to pay off in the long run,” Smith said. “I frequently get emails or letters like the one that Garrett sent, and I’ve yet to receive a letter that said, ‘thank you for teaching me how to do electron configuration’ or ‘how to write formulas for compounds.’ I get letters that say, ‘thank you for teaching me how to work’ or ‘for teaching me how to study’ or ‘for holding me accountable and making me work and get through it, because it’s paying off.’”
Smith attributes that type of feedback to engaging students with an infectious passion for learning. “I don’t want to go to class and just go through the motions,” he said. “I want them to see that I enjoy it. I want them to feel that we’re going to go through this together. I want them to know that I want them to succeed, and they can come to me and receive any help that they need. But at the same time, I hold them accountable for my expectations in the class.”
Many pre-professional health majors at Walters State go on to medical or pharmacy school at East Tennessee State University, Smith said. A few are like Salansky and will pursue dental school, optometry or even veterinarian medicine. Others have switched from a pre-med path to pursue the physician’s assistant program at Lincoln Memorial University.
Aided by several scholarships, Salansky’s experience at Walters State included participation in student and academic clubs and activities, and staying on the President’s List for academic performance. After completing dental school, he plans to practice dentistry in the Morristown area and will consider eventually specializing in orthodontic care.
“Walters State gave me another year at home with my family,” he said. “It saved me money and time, which allowed me to find the best fit for doing what I want to do. Now I just want to give back to this community in the same way that so much was given to me.”
To learn more about what Walters State has to offer as a preparatory foundation for baccalaureate professional programs in various health fields, visit the Division of Natural Sciences at Ws.edu.