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Minority dental students: »In the ideal world, we all start at level 0 ... but I feel that we begin at minus 5«

Dentistry — Less help, more reprimands. A feeling of having to overperform every day just to prove that you are suitable for the study programme. Several male, brown-skinned, students explain here what they see as 'systematic discrimination' on the master's degree programme in dentistry.

»We just have to climb the stairs here and go right, and they are ready for you.«

Dogukan Jesper Gür leads the way along the corridor in the student building. He glances at me with a solemn look on his face as he holds the glass door open to the first floor. The plan was originally that it would only be him and me that would meet tonight. As student political representative at the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, he wanted to speak on behalf of all the young men who in recent years have taken him aside to speak out about their unpleasant experiences on the dentistry degree programme.

»Many people are afraid of coming forward, so that is why I have to do it,« he wrote in an email to the University Post.

READ ALSO: Academic Council member: »At first I thought: It cannot be true that there is this discrimination. But I became wiser«

The evening before our meeting however, Dogukan Jesper Gür lets me know that he may have found a few who have the courage to recount their stories themselves if they are allowed to remain anonymous. Since then, several others have joined in, and when we enter the student room, 13 young men look up at us from their seats around a long table.

There is a tendency for staff to cover for each other. There is no independent third party making decisions, so the person assessing the situation is the lecturer’s own colleague.

Dentistry student

 

Several of them seem uncomfortable around the table, some are underneath hooded sweaters or caps, others fiddle with the glitzy wrapping of a large pile of Twist chocolate bars scattered across the table.

They are afraid that they will not be believed. That they will be told that everything that they talk about is in their heads, and that their protests, in the end, will only have made their situation worse. They have decided, nevertheless, that the time is right. To put words on something that they have never talked about publicly. Things that they have only shared with each other, and with the people at the university to whom they have unsuccessfully directed their complaints about specific episodes in their student lives.

One student starts:

»I am here today because I can feel that the recognition of your work on the degree programme varies. And that it depends upon whether your name is ‘Ali’ or ‘Mathias’.«

The guys around the table nod in agreement. Most are halfway through their studies, some are close to their final exam, and two graduated as dentists last year. Their families come from countries in the Middle East and Africa, and they all look different. But they all have the experience of being pigeon-holed by their lecturers for something they, at first glance, all have in common — a minority ethnic background.

»My experience over the last four years of my studies is that there has been a biased attitude towards me,« says one of the graduated dentists.

He does not really need to care now, he says. But he has come here to support the students in a cause that has meant a lot to him personally.

»When you look around the room here, many of us fit into the stereotyped boxes that they would like to put people like us into. And I think this is the image that many of our lecturers have of us, consciously or unconsciously. They don’t see that we have made it in spite of our social background. They don’t see that we’re young, hard-working boys who have done our homework and got good grades at school and are now struggling to complete our dream study programme.«

Spoken to in a harsh tone of voice

The 13 people are not here today to accuse specific lecturers, they stress. It is not all teaching staff that make it hard for them. When they share their stories, it is to take issue with what they describe as a ‘prevalent atmosphere’ at the Department of Odontology (School of Dentistry). ‘A poisonous environment’ that is making it difficult for them to complete their studies. An environment that has led to tangible personal consequences for most of the people around the table in the form of nervousness, low self-esteem, stress, insomnia and a fear of showing up at all at the programme.

»I feel that there is a large quality difference in the degree programme that ethnically Danish students get and the degree programme that we get,« says one guy who has an Iraqi background.

»The ethnic Danish students get a lot of attention from the teachers, but I find that we are being kept low on the list of priorities. It’s as if every time it’s my turn, I get one-tenth of the time compared to the time the students with a Danish background get. This is very frustrating.«

One of his fellow students speaks up from his place on the windowsill. He had been warned about the study environment by former students before the start of their studies, but had dismissed their stories as just nonsense. Not any more.

