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Source: University of Otago

Sheela Sharma graduates from the University of Otago on Saturday.
Sheela Sharma was always in a bit of a hurry.
She finished high school at 16 and moved to Dunedin to start at the University of Otago at the age of 17.
Now she is about to graduate with a Bachelor of Dental Surgery and already has her eye on owning a practice.
“I’ve got big ambitions in life. In 10 years, I really want to own my own dental clinic. You’re not an expert in anything unless you’ve done 10,000 hours and people say that’s about 10 years,” she laughs.

“I want to do volunteer work. I know that some populations have really poor oral health, statistically speaking. Something that I’ve always been interested in is doing more research on that and going back and volunteering at the dental clinics there.”

The pathway to dentistry began “on a whim” after Sheela, who is of Samoan/Fijian-Indian heritage, completed Health Science First Year. Her family favoured her studying Medicine but the headstrong teenager had different ideas.
“I guess I was rebellious. I didn’t really know anything about teeth, but I knew that there weren’t many Pacific dentists. Not a lot of Pacific students pick Dentistry and so I thought I’d just take one for the team and see how it goes. Everyone asked me the story behind it, but I really just wanted to see if I could do it.”
That she is now working as a qualified dentist definitively answers that question, although the journey has not all been smooth sailing, and the young woman in a hurry had to learn to slow down a little and regroup along the way.
If Health Science First Year was tough, Dentistry was even tougher and Sheela was initially homesick and wondered if she had made the right choice. After growing up in Samoa and Fiji – with a bit of the Middle East and Auckland mixed in – life in Dunedin was a big culture shock.
“I think I just missed the laidback, relaxed style in the islands. There were no cares in the world and here all of a sudden, I’m just stressed about everything.
“Everything looked fine from the outside but on the inside I was questioning myself and my capabilities and my grades started dropping.”
After completing third-year Dentistry, Sheela reached a crossroads, an “early life crisis” and knew she had to make a change. She had been studying non-stop since high school and realised she was putting too much pressure on herself to be a dentist by the age of 22. Even so, the decision to step back and go part-time for a year was not easy.
“I had really good support from Otago’s Pacific Island Centre and PIRSSU (Pacific Islands Research & Student Support Unit) was really good about it. They were like, ‘This is not the end’. Someone told me this really good quote which stayed with me. ‘A setback is a set up for a comeback’. And I always remembered that.”
The comeback to fulltime study was a year of her best grades, followed by a final year of even better grades.
“In my final year, I got a distinction in my research project, which I did on my own, and I think I really found confidence in my ability again.”
Since finishing her degree in 2020 – she was supposed to cross the stage in the cancelled December graduation ceremony – Sheela has been working in a two-chair practice in the Whakatane beach town of Ohope.
“I feel very blessed to be here even though it’s different from what I’m used to. It’s very rich and very retired. Everyone’s so lovely and friendly. Being on a beach they’ve got that island time – very relaxed, very laid back, just what I wanted.”
Alongside her ambitions to own a practice, Sheela has plans to return to Samoa and Fiji and use her expertise to help under-served populations
“I want to do volunteer work. I know that some populations have really poor oral health, statistically speaking. Something that I’ve always been interested in is doing more research on that and going back and volunteering at the dental clinics there.”
With the COVID-19 restrictions her parents will be unable to travel for the 8 May graduation ceremony. However, her best friend’s family, who live locally, will be there to applaud their “adopted daughter”.
“I can’t graduate with my classmates because of the bomb threat so I’m faced with graduating on my own. But I’ve realised it’s not about being with them, it’s about me crossing that line. I did six years of my life at Dental School and I had to adjust my priorities and learn to think about things in a different light. This is my redemption story.”

MIL OSI