Interested in becoming a dentist since she was young, Mercier was already in the process of applying to dental school and learned about the scholarship from current students.
She was accepted into the dental class of 2021 and immediately applied for the Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP) through the U.S. Air Force.
At the time, she had no idea just how selective the scholarship program was. In December she learned she was one of just two students in an eight-state area to receive the scholarship. It meant that the Air Force would pay for her final three years of dental school and any academic-related costs, as well as provide a monthly stipend for living expenses.
"It was such a relief not to have to worry about taking out huge student loans," she recalled.
Offered by the U.S. Navy, Army and Air Force, the scholarships pay for between one and four years of school for students pursuing careers in dentistry and other health professions. After graduating, dental students become active-duty military dentists for a minimum of three years, plus a commitment to serve in the reserves. They also can pursue advanced education through the military.
While the financial benefits and travel opportunities are big draws, the HPSP has become a conduit for students to get their education and serve their country, said fourth-year dental student Nicole Searcey.
She received a two-year Air Force scholarship and will graduate in May. Then she will head to commissioned officer training at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama before returning to Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Neb. She will complete a one-year general dentistry residency program, then could be stationed anywhere across the globe.
"I love that my patient base will be people who are serving," she said. "I'm excited to be trained to the standards of the U.S. Air Force; I think they'll push me to be a better dentist and a better citizen."
The UNMC College of Dentistry currently has 12 students receiving HPSP scholarships (the UNMC College of Medicine has six). Having so many classmates also in the military offers a sense of community, Mercier and Searcey said.
Mercier recently joined an honor society for Air Force dentists, and Searcey started a Facebook page to connect current and former dental students in the military. The group meets a few times per year and recently organized a Skype call with a dental alum serving at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia.
"It has been a good platform for us to be able to bounce tips off each other and become more connected," Searcey said.
Great article and very proud of these young dental students who are making career choices that will benefit them and their country for a lifetime! Dr. Charles F. Craft