Reaching for a Dentistry Degree

Having defied the odds of a financially burdened background, Dr. Choma has completed a dentistry degree at UP and is currently in pursuit of a specialisation in Orthodontics. Here he tells of his journey, of challenges and determination.

My schooling started at a local township school called Baleseng Primary which I attended until Grade 3, before moving to an English township school called Padisago Primary. There I got a good foundation in English, Maths and Science, which I could build on and nurture. From Padisago I then went on to complete my High School education at Kgomotso Comprehensive High. I chose the Sciences fields as my high school subjects and studied Maths, Science, Biology and three languages.

Up until Grade 9 I was not exerting myself in my studies. It was only when I encountered my Maths teacher in Grade 10, Mr Mashego, who changed my view on school dramatically and made me realise that I want to be more than I thought at that time, and that it all depended on how I approached my studies. I had initially feared Maths and Science, but then they became my favourite subjects.

In that same year I was chosen to be one of the Star school programme learners based on performance in the subjects I chose. Ever since then, I didn’t know what it was to get a mark below 70% in my subjects, and that gave me the confidence to aim high in life. I was always involved in various science projects at school, right until my Matric year in 2002.

Matric & Tuks

In Matric I decided to select my subjects in High Grade (back then we could select whether to do subjects in Higher Grade or Standard Grade) except for Biology. Unfortunately Mr Mshego could no longer be our Maths and Science teacher, and the new teachers informed us that they wouldn’t be covering the High Grade scope. They made themselves available to us in case we needed help, but everything came as a big blow to me. My performance went downhill in Matric because I had no guidance and help from my teachers – at least not in the way that I needed. It took me longer to cover the scope and my concepts weren’t as strong. Thankfully I still managed to pass Matric with exemption and qualify for university entrance. It was a proud moment for myself.

I went on to enrol in the medical field, but when I came to the University of Pretoria I was accepted for Electrical Engineering as a second choice due to the fact that I missed a selection test for Dentistry in my Matric year. Instead of studying Engineering, however, I opted to do a foundation year with Tuks where I got a chance to upgrade my Matric marks and re-apply for my first choice of study, which was Dentistry. In my mind I have always had a clear conviction of what I wanted to study. I’ve always wanted to be in the medical field, working with people. I’ve always wanted a career that would challenge me and afford me a good quality of life, while not stealing time to spend with my family.

I completed my foundation year with a great improvement in marks, and then went on to enroll in Dentistry in 2004.

Challenges & Inspirations

Throughout my university period I stayed in a residence. I experienced a lot of distractions, as well as periods where I felt unsupported and alone, and that life was passing me by. Most of my friends started working and were earning money while I was still busy with my studies, and I felt a little like I no longer fitted in their circles.

I failed a block in second year and had to repeat it the following year, which was the first time a shadow of doubt was cast on my ability to achieve whatever I wanted, and I felt quite demotivated. But my father encouraged me and shared with me his inspiring journey of becoming a magistrate after he had lost his father and had to fund his own studies and support his family. I come from a family of six siblings and one working parent. My mother only worked for a few years until she had to be home to take care of both my grandmothers. My father had to support us all and put every one of us through university from his pocket. Whilst doing that he also supported his own siblings who were struggling. He has been an incredible source of inspiration and motivation.

In hindsight I think I failed because I didn’t manage the workload properly, and I didn’t adhere to my time management and study plan. In that way my learning became passive, because often I’d find myself confronted with exam questions to which I had no prior reference, and I couldn’t answer them adequately.

Drilling through Dentistry

Dentistry, being a five-year course, has a pre-clinical component which starts in third year, where they teach us practical work on phantom heads (‘dummies’). In fourth and final year we get to work on patients, under supervision. To balance the theory and applied practical components was again something new to me and I think nothing can really prepare you for that. It’s all about getting as much practical experience as possible.

A degree in the medical field is not the type of degree that let’s you easily balance a student job with your study workload. When you are studying dentistry you need to be fully immersed in your studies. I had to make the conscious decision of not waiting around for a teacher to prompt my learning. Instead, I already engaged with the content before it was taught in class so I could already understand how and where it was applied in practice. Another decision I made was not to study just for a good test mark but also to be able to practically do as best I could and to be able to apply that knowledge practically. This built my confidence to work on patients because I understood clearly what the procedures with patients were about and why.

In my fourth year I was awarded a bursary for the remaining two years of study. My determination to complete the degree was very high, fuelled by my new outlook on my studies. I never looked back, and before I knew it, I sat for my final exams in 2010. I passed all my subjects and obtained my degree that year.

When I completed my studies and started working as a community service dentist in 2011 (a requirement for all qualifying doctors), I thought I would be completely satisfied with my achievement. I was, but only for a short year. In 2012 I already wanted to further my expertise more, namely by specialising in Orthodontics, which is still my current field of interest. I now hold a developmental dentist position in the Orthodontics department at Pretoria University. I have just passed my primary exams (entry exams to specialise in Orthodontics) and am now eligible for a registrar post where I can train to become an Orthodontist.

reaching for a dentistry degree

Prepare and Succeed

I’ve learnt that, in life, you must always have something in front of you to look forward to and to aim for. Studying at a university has taught me a couple of things that I consider vital to understanding my life. I learned that I am a self-driven individual who can push through challenges once I see the end goal. I don’t believe I need the most sophisticated resources to achieve my goals.

What I would tell people is that it is up to every one of us to be problem solvers, so try not to be discouraged by challenges. They are there to focus your efforts and show you where to improve. Learn from each failure and each success, as success comes when opportunity meets preparation. Victory loves preparation.

Life is what you make it. When you stop growing, then you start dying. Always have something in front of you to conquer.

Admission Requirements

Bachelor of Dentistry (BChD) at the University of Pretoria
• English and another language (L5)
• Maths (L5)
• Physical Science (L5)
• APS of 30
• write the NBT

EduConnect 2cents

Dentistry, like all other Health Sciences and medical studies require a lot of time, dedication and patience. You need to be in it for the greater good, with the desire to work with many different people and improve their lives – if you are just in it for a big salary, you’ll end up being miserable and possibly execute a poor job. It’s a tough field, but if you want it, don’t let anything stop you. For more insight, you might like our other medical degree articles, such as Life in Your Hands, The Backdoor into Medicine (GEMP), and Medical Microbiology at UWC.