For Dr. Chelesa Phillips, the dream of becoming an orthodontist came at a young age. As a child, she always loved going to the dentist. Then, in third grade, she got braces — much earlier than most kids. She was elated.
“I was one of the first of my friends to have them, and I just thought they were the coolest things in the world,” said Dr. Phillips, who practices at Pine Dentistry and Braces in Washington, D.C. “I remember saying back then, ‘I’m going to put braces on somebody someday.”
As a young adult, Dr. Phillips considered numerous possible career paths. She explored becoming an engineer, a physician, and a forensic scientist, among other professions, but her dream of becoming an orthodontist always called her back.
Dr. Phillips attended Washington University in St. Louis as an undergraduate before going on to Howard University College of Dentistry. Those four years at Howard were life-changing, she said, especially going into a profession in which fewer than 5% of U.S. dentists are black.
“In a field where you are such a minority, I just felt the support you get from a Historically Black College or University (HBCU) was very important,” Dr. Phillips said. “I didn’t want to bypass that opportunity. Being able to see the people who have gone before you, getting their advice, and having those footsteps you can walk in and learn how to navigate the dental arena is so valuable.”
Her experience at Howard University afforded her numerous opportunities to grow professionally and personally. So many people stepped forward to mentor and support her. Dr. Phillips said she still stays in touch with dental school instructors, friends, and colleagues.
“At an HBCU, people look out for you,” she added. “Everybody knows what you’re going through and they’re all rooting for you and pushing you. They know the struggles you are facing, and they will help you succeed one way or another whether you like it or not. You can’t beat the mentorships and networking at an HBCU. It’s like a family.”
After graduating from dental school, Dr. Phillips accepted a job with Benevis in New Orleans to be close to family. Seven years later, she remains a passionate member of the Benevis team. There are many opportunities for orthodontists, but Dr. Phillips said she stays with Benevis because she values the company’s mission to provide high-quality dental care for all. Working for a Dental Services Organization (DSO) also means less stress for her and better work-life balance.
Now that she is living her lifelong dream of being an orthodontist, Dr. Phillips said she never forgets all the people that helped her along the way. She takes every opportunity to give back by mentoring her young patients.
The close connections she makes with patients and their families is one of the best things about her job, Dr. Phillips said. She enjoys learning about their lives, seeing them grow, and encouraging them on their journeys. Some patients come into the office just to show her their latest report card or a college acceptance letter, and proud parents reach out to share graduation pictures of former patients and say “Look at my baby. They did it!” Those moments are priceless.
“Patients sometimes become more than patients,” Dr. Phillips said. “They become family.”
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