Fellowship draws Koreans to Dallas

August 28th, 2013

Why would five established dentists put their practices on hold, pack up their lives in Korea and move halfway around the world for an unpaid fellowship in Dallas? It’s something top-notch dentists in that country have been doing for more than 20 years. Now, Dr. Jun-Young Cho and current fellows tell us why.


Dr. Jun-Young Cho with the current class of visiting scholars

Dr. Jun-Young Cho and his fellows appear to have known each other for years, even though mere weeks have passed since their arrival. They’re here because they either heard about Cho from colleagues or because they saw the ads about the college’s fellowship in Korean dental newspapers.

These are no novice dentists. Most have been in the profession more than a decade and enjoy burgeoning practices. But, like the 50 or so “associate Baylor alumni” that have come before them, they will leave their healthy businesses in the hands of trusted associates, pack up their spouses and children and make the 14-hour flight from Seoul, South Korea, to Dallas. They’ll settle down, rent a house in a Metroplex suburb, enroll their kids in school — and after a year or two many will repeat this process when they return home.

In Korea there is no such thing as a dental specialty. Each dentist is expected to perform the gamut in oral health care. When all is said and done, these associate alumni will not return home with a license in periodontics or a certificate adorned with a gold seal to frame on the wall. And their experience in Dallas will not result in financial benefits.

What they will gain after their yearlong fellowship in periodontics — with an optional second year in prosthodontics, oral surgery or orthodontics, depending on space — is an arsenal of knowledge. It doesn’t take long before these dentists come to be viewed as the periodontists of their locales. Even though visiting scholars are only permitted to shadow residents, not perform hands-on care while at Texas A&M University Baylor College of Dentistry, the experience equips them to better handle difficult cases back home. In essence, it allows alumni of The International Non-employee Fellowship Program to upgrade their practices with ease.

How it all began

It was more than 20 years ago when inspiration struck for Cho ’70, associate professor in periodontics. He was on a trip back home to Korea when faculty at his alma mater of Seoul National University requested he present a lecture to local dentists. Afterward the attendees flocked to him with a request.

“They said, ‘We wish we could come to Baylor to learn more about these things,’” Cho says. “That was the motivation.”

Once Cho arrived back in Dallas, he presented his idea to Dr. Terry Rees, then chair of the periodontics department, who enthusiastically approved.

Cho’s first international fellowship program started in 1990 as a two-year course. Soon after, a weeklong program was added, available for up to 15 dentists at a time. While the short program was disbanded in 2010, the long program’s current format is now 12 months, with 98 hours of seminar and lab time. Four fellows may be accepted in any given year, with many opting to stay a second year for observation in other departments.

There is also Cho’s annual Korea trip. The associate alumni gladly schedule his itinerary in meticulous detail: each day, hour and lecture is determined long before Cho sets foot on a plane. While there, he imparts new techniques, and associate alumni present cases. Both successes and failures are readily discussed.

“That’s all I do when I visit,” says Cho. “We call it the Baylor Study Club.” His alumni are not the only ones in attendance. They bring colleagues and friends, transforming the visit into a powerful recruitment tool.


L to R: Fellows and Drs. Sang Heun Mun; Jungwook Seo; Soyeon Baek; and Hyun Park, with Cho. Not pictured: Dr. Chulhun Park.

Matters of language and lifestyle

There are just a couple days left before the July 4 holiday when Cho gathers four of the current five visiting scholars in a first-floor conference room. As they share their experiences, a pattern emerges. Most of them are here for three reasons: to strengthen their knowledge in periodontics, to improve their English, and to expose their children to American culture.

“I dreamed of coming here, and it didn’t matter what city or college. Dr. Cho is famous in Korea,” says Dr. Jungwook Seo, who brought his wife and two children, ages 5 and 8. Getting intensive exposure to the English language is an added bonus for Seo who, like all the fellows in the program, knows how to read, write and speak English. Understanding it in a foreign country is a different matter.

“In two months their ears will ‘unblock,’” says Cho from the head of the table. “I got here many years ago, and it took me three to four months. So they are quicker than me,” he says, drawing laughter from the group.

To help with the language hurdle, every Thursday afternoon Cho and the fellows hole up in a classroom on the third floor, where Cho presents a lecture entirely in Korean. They eat lunch and talk, sometimes until 5 p.m., tackling questions that arise throughout the week — clearing up confusion for information that otherwise would be lost in translation.

Dr. Sang Heun Mun and his wife and three children arrived in the Metroplex in December. By July, his English is such that he has no difficulty explaining why the fellowship opportunity lured him away from his career in Korea, where he is in charge of several dental branches.

“I want to run at a slower pace,” Mun says. “In Korea we are so busy; everything needs to be done quickly, quickly, faster, faster.”

Economic competition in Korea is fierce, given that nearly 49 million people occupy a land mass a fraction the size of Texas. By Cho’s estimates, dentists in the country must see an average of 40 patients a day just to keep up with their peers.

“The bad part is they all drain out,” Cho says. “They work too hard at a fast pace with no rest. That’s why they enjoy a slower pace here. And they learn different life patterns. It’s good for them.”

It’s beneficial for TAMBCD’s periodontic residents, too.

Dr. Vikram Gandhi ’13 worked with Mun several times during the spring semester and also got to know other visiting scholars during his first year in periodontics. Most of the time they spent together was in the clinic. Gandhi performed surgeries while the scholars observed.

“The biggest benefit was them hanging around at the time of clinic, and little things they would tell us,” Gandhi says. “Dr. Mun always had input; it was very, very valuable.”

Lasting impact

Within 12 to 24 months, most of the fellows will pack up their lives for the second time. They’ll take what they learned and apply it to their practices back home in Korea.

Others, like Dr. Sang H. Shin, call the Lone Star State home.

Shin — a past participant of Cho’s annual class in Korea — came to Dallas in 2000 to participate in the short program. He was so taken with his week at TAMBCD that he returned to the college two years later for the longer fellowship.

After 12 months, Shin craved more training, so he applied to the periodontics department’s three-year residency. He was accepted, finished the program in 2006 and has practiced in Dallas ever since.

“Korea did not have a good instructor in periodontics before Dr. Cho started his lecture 21 years ago,” says Shin. “He is the permanent mentor for all Korean periodontists.”

—Jenny Fuentes

— Jennifer Fuentes