From The Rent to Dental School

a dental student
Paul Nwokeji

As a UConn student, there aren’t many parts of the institution that Paul Nwokeji ’15 (CLAS) hasn’t experienced.

Nwokeji was a member of the UConn football team as an undergraduate and earned his degree in biology right before his football career ended by playing in the 2015 St. Petersburg Bowl. Now, Nwokeji has just finished his second year in UConn’s School of Dental Medicine and has his eyes on becoming an oral surgeon.

“I always knew in the back of my head that if football didn’t work out, I wanted to go into health care,” says Nwokeji.

As it does for most college student-athletes, football came to an end following Nwokeji’s senior year, and that is when he really started pondering future options. He first considered medical school, but then spent some time shadowing a pair of dentists local to UConn Storrs – Dr. Matthew Raynor of Storrs Family Dentistry and Dr. Jeniffer Baer of All Smiles Dentistry in Willimantic.

“I really like to use my hands, and after the job shadowing, I really started to think about dentistry,” says Nwokeji. “You still get the same patient interaction and are taking care of people, it’s just a different kind of work.”

Nwokeji (pronounced who-cage-ee) earned a master’s degree in biomedical science from Rutgers following his undergraduate career and then was accepted in UConn’s School of Dental Medicine. He is now halfway through the program and plans to continue his education in maxillofacial surgery and earn his M.D.

“Paul has a very compassionate nature and he is very observant and focused,” says Dr. Sarita Arteaga, the associate dean for students at the School of Dental Medicine and a mentor of Nwokeji’s. “He is very interested in learning, and that is so obvious even to other faculty members who haven’t known him as long as I have. He really enjoys learning and wants to do the best he can. He sits quietly, listens to all the advice and feedback given to him, and absorbs it. He tries to do what he needs to do to improve or, if he has already done a good job, he does more so that he can do even better. Paul is very persistent, focused, and self-reflective.”

Nwokeji credits his parents, Paul Sr. and Pam, for the values that made him a successful athlete and student. His father came to the United States from Nigeria in his mid-20s and became a juvenile probation officer, and his mother is a computer technician.

“My parents sacrificed a lot for me and my siblings and wanted a better life for us than they had,” says Nwokeji.

He has also applied lessons learned from athletics to his dental school career.

“I use a lot of things I learned from football, like self-motivation, self-improvement, and being honest with yourself,” says Nwokeji. “All of those things put together help me be driven.”

Arteaga also believes that being an athlete can bring great dividends to the classroom.

“The practice aspect and how it relates to hard you have to study is very similar,” says Arteaga. “The organizational aspects are also very similar.  Learning how to balance so many different things is a relatable trait of an athlete and a professional student.”

Nwokeji did research at UConn Health last summer and hoped to do an externship this summer, although the COVID-19 pandemic has eliminated that chance. He will start working with patients this fall as part of his training.

He stays involved in the community, working with youth groups in Hartford and a program at UConn Health that offers mentorship programs in science and math to children.

“We also focus on skills like public speaking and how to connect with people,” he says.

Nwokeji still stays in touch with many of his former Husky teammates, like Foley Fatukasi of the New York Jets and Obi Melifonwu, who played for the New England Patriots the past two years.

At the start of his college career, he also envisioned the possibility of a professional football career. What would he have done if he knew he was headed to dental school instead?

“I would have laughed,” Nwokeji says. “You don’t think that far ahead. I would have never believed it if somebody told me I would be in dental school.”