By Jake Weber
Inspired by two dentists in her extended family, Bonciel Griffin-Burress, '97, always had her career path in focus.
She chose Albion College after seeing a brochure touting the school's success in getting its graduates into dental school. As a teenager and young adult, she spent many hours working at her uncle and aunt’s orthodontic and pediatric practices, and also assisted an oral surgeon. She even gave up a prosthodontic residency position in order to apply a third time for her dream of an orthodontic residency.
The goal couldn't have been clearer. Except…
"In dental school they don't tell you, 'You're really going to be a businesswoman,'" Griffin-Burress notes with a smile. "You start out with no patients and a lot of student loans and you still have to pay your rent and hire a staff. You work so hard to become a dentist, and there's all this other stuff to learn."
And learn it she has. In just 12 years after completing her orthodontic residency at Howard University, Dr. Griffin-Burress is possibly the only African American female dentist to own multiple practices in the Chicago area (she has three locations offering orthodontics and general dentistry for children and adults). Her newest location was supported by a development grant for one of Chicago's most economically distressed neighborhoods, a situation ideal for "something different."
"We're located between a church and a bar, and next to the office there’s a coffee shop that brings in foot traffic," Griffin-Burress says of Ivory Dental Specialists in the city’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood. "This is something nice for the community and also, when I do something new, I like to try something that hasn't been done before."
The additional address also brings an additional venture, a dental-assistant training program. Dental assistants are in chronically short supply, and Griffin-Burress saw a pool of potential employees right in the neighborhood. "I always need assistants—every dentist does," she says. "Dental assisting is a good salary without a college degree, and that's something that will help people as much as good, accessible dental care."
It goes without saying that Griffin-Burress is a very busy woman (she also has a full orthodontic patient load). Nonetheless, she's a little surprised that anyone would wonder why she's taking the time now to set up the Gregory and Patricia Griffin Scholarship at Albion College.
"Why wait until later when you can help people now? I feel better knowing that as I'm growing and expanding and I'm blessed with opportunities, I'm sharing," she says. "You can say 'later, later,' and it never happens."
The scholarship, named in honor of Griffin-Burress’ parents, will aim to support Chicago-area African American students who want to pursue a career in the healthcare professions.
"My dad always said that from age 13 to 30, my job was to go to school to become self-sufficient and to give back," she says. "Albion was generous enough to give me support for my education, and I'm trying to help now. Hopefully, when these kids benefit from the scholarship, they'll keep it running or start their own scholarships. There's not enough legacy-building in the African American community."
It's not just cheap talk for Griffin-Burress, who does "legacy building" via her trainees, interns, and associates. "I tell them, 'Your job is to go out and find your own place,'" she says. "I hate to see them go because I need the help and the staff, but I'm not selfish enough to keep them from doing even bigger things."
"Except for my mom," she adds. "She was a nurse and a transplant coordinator and now she's my receptionist. That works really well for me."