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‘Doing it with a smile’: Health Science alum achieves at Howard dental

May 1, 2024

Story by Gracie Hedenberg

As Kenneth Hicks, BHS ’17, prepares to complete his studies at Howard University’s College of Dentistry in May, he moves one step closer to a larger goal: creating an environment where going to the dentist is comfortable, not scary, for his patients. 

The soon-to-be dentist always knew he would find his career within medicine, but his focus shifted from plastic surgery to dentistry after his grandfather, who had a lifelong fear of the dentist, died from oral cancer. The memory of his grandfather inspires Hicks to be an advocate for those who are afraid of the dentist — and motivated him through the many years of schooling and tedious practice. 

“I try to always be optimistic about my situation,” Hicks said. “Life can be hard, but if you’re doing it with a smile and you see the reason why you’re doing it, it makes everything better.” 

After graduation, he will make the move from Washington, D.C., to New York City for a yearlong general practice residency at the Jamaica Hospital Medical Center. Eventually, the Chicago native plans to return to the Windy City to open a private practice where he intends to create positive dental experiences for his patients.  

Learning to learn 

Medical careers require years of studying and practice before patient care ever starts. Before Hicks came to Mizzou, he said school came easily to him and he “never had to study.” But during the first semester of his freshman year, he learned how to really learn while struggling through Biology 1500.  

“Mizzou definitely humbled me and then prepared me for dental school,” he said. “From bio, I learned those study techniques and passed them on to harder classes. So, when I did biochem and physics, I was used to that, and I used that to help me build the person I am today.” 

Hicks said the long nights of studying — balanced with plenty of time for fun and school spirit — have paid dividends. He recognizes concepts in his current classes that he learned during his time at Mizzou and relates his higher-level scientific instruction in organic chemistry and microbiology to principles of dentistry.  

Support at Mizzou and the College of Health Sciences helped him reach his goals. From an advisor who encouraged him to take that next step applying to dental school to the floral arrangements class where he practiced delicate mechanics like he uses on peoples’ teeth, Hicks said Mizzou resources encouraged him to improve from day one.  

During his undergraduate years, he spent hours shadowing dentists to learn the best ways to treat patients, both medically and socially. During those observation hours, Hicks also discovered the career, beyond being a calling, was well-suited to his temperament.  

“I love the relationship you build with patients,” he said. “I’m talking and working with people day to day and using my hands, so I never get bored. It’s a win-win for me.” 

Positivity and passion 

Beyond learning the art of studying, Hicks said his time at Mizzou taught him other valuable life lessons. He also learned how to apply his ethos of positivity to his day-to-day life to build bonds with classmates and create a positive vibe for patients.  

“One thing I love about Mizzou is the spirit,” he said. “I think it’s one of the reasons I am the person I am now. Everybody at school now loves my energy and my school spirit. I can’t help it — I came from Mizzou!”  

Positivity is also what drives Hicks’ passion for service. As an undergraduate, he aided others during international trips to Nicaragua and South Africa. He said those opportunities helped him get out and see the change he could make in the world.  

“I found more of myself, and I found that I love traveling because of those trips,” he said. “A lot of people are not as fortunate as us, so the fact that we were able to give back to them […] means something more.” 

Giving back, whether internationally or in his own city, is a key element of Hicks’ future plans. Beyond contributing to the health and well-being of his community by providing patients with safe and comfortable dental experiences, he intends to complete international service trips once he starts his private practice.  

Between his positivity, study skills and passion for community service, Hicks attributes many of the essential qualities he has developed throughout his education to his years at Mizzou. Whether walking Howard’s graduation stage or entering his residency, Hicks approaches the challenges with confidence and positivity.  

“Mizzou had the resources and organization for me to be successful,” Hicks said. “Nobody wants a dentist with negative energy. Mizzou helped create that more positive part of me, showed me what I can do and taught me I can become what I want to become.”