At the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine, my alma mater, there are class composites which are hung on the wall when a class graduates. This wall has come to be a passage right of sorts. We all used to dream of the day when we would walk across the stage and come back to the school atrium to see our glistening photos raised on to that wall, a sign of accomplishing what may have felt impossible at times. So during the four years of dental school, when the impossibility of it all felt overwhelmingly heavy, we would gravitate and pause under those composite photos, reminding ourselves we were not alone.
And if you venture down the hallway, walking all the way back to the 1980’s, there is a grainy, sepia-washed composite photo of one of the most brilliant women I have ever seen. Even with the age of the photo, her eyes shine vividly. She stands out. Her name is Dr. Bregetta Brown, and she is the first Black woman to graduate from CUSDM. I cannot count how many times I paused under that photo, admiring how stunning she looked, a beautiful beacon of light for me over three decades later. I would stand still under that photo, breathing in the rare air of being a woman of color pursuing a doctorate and looking at that picture as if it were my guide. Dr. Brown, without realizing it, held me as I walked my own path to my doctorate. I would always wonder who supported her? It could not have been easy, trailblazing this path.
Recently, at the University of Colorado, we invited her to come back to speak to our students. She is still very much a formidable woman. She works at a non-profit to this day, serving children who do not have access to care. Her presence is regal and when she speaks, people listen. Her passion for dentistry and for life is still infectious. She may be small in stature but her joy and her energy fills an entire room. And that is exactly what happened that evening in February over Zoom. She told us about that path that I often wondered about. She told us about the challenges and the joy and the support system she created (the first female graduate of CUSDM who walked the stage a few years before her being one of them). She told us about being a mother and a doctor. She told us about being a practice owner. And I learned just how similar our paths actually ended up being. When we asked her about how acutely aware she was of being the first, she said that you forget that in the middle of the stress of learning new procedures and trying to pass boards, things which are still real stressors for our students to this day. I wondered how much we did not realize about our path while walking it.
I got a chance to tell her about how her picture hanging on the wall was a part of my mental support during school. I got to thank her. And in this experience I realized that our journey as women, in dentistry and in life, are very similar to footprints in the snow. It is blizzarding outside as I write this, in my home in Colorado. The snow is soft and powdery and coming down so heavy that it looks like a cloud is sitting on the ground in my backyard. If I go and walk outside, those footprints may disappear to the visible eye in a matter of minutes. But they will still exist underneath all that snow and passing time. They will have compressed the snow and made it a little easier to walk along for the next person even if they are not clearly visible anymore. Dr. Brown and all the other incredible trailblazing women who came before me in this profession, and in life, walked in the snow for us. And their ability to do so helps me walk in the snow for others who will come after me. It is our duty to one another to pave the path and keep it as clear and available as possible for those who come later. We cannot walk alone so let us hold space for each other as we walk together.