Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC students Eumi Choi and Thomas Nguyen will graduate from USC without any dental school debt, thanks to a prestigious scholarship that aims to put primary care health providers in underserved communities.

The National Health Service Corps (NHSC) scholarship provides health professions students the funds necessary to pay their full tuition and any additional fees and equipment costs — plus a monthly stipend of $1,300. Eligible health professions include physicians, dentists, nurse practitioners, certified nurse-midwives and physician assistants.

In exchange for debt-free education, the health professional is expected to practice in rural, urban and frontier communities with limited health care access for a period of time commensurate with the scholarship’s duration.


A duty to give back

“I was in complete disbelief and even briefly convinced myself that the scholarship would be rescinded due to an administrative error,” joked Nguyen, who received a four-year NHSC scholarship.

Nguyen is a first-generation Vietnamese-American, who grew up below the poverty line. His family took advantage of government assistance programs — Medi-Cal, food stamps and Section 8 housing — to make ends meet.

It’s this first-hand experience, growing up socioeconomically disadvantaged, that motivates Nguyen to give back.

“I’ve carried a feeling of immense gratitude for the opportunities afforded to me and feel that through the NHSC, I can focus on making a difference in an underserved community,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen earned a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology from California State University, Long Beach, in 2014 and briefly attended podiatry school before realizing it wasn’t the career for him.

After shadowing a dentist and working in a dental lab, Nguyen knew he had found his calling and began applying to dental schools.

After dental school, the second-year dental student must provide four years’ worth of care to underserved communities — something he will get plenty of practice with during his time at Ostrow, which provided treatment to more than 71,000 underserved patients last year.

“I aim to learn as much as I can during my time at USC so that those in need can have access to the best dental care possible,” he said.


The joy of serving others

“When I first found out, I cried,” Choi said. “When it finally hit me that I had secured the scholarship, all I could do was thank God.”

A daughter of immigrants, Choi grew up in East Los Angeles and saw firsthand the lack of knowledge about proper dental care.

“It wasn’t common knowledge in my community that you needed regular dental check-ups and cleanings,” she said. “You would only go to the dentist when there was a problem.”

Service to others is something that’s in Choi’s DNA — she credits her mother who would take her on volunteer medical mission trips. “It was clear to me, even as a child, the sense of purpose and more importantly joy her work in serving others gave her.”

Choi first discovered her passion for dentistry when she went on a medical mission trip of her own to Nicaragua. She spent most of her time in the dental clinic and saw the way the dentists treated their patients.

“It was their dedication to serve with compassion and kindness that inspired me to do the same,” she said.

Choi applied to Ostrow’s dental hygiene program, largely drawn to USC because of its long-standing commitment to giving back to underserved communities through the Community Oral Health Programs. She graduated from dental hygiene and began her DDS program in 2017.

Though she doesn’t yet know where she will serve her three years of service for her scholarship, she hopes to get back to her East L.A. neighborhood to provide treatment and better educate her community about oral health.

“I strongly believe that a general dentist can make a great impact in their community by improving the oral health of patients, thus improving their quality of life,” she said.

The NHSC program is administered through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration. Last year, the program awarded nearly 190 NHSC scholarships, totaling almost $40 million.

— John Hobbs