Shreya Sood, a recent graduate of Columbia University’s College of Dental Medicine, on her upbringing in India, the benefits of missions to Honduras and the virtue of perseverance.

My aunt was in dentistry, and she was always a mentor to me. She’d bring back her wax carvings, and I was able to see the work she was doing. As I grew up, I came to realize that dentistry is a beautiful combination of art and science. With my aunt’s mentorship and advice, I decided to go into it.

You went to dental school at the M R Ambedkar Dental College & Hospital Institute in Bengalaru, India.
Yes, right after high school, when I was 18 or 19. In India, dental school is five years. I was young, and there was so much I didn’t know. During school, I was working at a nonprofit and met my husband. He’s an American citizen, and we decided to move to the United States. In 2014, I looked up “how to become a U.S. dentist,” and now, seven years later, I’ve graduated from Columbia Univer­sity’s College of Dental Medicine. I moved to the U.S. in 2015—each dental school takes only a handful of international students each year. Over three years I built up a good profile. I feel lucky to be here, and I’m going to be doing pediatrics.

What was school like at such a young age?
It required maturity and fearlessness. Many of my classmates were in dental school just because their parents told them they had to enroll. A lot of them lacked enthusiasm, and at a point, I did too. I graduated at the top of my class but was always questioning whether I was good enough. You’re not born a dentist. It takes practice, practice, practice. I gained confidence only after these 2.5 additional years. I don’t know if I had that when I first finished school.

How did you build a good profile?
I first worked as a dental assistant in an office, then got promoted to office manager. Behind the front desk, I learned a lot that wasn’t taught in school. I knew I wanted to be in pediatrics; I spent a lot of time volunteering as a hospital research assistant while taking my boards. My husband and I did a lot of Honduras mission trips. I could practice because they recognized my dental license.

How have those journeys been?
Mission trips have been a huge part of dentistry for me. I had one scheduled at Columbia, but it got canceled due to Covid-19. Dentists have a lot to offer, especially in remote areas of the world with no care. In Honduras, parents see the importance of brushing teeth. Even if I make a tiny difference, I think it matters.

What are your postgraduation plans?
To complete a pediatric residency at Columbia. This is huge; most schools and programs don’t take advanced-standing students. When I finish with pediatrics, I don’t want to own a practice right away—I first want to gain experience. Ever since I moved here, I’ve been on the go, between school and residency. I want to spend some time with my family, do my job, come home and then maybe in five years own a practice.

What advice do you have for international students applying to school in the U.S.?
I do a lot of webinars with international students, and my biggest piece of advice is to stay resilient. Understand what you signed up for—it’s a hard journey, but if I can do it, you can too. There is no substitute for hard work. Also, not all your volunteering has to be dental-related. I volunteered at a dog shelter because I love dogs. It adds character to who you are. In addition, be super-teachable. It’s important to learn dentistry from every perspective and keep an open mind. Dentistry has humbled me. Sometimes an easy procedure can get hard. Don’t give up. Keep honing, and don’t be afraid to say you’ve made a mistake.