A hot sun blazed down on a small rural village last July in the Dominican Republic as two former Bennies hustled from one dental patient to another. As local citizens queued under what looked like a picnic pavilion, their hopeful faces masked pain caused by years of neglect.
Maya Chuppe ’20 had taken some Spanish at the College of Saint Benedict – enough to understand basic communication. But motions and the expression in the eyes before her spoke volumes in any language. Men and women pointed to abscessed teeth and children suffered from cavities and worse stemming from a lack of knowledge about the importance of oral hygiene.
Chuppe, about to begin her fourth and final year of dental school at Creighton University, was in the middle of a three-week summer health program affiliated with the Institute for Latin American Concern. The organization has collaborated for 50 years with Creighton and other Jesuit schools to bring dental, medical, nursing and pharmacy students and their faculty advisors to this island nation so its working poor – especially those living among the mountains and far from cities or the ocean – can get basic health care.
“It made me grateful for the resources that we have in the U.S.,” Chuppe said. “We were roughing it. The homes we stayed in had running water, but the electricity wasn’t always reliable. We had to use a generator at times to power our equipment.”
Working alongside Chuppe was her mentor, Dr. Jenn (Jerabek) Hasslen ’97, now an associate professor and interim assistant dean for student progression at Creighton, where she earned her Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) in 2003. Both were making their first visit to the Dominican, although Hasslen had seen her share of missions of mercy through nine years of active duty in the Air Force before she went into private practice and, ultimately, teaching at Creighton’s School of Dentistry.
“It was such an amazing trip,” Hasslen said. “There was no air conditioning, of course. We were sleeping under mosquito nets. Any running water was questionable because it’s usually from a cistern and the pressure gradient was gravity. The only power we had was from a big extension cord we ran to a nearby church. But the church ladies came and made all our food while we were there. They were giving us coffee and, even though you can’t always communicate, it’s clear everyone is grateful and we’re grateful to have been able to go there and do good.
“Every time I participate in any humanitarian work, I learn – and I think Maya did, too – that what we know how to do is very specialized and the impact is so profound. It makes you feel good about what you do.”
From CSB softball player to practicing dentist
Chuppe won’t receive her DDS until May, but she’s basically practicing now. Seven years after she arrived at Saint Ben’s from Bismarck, North Dakota, and three years after she graduated with a biology degree on a pre-dental track, she’s responsible for the comprehensive care of about 40 real at the School of Dentistry and participates in external rotations under the supervision of a preceptor.
She had two older siblings pass through Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s University and wasn’t sure what path she would follow as an undergraduate.
“I come from a family full of chiropractors, and I knew I wanted to do something pre-health,” said Chuppe, who also played softball for three years. “Midway through school, I did some job shadowing to help me discern professions and fell in love with dentistry. I have to give a shout-out to (biology professor and pre-dental advisor) David Mitchell for helping me get there in the end.”
She volunteered at a clinic back home in North Dakota that specialized in serving lower-income patients on a sliding-fee scale.
“Seeing how transformative the dentistry was in the lives of the people was really impactful,” Chuppe said. “It’s a combination of artistry and science that leads to reconstructing smiles. I’ve really enjoyed the hands-on aspect of it.”
At Creighton, it didn’t take long for the Bennie network to kick in. Hasslen, at that point virtually unknown to Chuppe, led one of her first lectures.
“She wasn’t even speaking about dentistry but more about professionalism and how to conduct yourself with social media,” Chuppe said of Hasslen. “She’d found my Facebook profile picture that showed me at Saint Ben’s. She called me out in front of 120 students, simply to point out that we attended the same alma mater and that we needed to connect. Being taught by a Bennie has been really cool.”
Saint Ben’s formed the right habits to succeed
Hasslen grew up in Spicer, Minnesota, about 45 miles west of the CSB campus. She was raised Catholic, the oldest of three daughters, and one of her sisters (Julie Jerabek ’01) also graduated from Saint Ben’s, went on to become a physician and now is an infectious disease fellowship graduate and contributing faculty member at Creighton.
“I always loved science, so I spent a whole heck of a lot of time in the science buildings – either at Saint John’s or Saint Ben’s,” Hasslen said. “I toyed with medical school and dental school. I thought about physical therapy and nursing. I knew I wanted to be involved in some kind of healthcare, so I took all the classes I could and did well. I kept my grades up and had some really great professors along the way. Coming from a small town, I loved being able to go into an introductory chemistry class of 30 students.”
That didn’t mean it was easy. High school had been, for her, and she admits not knowing how to properly study.
