Sinkford speaks on leadership, trailblazing

March 15th, 2024

Dr. Jeanne Sinkford

Dr. Jeanne Sinkford has been a trailblazer most of her life. Invited by Dean Lily T. García and the Student National Dental Association, Sinkford shared stories and advice in a webinar Feb. 27 for students, staff and faculty.

Born in 1933 in Washington, D.C., Sinkford graduated top of her class at Howard University College of Dentistry with a D.D.S. degree in dental surgery. She taught prosthodontics at Howard until she graduated with her M.S. degree from Northwestern University School of Dentistry in 1962 and her Ph.D. in physiology in 1963, becoming the first female prosthodontist with a Ph.D. She returned to Howard in 1964 to chair the prosthodontics department, again becoming the first woman to ever hold such a position. In 1975, she was appointed dean of Howard University College of Dentistry, becoming the first female dean of any dental school in the nation. Her life and career are marked by significant accomplishments, setting new standards and expanding the fields of dentistry and the roles of women in dentistry.

“I didn’t do this alone; I want you to know that,” she said. “You want to be a member of the club, but you have to develop the club.”

After sharing some of her life story, Sinkford took questions from the audience, one of which was about the challenges she faced getting more women into dentistry.

“We had women at historically Black colleges who were interested in science, so we had to go into these schools to show them what a career in dentistry would mean,” she said. “Typically what they would know was teaching, engineering and medicine, but they had very little orientation toward dentistry or knew how broad those opportunities were.”

It was a challenge being the only woman in the room, she added. It took effort to get the men around her to see her as a dentist and a qualified colleague. The main goal, she said, was getting people to see things from a “human” perspective rather than just a gendered one.

“I had to reposition a lot of things we would talk about, to not have a gendered element to them, but a human element,” Sinkford said. “Taking out the feminism in leadership was something that I had to do, but nowadays I find that it’s got to be back in there. Depending on where you are, you have to sense the opportunities that are available, but also make sure you’re always reaching down and reaching out [to others] so the spectrum is broader than most people see.”

Sinkford also admitted she didn’t originally want to be dean of a dental school. She would have preferred to continue teaching and working as a dentist – the work she loved. She saw herself as a scholar rather than an administrator, but she recognized the opportunities the new position would afford. As dean, she oversaw the growth of the entire college and its programs, and under her leadership, the college launched one of the first orthodontic programs in the nation to accept Black residents.

“We had to have programs that were competitive with all the other programs in the United States,” she said, “while also having a special advantage: those graduates of those programs would be prepared to go back to minority communities, where they had to be among the first to treat those communities. This would also help expand our programs in the future.”

Sinkford was also asked about avoiding burnout and maintaining a work-life balance. She advised her audience to find a community of peers and support one another. Classmates and coworkers will understand the situations you’re going through, she said, and can offer a shoulder to lean on. She also said dentists and dental students, women especially, have many responsibilities to juggle and sometimes forget to prioritize themselves. She emphasized the importance of self-care, so they’re better able to handle the stress and responsibilities of their wide-ranging commitments.

“That’s a question that comes to me from young women all the time,” she said. “We take on too many things, and we don’t learn to say ‘no’ early enough in our lives. Do the things that you need to do for yourself, for your own growth and really for your own sanity. You can work 24 hours a day, but after you get to 20 hours, you’re going to be nonproductive. There is a human limitation to quality and output. Give yourself time.”

— Caleb Vierkant