»When the teaching staff speak to a dark-skinned lad, they typically speak in a harsh manner: ‘No, you have not learned it, you have not read up on it’, they say, and then they just leave. This is not the case with light-skinned students. Here, the teacher comes up and spends the necessary time explaining it,« he says.

The dentistry study programme requires a lot of reading, and the required grade point average for quota 1 admissions has been at the very-high, over 10- level, for many years. But on top of being theoretically difficult, the subject also requires that you can use your hands. From the fifth semester, students go in to clinical practice and test their skills on patients. The clinical courses function as a kind of apprenticeship, the students explain.

READ ALSO: Department of Odontology to examine the state of the study environment after minority ethnic students’ claims

»To become better, you need to have a good relationship with your instructor, so that you get the right supervision and can learn from your mistakes,« one of the guys says.

»But it is really difficult when you are scolded for so much more than when a similar student with a Danish background asks the same question or has the same problem.«

Do you have specific examples?

»The tone of voice that many of the instructors use towards us is often derogatory and quite different from when they talk to ethnically Danish students. It is as if there is less tolerance for the mistakes I make. This has made me even more nervous in the classroom and means that I lose faith in myself. When I know that the next day I have to do clinical training with a specific teacher, I can’t sleep at night. This has turned my study programme into a nightmare.«

As subjective as it could possibly be

They all have that feeling, they say. And the problem is that if a teacher has taken a dislike to you, or does not think you have the clinical skills, he or she can refuse to allow you to complete a course without any further explanation, they say.

In contrast to the study programme’s written exams, where you have been anonymized, and there is an external examiner assessment, your course work on the degree programme in dentistry is only assessed by your teacher.

He or she can fail you if your efforts are not deemed to have been sufficient. Then you have to wait for a year for the course to be offered again so that you can move on with your degree programme.

It is precisely the fact that it is only one person’s assessment that determines your fate, that leads to discrimination, the people in the room agree. There are no statistics on unemployment numbers available on ethnic origin on the master’s degree programme in dentistry. The nearly 20 students that the University Post have spoken to, however, all have the clear impression that there it is easier to fail when you have brown skin.

Many of them have been forced to take a period of leave from university due to what they themselves describe as trivialities.

One explains that he was given a fail recommendation on a course because he had made in an error in placing a so-called matrix band on a patient – something that several of his ethnic Danish fellow students had done a few times on the same course. Another says that he was denied his diploma because he had handed in a short assignment one day late. A third recounts the time he had to re-do a whole year. His lecturer did not believe that he had seen enough from him on a course after two patients had not turned up, and he was therefore unable to demonstrate his clinical skills to a sufficient extent.

At some point, our children also have to go to university. So if we don't take on this fight now, it just goes on and on. It's scary to think about this.
Dentistry student

»There is no standardised way in which we are assessed. A teacher can just say, ‘I don’t feel you’re ready’. This is as subjective as it could possibly be. Had it been a written exam, it could be submitted for a reassessment. Here, however, you have no recourse if a teacher just does not think that you should proceed,« says a student.

»When we confront the lecturers with the fact that several of our fellow students have made the same mistake or act exactly like us, they come up with something about their own experience or say things like ‘you are so young, so it will probably do you some good to take a year off’.«

Another student wants to say something from his place at the end of the table.

»Exactly! I was once told that I had failed a course because I turned up too late, and because I looked tired. I had not turned up late once before on that course, and I had made a real effort to keep up. I was in shock,« he says.

He chose to proceed with the case and lodge a complaint about the instructor, but then the next problem arose, and this is something that many of the students present appear to recognize. Even though an executive order states that you can complain about course assessments, just as you can complain about an exam, the students find that their complaints end up with the department dentists – the lecturers’ closest colleagues at the department.

»There is a tendency for staff to cover for each other. There is no independent third party making decisions, so the person assessing the situation is the lecturer’s own colleague. And here, we often hear that the instructor always gets the benefit of the doubt,« says a student.

He was not successful in his appeal and had to wait for a year to move on with his studies.

