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Charles Sturt celebrates one of the first rural First Nations Dental Science students

[by Trease Clarke]

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Kiera Zappacosta. Image: supplied

Despite feeling directionless and not “smart enough” to be a dentist, one of Charles Sturt’s first rural First Nations students in the Bachelor of Dental Science is proving that grit and determination are all you need to pursue your dreams.

Becoming a dentist was the farthest thing on the mind of First Nations Wiradjuri woman Ms Kiera Zappacosta when she was growing up.

Yet Kiera is now a proud first-year student in the Bachelor of Dental Science in the Charles Sturt School of Dentistry and Medical Sciences in Orange. She is also one of the first, First Nations women to study dentistry in the university’s history.

Kiera was born in Milton NSW. She moved around a lot with her family as a child, growing up in Ulladulla on the NSW South Coast.

At the age of 13, Kiera left the family nest to attend Yanco Agricultural Boarding School in Yanco, about 120km from Wagga Wagga. She is now a Wagga Wagga resident during university holidays and resides at Charles Sturt in Orange during sessions.

Kiera continues to make her family proud of her educational achievements. She is the first in the family to complete her Higher School Certificate and go onto university. 

“I had multiple gap years after high school and had no direction during this time. I moved around a lot and couldn’t commit to a job or degree,” Kiera said.

Despite having no experience in the field, Kiera found herself landing a job as a dental assistant. This was the turning point for Kiera’s life, as she quickly fell in love with the industry and wanted to care for people from then on.

“I got a lucky break as a dental assistant having absolutely no experience,” Kiera said. “I loved it and it was the longest job position I’ve held.”

The staff’s belief in Kiera gave her the confidence to continue to climb higher, which saw her pursuing a role as a specialised dental assistant.

“They were all really supportive and encouraging,” Kiera said.

“I was so inspired and realised that I found my niche and decided I wanted to be providing the care instead of just assisting.” 

 

After administering dental assistance to patients in small towns in the Riverina region, Kiera noticed the communities had limited access to quality healthcare.

“Travelling more than 200 kilometres to see the nearest doctor, dentist or specialist had become the norm in these small communities,” Kiera said.

“My hope is to work in a small town to ease the burden of having to travel such long distances for basic healthcare by providing quality care closer to home.”

Course Director and Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Science in the Charles Sturt School of Dentistry and Medical Sciences Dr Jennifer Cox congratulated Kiera for becoming one of the first, First Nations students to study dentistry at Charles Sturt University.

“Kiera’s journey is one that should be commended,” Dr Cox said.

“She has carved out her own path and overcome any self-doubt she may have had regarding her academic ability and suitability to become a dentist.

“Being able to offer dentistry as a First Nations woman will go a long way for instilling confidence in local First Nations communities when it comes to culturally appropriate dental care,” Dr Cox said.

As a Wiradjuri woman, Kiera is acutely aware of the importance of having access to culturally appropriate healthcare for First Nations people.

“Oral health plays such an important role in the overall health of the body,” Kiera said.

“I hope to use that knowledge to improve the oral health of First Nations communities by encouraging and educating residents on how to better manage their oral health.”

Like all other obstacles Kiera has overcome, she is embracing the challenge of adjusting to university study and campus life after being in the workforce for some time.

“Trying to figure out my most productive time of day, as an on-campus student, is one of my goals right now,” Kiera said.

Upon reflecting on her higher education journey, Kiera encourages all those who are even slightly interested in a particular industry to not hold back.

“I didn’t have the best ATAR so when I did not receive an offer to study a Bachelor of Oral Health (Therapy and Hygiene) at Charles Sturt I applied for the Bachelor of General Science and selected subjects from the Oral Health course to prove I was capable,” she said.

“I worked hard to bring my GPA up and reapplied the following year. Finally, I received an offer.”

After her first year of studying for a Bachelor of Oral Health (Therapy and Hygiene) Kiera surprised herself with the marks she was receiving and decided to aim even higher.

“I took a breath and applied again for the Bachelor of Dental Science, and this time – I got in!”

Kiera is grateful for the support she has received from the First Nations team at Charles Sturt who have helped her achieve the academic milestones she has. 

“There are so many different pathways to get where you want to be,” she said.

“The support from the First Nations team at Charles Sturt has been incredible. They encouraged me to not give up and supported me throughout the entire process to get into this course, which I have dreamt of studying for a long time.”

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