THE UNIVERSITY of Maryland School of Dentistry doesn’t want for proud and rich history; founded in 1840, it was the world’s first dental school. Yet it made history of a different kind this past spring, when Tera Poole, DDS, who was president of her class, also graduated at the head of it, becoming UMD Dental’s first African-American valedictorian. Dr. Poole, a Cincinnati native whose father is a dentist, recently sat down with Incisal Edge to discuss how she found out about that honor, her commencement butterflies — and what lies ahead in her life and career.

Did you know you were valedictorian before graduation day?
The class president gives the commencement speech and calls the names of the graduating doctoral students, so I — and my nerves — knew I’d be
giving that speech. But I had no idea I was summa cum laude and at the top of my class until I opened the program while seated at the ceremony.
Because I was calling the [graduates’] names, they gave me the script prior to graduation day, but they even left my Latin honors off my copy so I wouldn’t know. I thought that was pretty clever.

What were some highlights of your address?
The speech I wrote was mainly a tribute to my class as a whole. I kept it short, discussing various memories and offering encouraging words. I even cried at one point, which I wasn’t expecting — all I could think was, “I hope my mascara isn’t giving me a black eye on the big screen!” In the end, though, it was amazing, and nothing felt better than getting a standing ovation from my classmates.

“Hearing I’ve led other young girls either to begin or continue to pursue their academic and professional goals makes it all worth it”

You recently began a three-year orthodontics residency at the University of California, San Francisco. What comes after that?
Following my residency, I’ll graduate with a master’s in oral and craniofacial sciences and obtain a certificate in orthodontics, with the opportunity to become a board-certified orthodontist. My goal is to go into private practice as an orthodontist and focus on craniofacial treatment — i.e., cleft palate — while spreading awareness of craniofacial anomalies. I’d also love to grow my blog,, to be a resource for future young professionals interested in health care.

What does it mean to you that you were valedictorian?
It means a great deal, particularly given the outpouring of support from young girls who have emphasized how my achievement has motivated and encouraged them to accomplish their own goals in the sciences. Hearing that I’ve led other young girls either to begin or continue to pursue their
academic and professional goals makes it all worth it.

When you were young, did you pretty much always know you wanted to pursue dentistry as a career?
Not always. I grew up working in my father’s dental office as a “chore,” and I wanted to be an architect and interior designer. But following an architecture camp that I went to, I realized that might not have been the best fit for me. That’s when I actually started paying attention at my father’s office and saw how dentistry encompassed everything I was looking for in a profession.