“I failed my first chemistry test,” she said. “It was devastating. I thought I was going to die. I’ll never forget Dr. Richard White. He took me under his wing, this first-year student crying in his office, and got me the help I needed. That was the beginning of knowing Saint Ben’s was where I belonged. It prepared me well. My first-year symposium class, I had an English professor (Dr. Sally Melton) who was fantastic. She taught us how to write. We had comma worksheets when we showed up to class. I still credit her for teaching me how to punctuate. She made us know the words we were using and that was in the days where we were getting out this big Webster’s Dictionary. Then, it wasn’t like you could just look up definitions on your phone.”
Hasslen has an uncle who was a dentist, and she excelled at tasks requiring fine motor skills with her hands. That led to dentistry, where she would become a doctor but with perhaps a more routine schedule than if she’d followed her first instinct to be an OBGYN.
About the time she entered Creighton, an Air Force recruiter suggested she apply for a scholarship. It required three years of service, but the payoff was big. And, if she didn’t get it, she could simply walk away.
“It was kind of a lark, but that’s what ended up happening,” Hasslen said. “I looked at those promissory notes I signed my first year and it probably saved me $300,000 in loans by the time I was through.”
And, perhaps poignantly, one of her first dental professors was a Bennie, too. Margaret Jergenson ’76 earned her DDS from Creighton in 1982 and later became professor and chair of the oral biology department before her recent retirement.
Bennies and Johnnies become leaders
Chuppe said she’s encountered several Bennies and Johnnies in the SOD, including one who helped inspire her to become a student leader. Will Bauman ’17 was president of the local chapter of the American Student Dental Association in his third year at Creighton when Chuppe arrived.
“He remembered me and said, ‘You should run for this position,’” she said. “I thought I should focus on my studies, but he said I’d be really good at it.”
She followed his advice and got more involved with ASDA. She is the former chapter president and currently serves as chair for the national council on membership. This year, Chuppe also serves on an American Dental Association council.
“Saint Ben’s gave me a really great foundation to head into dental school with a running start,” Chuppe said. “The rigor of the science program in general, from biology to electives, immensely prepared me. I felt 10 times better off than a lot of my classmates, honestly, because a lot of our first-year stuff was basic sciences – gross anatomy, histology, microbiology, biochemistry – and I’d taken all those classes at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s. The first year of dental school is difficult, don’t get me wrong. But I think my undergraduate experience made it a heck of a lot easier than it would have been otherwise.
“My first two years at Creighton was mostly didactic training – a lot of books and developing hand skills. You spend a ton of time in the sim lab before you are allowed to transition to live patient care.”
To help pay for her education, Chuppe is benefitting from the National Health Service Corps Scholarship Program. It assists with tuition in exchange for her commitment to work in health professional shortage area after graduation. She’s currently looking at positions caring for a need-based community with underserved populations.
“I’ll start there and we’ll see where it takes me,” Chuppe said. “Hopefully, someday, I can look into a partnership or ownership of a practice. I’m keeping doors open and hoping to stay close to family in the Midwest. I’m looking at jobs now and hoping to start the interview process soon.”
Passing the torch
Hasslen will happily be a glowing reference for Chuppe.
“I asked to be paired with her when we went to the Dominican Republic,” Hasslen said. “She’s a really nice young lady. Very smart. And I thought it would be neat because we’re both Bennies. I really enriched my faith while I was at CSB and that planted a seed of service. The atmosphere and environment isn’t something you can easily explain and, honestly, Saint Ben’s did phenomenal things financially for my family. With the grants and loans I was able to get, it was cheaper for me than a state school. I was blessed to get to go there. That makes me want to give back.”
Chuppe has great respect for her mentor and the same selfless spirit.
“She’s among the best of the best,” Chuppe said of Hasslen. “She’s been a great resource for me, and I anticipate she’ll continue to be throughout my career. I know of a few Bennies and Johnnies at the beginning stages of their dental school career and am looking forward to keeping the connection throughout our professional endeavors. For any CSB and SJU pre-dental students who would like to connect, I am happy to be a resource.”
Maybe in the future, other Bennies and Johnnies will get a chance to practice in places around the world where they’re needed.
“It’s a great way to put our skills to use and get as many reps as we can under mentorship before we’re practicing on our own,” Chuppe said.
And, while Hasslen – who has 19-year-old twins with her husband, Richard – certainly doesn’t need any “reps,” she discovered something in the Dominican Republic, too.
“I loved it enough that I’m going back again in 2024,” she said.