Levi Powell first fell in love with dentistry as a sixth grader under the treatment of a Black orthodontist — Levi’s first encounter with a health care professional who actually looked like him.
“Seeing him operate with his office staff, seeing how happy he was and how he had the ability to change people’s lives in the sense that they come in with no smile or really crooked teeth or not having a lot of self-confidence and being able to shift that around for them, I thought that was really impactful,” said Powell, the son of a Black firefighter and an Asian accountant.
After that, Powell set out to become the first person in his family to pursue an education in health care, earning his bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene from the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC in 2015.
A love for teaching
The summer after graduation, as is customary, Powell and his fellow dental hygiene graduates taught the periodontics module to second-year DDS students — an experience Powell cherished.
“I asked Professor [Diane] Melrose if I could be faculty for the incoming dental hygiene class starting in August,” Powell said. “She said, ‘Levi, you definitely weren’t on our radar, but we got a lot of good feedback about how you were teaching the sophomore perio module. A lot of the students really liked you as an instructor.’”
So, for a year, Powell juggled his duties as a dental hygiene instructor at Ostrow while working locally as a dental hygienist.
“I’m making really good money as a hygienist. I’m teaching at the university that was once my dream school. I’m living in my Culver City apartment, which is super nice and minutes to the beach,” Powell said.
A larger calling
It could have been easy to settle into that lifestyle, but Powell realized he wanted to do more after an international service trip to Guatemala.
Feeling limited in the ways in which he could help the patients, who were in pain and needed extractions or restorations, Powell set his sights on a DDS degree.
“There was no way I couldn’t go back and pursue this education because I didn’t want to be throttled in my ability to help other people,” he said. “I didn’t want to be limited in the capacity and skills that I have to be able to serve other people.”
Powell moved back home to Oakland and spent three months studying for his Dental Admission Test.
The weight of the world was lifted from his shoulders once he passed the DAT.
“I called my little brother, and it was probably the first moment in my entire life that I ever felt proud of myself,” Powell said. “I was like ‘I’m going to do it. I’m going to get into dental school. I’m going to make this dream a reality.’”
In 2017, Powell became the first in his family to begin a doctoral program, putting on his white coat with his classmates, right back at his dream school.
While at dental school, Powell served as a student ambassador, a Dental Humanitarian Outreach Project board member and as the vice president of the Dental Anesthesiology Club. He made the Dean’s List twice and was most recently awarded the Senior Award for Excellence in Periodontology.
More importantly, he has had opportunities to make many more international service trips, treating patients with the Dental Humanitarian Outreach Project.
On a trip to Nicaragua, he remembers providing treatment to a young boy, who needed a couple of extractions as a result of an abscess.
“When we sat him down, he was terrified. He was kicking and screaming the whole time. It was a very difficult appointment,” Powell said. “I felt bad about it because obviously we don’t want to inflict any pain, but we do want to remove the pain stimulus and not cause him to have issues for years.”
Worried that the boy would only associate dentistry with pain, Powell was surprised when he returned the next day.
“He pulled on my scrubs while I was working with another patient. And we made up a handshake and were hanging out for another 10-15 minutes,” he said. “It was really cool to see that, even though we didn’t speak the language, the impact we had with DHOP transcended the language barrier.”
As Powell looks ahead to life after dental school, he aims to continue the tradition of annual service trips. He also hopes to use his own experience to inspire other underrepresented minorities to pursue careers in health care.
“When I was an adolescent, I used to think small and be intimidated by breaking the mold. I thought ‘Oh, I’m not going to be a doctor — my dad, my mom, my cousins, none of them did that,’” he said. “As I started to step in this space that is USC and find success, I think I really started to understand that it’s not as impossible as I made it out to be before.”