A day in their scrubs

Meet D3 Audra McCormick
February 27th, 2024

D3 Audra McCormick

Hometown: I grew up in San Angelo, Texas. I wasn’t born there, but I was raised there. It’s basically your Western town. Rodeos are big there, but it has a military influence and a little bit of college life, as well.

Where did you get your undergraduate degree? I did a few years of my undergrad in my hometown at ASU, Angelo State University. I finished up at NMSU, New Mexico State University, but I took a nine-year gap. I earned a degree in biology with a minor in biochemistry.

Why did you take a nine-year gap? My junior year at ASU, I decided to go into the military instead. It was something different, and they have some benefits, as well. So in March 2010, I joined the U.S. Air Force and got trained to be a sensor operator. I did a six-year enlistment until 2016, and then after that, I was a private contractor for the Air Force for an additional two years as an instructor.

What does a sensor operator do? Everybody knows drones; they’re remotely piloted aircraft. You have two members who basically control the aircraft. You have the pilot, who’s typically an officer, who will drive the plane and release munitions. The sensor operator takes care of the “mission side.” They chat with everybody, control the payload and do terminal guidance for any munitions. I was mostly like an overpaid cameraman.

Why did you join the Air Force? My mom served in the Army Reserve and the Air Force, and my uncle had done it as well. My dad was in the Marine Reserve. My brother did a six-year enlistment in the Air Force, and my brother-in-law is also in the Air Force Reserve right now. It just seemed like the thing that needed to happen, to shake up life. It was a way to see the world, experience different things.

Why did you decide to pursue dentistry? Back at ASU, I had wanted to go into dentistry, but I needed a plan to make that happen. I wasn’t in the best shape to be a good applicant to dental school at that point, and I think I knew that. This change-up was the perfect opportunity. It gave me the time to mature and get lots of experience under my belt – leadership, communication skills, real world experiences. When it did come time to go back and apply, I was a way better candidate. It was always in the back of my mind to pursue dentistry.

Tell me about your involvement in the dental school’s Mental Health and Wellness Committee: I was one of the first student ambassadors for the Mental Health and Wellness Committee. In the military, sometimes mental health isn’t always prioritized, and this school is another high-stress environment. I figure we want our future doctors to be mentally sound, as well. We can’t help people if we’re not our best selves.

What sparked your interest in mental health? For certain professions or security clearances in the military, they have a questionnaire where they ask about your mental health. It could disqualify you from certain things. Whenever you’re renewing your clearances, if mental health issues were to come out, you probably wouldn’t get cleared again.

Drones are a [relatively] new field. You’re in this virtual reality, and you have to separate yourself and go back to the real world immediately. There is no cooldown period. I think people struggled a lot with that, and the Air Force didn’t have any services available. So, at the time, members would cope as best they could in ways that weren’t the most productive. After seeing that, it was disappointing.

How has your time in the Air Force impacted your time at dental school? One thing that I excel in is communicating and interactions with patients. I think that has to do with my time in the Air Force … being put in uncomfortable situations where you’re thrown together with a bunch of people and you have to make things work, find something in common or some rapport to get things done. In this case, the mission is dental work.

Coming here, and seeing students struggling in their first year, I felt like we could do better [with mental health care]. I had gotten in touch with student affairs.  They were putting the Mental Health and Wellness Committee together and asked if I wanted to be an ambassador.

What do you do as a committee ambassador? I take feedback from students to help the committee tailor resources to the students’ needs. I know we recently opened a food pantry, because there is food insecurity here, even if we don’t all realize it. I’ve also spoken about the need for an on-site counselor; they’re in the process of getting that. Then, of course, we have the monthly Wellness Wednesdays to teach students skills.

What is your advice for incoming students? Sometimes getting to your goals is a journey, but that journey will get you there. For me, there was a point where I felt really disappointed in myself because people my age were already accomplishing their educational goals, and I was way far behind. But it all worked out the way it needed to work out, and I’m at the point in my life where I need to be.

I would also say that school is going to be challenging, but you will grow from what you go through. The people here, your classmates and faculty, everyone at the school, will help you get through it.

— Caleb Vierkant

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