Johnny Joseph never had a dentist when he was growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It was not until he turned 12 that he finally sat in a dentist’s chair, after his mother, Noela Esakobibi, moved her children from their war-sundered homeland to New England.
Unlike most sixth-graders, he was completely taken by the experience.
“I thought it would be the same as going to see a physician, but it was different,” said Joseph, now 21, in the thick accent he brought with him from his native country. “It was fascinating.”
The experience set him on a course that took him from being a high school student struggling with language and cultural hurdles to an academically accomplished senior at Stonehill College who was recently awarded a full scholarship to the University of Connecticut’s dental school.
In fact, all 10 dental schools he applied to accepted him, on the first day they could send acceptance letters.
“At midnight, he started getting e-mails,” said Craig Almeida, a Stonehill dean and biology professor. “By the end of the day on Dec. 2, he had all 10 acceptances. Later that week, UConn offered him a free ride. For a medical and dental grad school to offer a full ride? I’ve never heard of that before. Clearly, they see potential.”
Joseph’s path to dental school began in a country riven by violence.
As a young boy, Joseph did not understand why his mother wanted to leave the Democratic Republic of Congo. All he knew was that he “had to tell his friends goodbye.”
“I was always either in school or day care or playing soccer,” he said. “I didn’t experience the real world. But now, as an adult, I hear stories from my mom about why she left — the war and everything.”
The Second Congo War, from 1998 to 2003, left 5.4 million dead, more than any other conflict since World War II, according to a study by the International Rescue Committee and Australia’s Burnet Institute. Most victims died of malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia, and malnutrition.
Joseph’s mother moved her two children to Vermont in 2004. She now has four more children, born in the United States. The family later moved to South Portland, Maine, where Joseph’s mother worked as a registered nurse. His father, Jules Mbole, still lives in Africa.
“My mom wanted a better life for her children and herself,” Joseph said.
Moving to northern New England from the middle of Africa was “a big culture shock,” he said. “It was a big adjustment. . . . I had to leave behind most of my friends. Everything was different, the language, the climate, the people, the food. . . . At home [in Maine], we still make our [native] food, mostly rice with goat or chicken.”
When Joseph started middle school in Vermont, he could not speak English. By the time he got to Essex High School, he “had basic English down.” Determined to pursue dentistry, Joseph immersed himself in the sciences, pursuing a biology degree at Stonehill, where he will graduate Sunday.
“Science is a different language on its own,” Joseph said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a native speaker or not.”
At Stonehill, he joined the Pre-Dental Society. An internship at North Easton Dental Associates his junior year cemented his decision to apply to dentistry schools.
“Johnny is a perfect example of, if you’re interested in something, committed, willing to work hard, willing to take advantage of a wide range of opportunities presented to you, there’s no reason why you can’t succeed,” Almeida said.
When Joseph says he “did everything on campus,” that’s not so far from the truth. He played varsity football for two years. He was a teaching assistant and tutor in four science classes. He has mentored Brockton schoolchildren and worked with veterans in Boston.
As an intern at the North Easton dental office, Joseph learned how to sterilize tools, take and develop X-rays, and “most importantly, how to interact with patients and employees,” he said. “It was seeing the interactions the dentists had with their patients . . . that solidified my decision. . . . I loved that feeling of changing people’s lives, one smile at a time.”