»What we are seeing is something that cannot be proved. It is always a matter between the student and the instructor, and it will be words against words. And we find that it is almost impossible to be deemed right when it comes to feelings of discrimination,« says another.

Beard and trimmed hair

A slightly shy guy sits at the end of the table. He is aware that his appearance differs from his ethnic Danish fellow students, he says.

»I have a beard and my hair, you know…,« he says, and puts his hand on his black hair that is trimmed on the sides, longer at the top.

»As soon as the instructor walks in, I feel that he or she thinks that I’m one of the boys involved in crime. Sometimes I manage to change this image, but other times I can’t make a difference because they are already have so many preconceptions in their attitudes towards me,« he says.

»It affects me quite a lot psychologically. I already go to a psychiatrist and have several diagnoses, but I have actually held up pretty well for a number of years. When I started at the clinic and noticed how much influence the teachers have on whether I’m moving on or not, I’ve gotten a lot worse.«

I ask whether he has considered changing his appearance in order to make it easier for himself on his degree programme. He shrugs his shoulders and smiles in response. A fellow student comes to the rescue:

»I find that it is sometimes ignorance about people like us that make the teachers harsh on us. My clothing style is quite ‘street’,« he says, correcting his cap.

»This is how I grew up, that’s just who I am. And it’s not fair that it makes it harder for me to prove that I’m good enough. My feeling is that I have to constantly overperform to compensate. This means that I sleep poorly at night, and that I am often scared of showing up on my study programme.«

The guy sitting next to him nods eagerly:

»In the ideal world, we all start at level 0 when we start a new semester, and then we work up to level 10. But I feel that we begin at minus 5,« he says.

‘Shut up’

There is quiet for a moment. We eat chocolate, and a scrap of paper passes among the students who note the names and phone numbers of their friends who could not be here tonight, but who also want to talk about their experiences.

One student, who has remained silent so far, is now ready to talk about the harsh atmosphere that he has also experienced. The worst episode was one day when, during a clinical course, he had to prepare a root canal treatment on a patient, and the teacher told him to ‘shut up’.

»I sat in front of the patient and I was completely speechless. It was so improper. And I just kept my mouth shut because I did not want to escalate the situation,« he says.

It difficult for him to handle the rest of the course after this episode, he says.

»One thing is that you have to be smart, good with your hands and be able to handle a complicated root canal treatment. But then, in addition, the psychological pressure. How am I supposed to speak to my instructor now, how should I smile and look up now? How should I avoid failing? These are the things you have to sit and think about while you are in the process of treating a patient, so this can be very stressful.«

Why did you not say ‘no’ to this abusive language?

»I wanted to be patient and just tried to de-escalate all the situation. The thing is, I didn’t dare do anything else. I was afraid that a complaint over this episode would mean that my name would be passed among all the instructors – and that I would appear to be someone who is difficult and who is not doing his work well enough.«

His legs tremble a bit. He looks down as he continues.

»But let me put it like this: I have experienced a lot of things that are not OK in my time here on this study programme. For a long time, I didn’t tell anyone. I was very self-critical and thought every time that it was my own fault, because I was not good enough. Over time, I started to hear stories from others who had experienced some of the same things. And I started to talk about my own experiences. Now we’re all here. To me, this is clear proof that I should not be disappointed in myself and my way of doing things.«

Nearly three hours have passed. Everyone has said what they came to say. There is a lighter mood in the room than when we first started. But three questions are left for the thirteen young men. What is the point of them all coming forward like this? Who will believe them? Do they risk that their words here in the University Post will make things worse for them for the rest of their studies?

»We just hope that the University of Copenhagen listens to us now,« the eldest of them says, as he serves me with a densely written A4 sheet of paper with his notes from the evening. Just so the scale of this is clear to you, he says before he continues:

»At some point, our children also have to go to university. So if we don’t take on this fight now, it just goes on and on. It’s scary to think about this.

READ ALSO: Department of Odontology to examine the state of the study environment after minority ethnic students’ claims

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