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Dentist uses her skills for humanitarian efforts

Usa Bunnag
Editor's note: Usa Bunnag is one of the recipients of the American Association of Community Colleges' 2010 Outstanding Alumni Award. They will be honored April 19 at the annual AACC convention in Seattle. 
Usa means perseverance in Thai. Thailand-born Usa Bunnag was given the name by her fortuneteller grandfather as a mixture of prophecy and motivation.
He did not, however, foresee that the name would also be shorthand for the country where she would live most of her life and need every iota of usa she could muster to make her mark as a dentist and international humanitarian.
Bunnag arrived in the U.S. at age 14 to live with her father, who worked at the Thai embassy in Washington, D.C., to get a better education. But assimilation was no piece of cake.
"It was exciting, but it was difficult because of the language barrier and cultural shock," Bunnag says. "And I really didn’t know my dad."
So tense was her relationship with her father, who was divorced, that Bunnag rejected a scholarship and aid package for a pre-med program at the University of Maryland in College Park because it would require her to remain at home.
Instead, Bunnag left home at 18, found work as a dental assistant and was married at 21. When her eldest son was only three months old, her husband and employer urged to go back to school.
"They wanted me to fulfill my dream," Bunnag says.
Bunnag enrolled at Montgomery College (MC) in Maryland, which could accommodate a full-time worker with an infant child.
"The program had classes for someone like me who could still work during the day and go to school at night," Bunnag says. "They even had some courses on Sundays."
Nevertheless, she needed an enormous amount of her usa to finish her degree.
"I had to be creative to try to make a schedule that worked for me," Bunnag says. "My goal was to spend five years going to school part time at MC and then apply to dental school."
After those five years, Bunnag was able to skip a bachelor’s degree and go directly to the Howard University College of Dentistry, where her MC training and experience as a dental assistant let her earn her doctorate in dental surgery in 1994, a semester ahead of her class. Within a few years, she established a thriving general dentistry practice.
The humanitarian side of Bunnag’s story began in 2002, when she returned to Thailand for the first time in 26 years and was dismayed by what she saw.
"Even though Thailand had moved forward into the new century, there were still a lot of people who do not have access to dental care, and I thought this might be a chance for me to do something," Bunnag says.
A year later, she founded Smiles on Wings, a nonprofit organization that dispatches missions to remote villages in northern Thailand to provide dental care and much more.
"It wasn’t just the dentistry. The dentistry started it, but I had a deeper vision to help the children at the level you can nurture them and give them education," says Bunnag, who also seeks to upgrade the dismal conditions in some villages that drive young girls into the sex trade.
Along with dental care, Smiles on Wings provides medical care, dental education, and funds for local schools to obtain educational materials, mosquito nets, blankets, clothing and personal hygiene products. In 2005, Smiles on Wings embarked on an emergency mission on behalf of victims of the devastating tsunami, serving as dentists, doctors and grief counselors to many of the 4,000 survivors in the Khaolak refugee camp.
Until recently, Smiles on Wings held two yearly missions to Thailand. But a recent $70,000 grant from the American Dental Association Foundation now allows them to undertake four, two-week missions a year.
Bunnag maintains close ties with MC, with one of her sons recently graduating from there and her other son currently enrolled. And she perseveres in doing the things she can do to make the world better.
"I don’t know if I’d call myself an entrepreneur, but I can take risks and at certain times risk is a good thing," Bunnag says. "You have to be willing to stumble and then get up and go on again. I don’t give up easily."​