Aspiring oral surgeon promotes “Super Star Smiles” for children

By Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations

University of California, Berkeley, student Hường Trần has such dazzling smile, it’s hard to imagine she hasn’t always been flashing that 1,000-volt grin…

But Trần, a 21-year-old integrative biology major and aspiring oral surgeon, underwent numerous medical and oral surgeries and bone grafts starting at age one to repair a bilateral cleft lip and palate. She said it wasn’t until she turned 17 that she had a smile to share with the world. “When I finally looked in the mirror, it was amazing. A smile can really make a difference,” Trần said.

Now, Trần said she is “paying it forward” with a free program she designed and named “Super Star Smiles.” The super star part of the title, she says, refers to her heroes – the many surgeons, orthodontists and others, including a UCLA orthodontist who suggested she apply to UC Berkeley, who helped make her smile possible.

Hường Trần smiles as she hugs stuffed animals that are part of the "Super Star Smiles" roadshow that she and other UC Berkeley students take to East Bay schools to teach youngsters how to brush their teeth, how to floss and why it is so important.

In the fall of 2010, at the suggestion of a friend who is an undergraduate education minor, Trần enrolled in Education 190, a course at the Graduate School of Education that teaches undergraduates education theory and sends them into local schools to implement self-designed field study projects.

“I fell in love with it,” Trần said. “The class is a great opportunity to discovery your own passion and blend class theory with practice.”

With the class as a springboard, she developed a volunteer program in which UC Berkeley students teach basic dental hygiene and good nutrition to youngsters from preschool through second grade in underserved East Bay communities. They visit classrooms for 30 minutes a few times each semester. This spring, Trần and her volunteers are visiting an after-school program operated by Girls Inc., at Wilson Elementary School in San Leandro.

More kids need this kind of information and support than ever, said Trần. California’s economic downturn has led to reduced government services and made dental care out of reach for parents struggling to feed their families.

Trần said she was lucky, because her corrective treatments were underwritten by charitable organizations and state agencies that, just a few years back, could help more needy children than today.

Through interaction with her oral surgeons and other doctors, she learned tips about everyday dental health that said she wouldn’t have learned from her parents, one who left school after sixth grade and the other who never attended school.

Her family moved to the United States after the Vietnam War and for years depended on food giveaway programs that didn’t always offer the healthiest of foods, she said. “Growing up, I loved sugar – I just loved it and ate it by the spoonful,” said Trần, adding that her mother didn’t know it wasn’t good for her.

Today, when teaching schoolkids good dental care, Trần and her friends come equipped with plaster models of the mouth, large and loveable stuffed animals with very large teeth loaned by the Cal Pre-Dental Society, and child-sized toothbrushes provided by the Berkeley Free Clinic. They show youngsters the best way to brush and floss, and have them practice their newly learned toothbrushing skills on the toy models.

Education professor John Hurst began Ed 190 courses at UC Berkeley in 1990 as a requirement for the undergraduate education minor. He has seen hundreds of students develop great volunteer projects to take into the community. Of those undergraduates, he said, “Hường Trần is one of my heroes.”

Trần, a member of UC Berkeley’s Biology Scholars Program, which aims to improve diversity in the sciences, modestly said Super Star Smiles is one way “to give back for all the help I’ve received … just a small thing I created.” Some day, she said, she would like to launch her own free dental clinic, or work in one.

Trần’s family moved from Lawndale, Calif., to Vallejo in Northern California when she was in high school. All five of her siblings have college degrees or are working toward one, she said, at the urging of their parents.

When Trần is not in class, hiking or biking, she volunteers at the Berkeley Free Clinic and works as a peer academic counselor at the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) offered by UC Berkeley’s Student Life Advising Services. The EOP helps low-income, underrepresented minorities, who often are the first in their families to attend college.

Thanks to a nomination by Hurst for Trần’s work with Super Star Smiles and the Berkeley Free Clinic, Trần is a winner of this year’s Chancellor’s Undergraduate Student Award for Civic Engagement. She will receive the award in an April 30 ceremony at UC Berkeley’s Sibley Auditorium.

Trần also is working to arrange the financing for a trip to Vietnam in late May or early June, traveling with a health care professional to take her message of dental health to youngsters in the central part of the country, where her own family lived before coming to California.

Meanwhile, the EOP website features a cheery photo of Trần and a special post: “My childhood dream job was to become an ice cream woman; to make the world happier with one scoop at a time. But I realized my true calling in life is to become a dentist to make the world more beautiful with one smile at a time.”