For Dental Student, Columbia Was Worth the Wait

May 12, 2017
Victor Lee

Victor Lee was rejected by Columbia twice—once when he applied to the College, and later by the University’s College of Dental Medicine— was before he accepted in 2013. But he says he’s glad it turned out that way.

“If things come too easy, you won’t appreciate them and you won’t work as hard,” said Lee, who graduates this year from the dental school and from Teacher’s College with a degree in dental education. “Had I come in earlier, I wouldn’t have become as involved a student, and the project I joined wouldn’t have been ready.”

In his third year at the dental school, Lee was asked by the school’s dean, Christian Stohler, to work on an innovative program to make dentures using 3D printing technology. “Our dean is very big on technology,” Lee said. “He was pushing for something new and something better.” The project was under the mentorship of George Shelby White, an associate professor at the school and director of its Division of Prosthodontics.

This is brand-new technology. The Food and Drug Administration approved 3-D printing for medical devices only two years ago, and the fabrication of dentures quickly followed. “The detailed scans allow for printing shapes that other equipment can’t produce,” Lee said. “Patients get a better fit.”

Lee’s recent educational experience is marked change from his early college years. As an undergraduate pharmacology major at Stony Brook University, he felt lost and uncertain about his future. “College was tough. I didn’t know how to get through it and I had mediocre grades,” he said.

Lee’s father, who had been a dentist in China, encouraged him to follow a similar path. With some hesitation, Lee took a job at a dental office, where he was a desk receptionist and dental assistant.

At first, Lee worried that patients wouldn’t enjoy trips to the dentist. “But the practices I worked for were really great and nice to their patients. Their patients would come out happy and laughing. So I thought I could really make this my own.”

With newfound passion, Lee applied to dental programs at Columbia and other schools, only to be rejected by them all. Disappointed, but with renewed determination, he spent another year working in the dental office, learning to perform sterilization of equipment and preparing an operation room for surgical procedures.

He also rekindled an old passion for dragon boat racing. The 2,000-year-old sport is rooted in Chinese culture and involves a crew of 22, all of them paddlers except a drummer who counts out the strokes and a steerer who navigates from the stern. Lee’s team excelled enough to be invited to represent the United States in a 2013 world championship event in Szeged, Hungary. “It was nice to be able to race at that caliber.”

It was his lucky year, Lee said. In the spring he was accepted at Columbia’s dental school, and his dragon boat won gold in a 500-meter race on an international stage in late summer. Two days later, exhausted and jet-lagged, Lee began the dental program.

In his second year, inspired by his faculty mentor, Dr. John Grbic, a periodontist, Lee enrolled in a dental education program at Teacher’s College, taking night classes. “The faculty here have always had my back in a personal way and always in an academic way,” said Lee. “They helped me see the potential in dentistry that I just didn’t have the foresight to see beforehand.”

He graduates from Columbia with two degrees that dovetail his current career goals: teaching and also experimenting with new technology that he plans to use in the dental field.

Lee often volunteers to speak to prospective dental students at Columbia College—the same school that rejected him 10 years ago. His advice to those who may feel as lost as he once was: “Not doing well made me a lot more grounded,” he said. “And I never gave up on thinking I can do more.”

—By Walyce Almeida