A different kind of impact
It’s hard to imagine anyone further removed from his childhood than Michael A. Brooks, Jr., DDS ‘13.
Growing up in Key West, Florida, he sold mangoes and Spanish limes to tourists outside of the Ernest Hemingway house. Part African-American, Native-American and Hispanic, Brooks thrived in a large, close-knit family with aunts, uncles, and cousins aplenty. He blossomed as an ‘A’ student in high school. And he was a force on the football field––a pro-sized six-foot-three, 230-pound tackling champion, coveted by college programs all over football-crazed Florida. But Brooks had other ideas.
When a football coach from Concordia University in St. Paul made a recruiting visit to his high school, Brooks made a point of talking to him. A small faith-based school at the opposite end of the country appealed to his independent streak. So did the coach’s emphasis on student athletes. “I told him, I’m a star defensive end with a 4.0 GPA. I should be right up your alley.” Brooks was exactly that, and he packed his bags for Minnesota.
Finding a New Field
At Concordia, Brooks again thrived athletically and academically. As a senior in 2008, he was captain of the football team and awarded Concordia’s “Top-4” award, given annually to four student athletes who demonstrate the highest standards of sportsmanship and superior character in every aspect of their lives. But it was his classroom prowess that set his future.
After starting out as a business major, he did well enough in his science classes for a biology professor to take him aside and ask if he had thought of a career in the sciences. “I hadn’t thought of it, but my mom and grandmother were both nurses. As a child, I spent a lot of time around the hospital after school and I was impressed by the gratitude of patients and how medical professionals were such respected members of the community.”
Dentistry held particular appeal, because he’d seen how few people received dental care in his Key West community. He also knew he had the work ethic for success in dental school. “I was always taught that if you put in the work, you get back the reward.”
At Concordia, he found not only a career path but also his future wife, Jessica, a Minnesota native and fellow student who is now the marketing manager at the Minnesota Children’s Museum. They have two girls ages four and six. “Football brought him here; I kept him here,” she says.
That was lucky for the School of Dentistry. “Michael Brooks’ reputation preceded him.,” said Naty Lopez, PhD, MEd, assistant dean of admissions and diversity. “Prehealth advisers from his school approached me during a meeting to tell me a most wonderful student was going to apply and that he would make an excellent dental student and dentist. When I finally met him, I was not disappointed. He was everything they said he was. He was smart and funny, a ‘gentle giant’ as his high school students would call him.”
Dental school was also a good fit for Brooks. “I liked the school’s commitment to community outreach,” he said. Brooks received a Dean’s scholarship and a summer research fellowship. He excelled academically and at the same time taught high school students in Saturday Academy, the School of Dentistry’s admissions pipeline program funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration.
Twenty-four high school students from underrepresented community groups in Minneapolis attended science and dental simulation classes two Saturdays a month. Said Lopez, “Michael held the students’ attention as he creatively presented topics and drilled them about new things they learned. The students just loved Michael; they looked forward to their Saturdays with him.”
He Looks Like Me
Just imagine the impression that Brooks makes on his young patients at NorthPoint Health & Wellness Center on Penn Avenue North in Minneapolis, where he is director of the dental clinic. NorthPoint is a multi-specialty medical, dental and mental health center and human service agency where many patients are without insurance or receive medical assistance.
Brooks had four job offers and the NorthPoint job paid the least, but he was attracted to the clinic’s level of community engagement.
“The decision Dr. Brooks made to practice in a community clinic demonstrates his commitment to ‘give back’ to the community, especially to the underserved,” said Lopez. “He could have worked elsewhere but he chose to work where he is most needed.”
Brooks teaches his patients about the importance of dental health to overall health and longer life, raising their ‘dental IQ.’ He’s also an influential role model. Many of his young patients express surprise when they meet him. “They look at me and ask ‘Are you the dentist?’ Then they turn to whoever brought them and exclaim, ‘He looks just like me.’”
With his patients he’s a coach, too, who seeks to impart the values and philosophy that have made him successful. As he works, he injects a bit of casual conversation about life and making good personal choices. “You just have to meet people where they are and bring them along.”
Football may have brought him north but it was merely the kick off to Brooks’ career. Long after his time as a defensive end, he’s still making an impact.
This story was originally published in Dentistry Magazine in 2018 and has been edited for online publication.