Oral Health Group

Volunteering in Vietnam

February 19, 2019
by Sherry Priebe, RDH, BDSc, MSc

Sherry, would you consider volunteering in leadership of your knowledge and experience in Vietnam and plan a service and learning venture for our graduating Dental Hygiene bachelor’s degree students? What would you say to volunteering your time, taking time off work without pay and organizing a trip to a country that is vast with learning opportunity, so students can also volunteer and discover their place of interest in global oral health?


The University of British Columbia (UBC) Alumni Development director approached me with the volunteer challenge to mentor dental hygiene students in a 10-day learning and teaching initiative program to Vietnam. As I have a key collaborative relationship with the oral health professionals in Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Vietnam having pioneered oral cancer research as a Canadian Dental Hygienist in the HCMC Oral Cancer Hospital for my master’s degree in Dental Science, I was a natural fit for such a program leader. The challenge was to assist students to be global citizens and ambassadors to improve global oral health while practicing what they had learned in their four years of university study.

Dental hygienists are most usually seen as a clinical scaling professional to remove hard and soft debris off teeth to encourage oral health. I have always chosen to make a difference in people’s lives through dental and medical mission trips elsewhere and here was an opportunity to pass on my leadership experience through such a task. I personally know the value of volunteering. Volunteering changes the way one thinks about their own life from how they lived before. I wanted to impact students’ lives to critically think how their skills can be offered in various settings as a dental hygiene student or dental student, be meaningful and change the way they and people they influence think about oral health and the oral health provider.

The definition of being a volunteer is ‘a person who freely offers to take part in an enterprise’ or ‘expresses a willingness to undertake a task or service’. I excitedly told the UBC supporters who provided funding for this project, of the impact that would be realized by the various volunteer tasks and service of the students that I proposed. I went back to my dental hygiene scope of practice duties, that is so ingrained in me, to assess the needs and oral health problems of unique areas and population groups of Vietnam. As oral health professionals, we prevent not only oral disease, but systemic diseases as is evidenced by research; therefore, a planning of goals to that end was necessary. I wanted to provide outcomes such as: learning about the unique Vietnamese culture by the UBC students; empathizing with oral cancer victims and how they live; providing opportunity for the students to share with the Vietnamese university students in an exchange of specific knowledge that would be interesting to discover; assisting in the oral health needs of the children in orphanages affected by agent orange (the defoliant chemical used in the Vietnam War); and a lasting outcome of an experience of a lifetime.

The outcomes were accepted. I took the challenge and started planning.

To begin the project, I used the process of care that we as dental hygienists use all the time clinically with our patients.

1. Assessment
I reached out to my Vietnamese friends and asked them for their input as to what they would like us to do in their country and what I thought would be a great learning time for our students. Once that was assessed through emails and conversations, I needed to choose which students were going.

2. Diagnosis
I was not diagnosing clinically but identifying which students would be a ‘good volunteer fit’ for the initiative. The student application form consisted of three questions: 1. Who are you? Why do you want to be a part of this project? 2. How do you see yourself working in this initiative? 3. What do you expect to give and gain from this opportunity? Reviewing the student’s comments and answers to these questions gave a good idea as to who the best volunteers would be. I looked for three characteristics in their answers: humbleness, a willingness to learn and having a passion to assist in people’s oral health.

3. Planning
The planning process was extremely time consuming. Emails back and forth to Vietnam and to the UBC staff of ideas and plans for the students was complicated due to the time zone differences. Correlating dates and dealing with the hospitals and doctors’ time schedules was a further challenge. I wanted the students to have the best learning opportunity they could imagine that would impact them for a lifetime. Every option of involvement was considered for exceptional knowledge exchange. Everyone in Vietnam was so gracious in working out schedules that focused and most benefited the students’ learning and cultural experiences.

4. Implementation
On arrival in Vietnam, the students quickly rested and eagerly started the planned itinerary. Volunteering together for one goal increases relationship and care for one another. An interpersonal bond was made providing support for the students to facilitate success and greatly enhance their knowledge and skills. We followed the scheduled events and the students kept daily diaries to recall the incredible opportunities of learning and service they found themselves a part of. Social media was emphasized as a positive way to make others aware of their volunteerism and providing them with encouragement in return.

5. Evaluation
The students and I were evaluating continuously. Being immersed in a setting of unique professional socialization both internationally and culturally, stretched the students beyond what they could ever have learned at home. Daily we reviewed what influences came to help us learn. Through discussion, we understood how incredibly fortunate we were to be with the Vietnamese health professionals. A greater appreciation of global oral health providers was identified realizing that Canadians can learn so very much from the very intelligent, talented and dedicated Vietnamese professionals.

Successful volunteering days for the students and myself resulted in joy, happiness and a sense of accomplishment. I believe my passion for volunteering has been fueled bringing greater joy in my dental hygiene career. I am grateful for the opportunity to volunteer and give back to those who were so generous to me. I chose to give forward to those who would not be able to realize the improved oral health that they now had if I had not volunteered and provided my time and talents to the UBC students and people of Vietnam.

About the Author
Sherry impacts the lives of people globally with her dental hygiene life focus to “assist people to attain optimum oral health through research, education and clinical practice”. Sherry graduated with her Dip.DH (UofA), BDSc and MSc (UBC). She has published in the Vietnam J of Med and Pharm, the Can J of Dent Hyg, the Int’l J of Dent Hyg and the Dent Health J (UK). Sherry was awarded the ‘World Dental Hygiene Award in Research’ by SUNSTAR and the International Dental Hygiene Federation for her pioneering study in oral cancer and cultural risk factors in Vietnam. She mentors UBC students in further study by taking them annually to Vietnam to learn about risk factors and oral cancer victims.