Black History Month: Spotlight on George Jenkins, DMD
George Jenkins, DMD, recalls the moment he became interested in becoming a health care professional. He was 11 years old and sitting in a dentist’s chair at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Newark. Jenkins was there to get his teeth straightened and he was fascinated by the tools. As the dentist worked, Jenkins peppered him with questions. Flattered, the dentist not only explained how the tools worked, he also taught Jenkins the names of each tooth.
“I could hardly wait for my next appointment,” Jenkins wrote in “The Pact,” a book he co-authored with the two friends who helped him achieve his dream of becoming a dentist.
Jenkins’s inspiring story—about three friends from a poor neighborhood in Newark who vowed to become doctors—made the New York Times bestseller list in 2002. Jenkins and his friends now run the Three Doctors Foundation, dedicated to improving diversity in medicine and mentoring youth.
He brings the same passion to his new role as assistant dean in the Office of Access, Equity, and Inclusion at Columbia University College of Dental Medicine. The following transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Who were the most important early influences in determining your career trajectory?
You know, growing up in Newark in the '80s had its challenges. Newark was the car theft capital of the world, and the crack epidemic was at its height at that moment, so there were a lot of negative influences.
My third-grade teacher, Viola Johnson, was probably the most influential, before I met my friends. She helped me get a perspective into what was happening in my neighborhood. I could see my housing project building out of the window in our class, and she'd look with us and say, “You see these buildings? You're just passing through. If you use these books, you're not stuck here, you can study your way out of this situation.” That made a big, big impact on me, and I've kind of been using those principles ever since.
As a teenager, you and two friends formed a pact to help each other stay in school and become physicians. How has that friendship influenced your career?
That dynamic and that relationship I think is what led all of us to where we are today. When my friends and I connected, we found kindred spirits. We were all regular guys when you looked at us, but we cared about our grades. We were balanced. We've been holding onto each other ever since, helping us through various schools, life situations, and our foundation that we started 20 years ago.
What do you like best about your current work at Columbia?
I have resources and the freedom to shape initiatives to do what I've always been doing. As a result of my experiences growing up, I feel a social responsibility to help students. I've been doing it for 20 years with my foundation, outside of my job, and I'd been looking for ways to do the things I do in the foundation all around the clock.