FROM SERGEANT TO STUDENT – Police officer studying to become a dentist

Being a police officer and a dentist are more similar than one might think. That’s what former Sgt. Rudy Oxendine is realizing as a first-year dental student.

“It’s all about perspective,” said Dr. Todd Watkins, assistant dean for dental education and informatics at the East Carolina University School of Dental Medicine. “He already has the background in service and as a result, dental service is just a different type of service than what than what he’s already been accustomed to. So I just see it as an extension of his regular personality.”

Dr. Linc Conn (right) inspects the work of first-year dental student Rudy Oxendine. Oxendine is a former Greenville police officer. (Photo by Rhett Butler)

Last summer, Oxendine was the sergeant of the center city unit of the Greenville Police Department. Today he is a first-year dental student.

“I made the decision (dental school) because, do you want to live your whole life wondering, ‘What if?’ I didn’t want to wonder,” Oxendine said.

Oxendine joined GPD in 2003. He earned the rank of sergeant, served on the SWAT Team for 11 years and continues to work as a reserve officer. He had the chance to climb the police department ladder after successfully completing a promotional process that could have potentially led him to the rank of lieutenant. But instead, he removed himself from the eligibility list to remain on the center city unit where he felt he was making a difference.

“I really, really enjoyed my position. I liked what I was doing. I loved who I worked with. I enjoy this entire area (downtown Greenville) and seeing it progress,” Oxendine said.

While many people wouldn’t pass up an opportunity for promotion, those who know Oxendine understand it – especially the officers who were under his command.

Oxendine was with the Greenville Police Department for 13 years before going to dental school. (Photo by Jay Clark)

Oxendine was with the Greenville Police Department for 13 years before going to dental school. (Photo by Jay Clark)
“He helped me become a better police officer,” said GPD officer Sam Paldino. “He would just go out of his way. It didn’t matter if it was his day off or if he had other things to do, he would always go above and beyond. He really wanted to help people build their career. He would always challenge me. He would ask me, ‘What do you want to do in the future and how are you going to do that? I want to help you get there.’”

And it wasn’t just Oxendine’s fellow officers that he served. Those living and working in the center city district had easy access.

“He’s been wonderful. You go out there and call any time of the night – call his phone and he’s right there to help you,” said Shawn Grazier, manager of Crave Restaurant. “There are huge shoes to fill. Rudy’s built up the reputation and the relationships with everybody downtown.”

Why a dentist?

Oxendine said the seed to become a dentist was planted years ago. He grew up in a poor area of Robeson County. He said he needed a lot of dental attention but he wasn’t able to access care for much of his childhood.

“The need exists there just like it exists all over eastern North Carolina,” Oxendine said. “It’s just something that I knew I wanted to do because it’s a great way to help and it’s a great opportunity for me to give back. I’m hoping that if I can continue on my current pace I’ll have that opportunity someday.”

Oxendine, 39, is married and a father of a 6-year-old daughter and a 9-year-old son. He said back when he was the typical college age, he wasn’t mature enough nor did he have the discipline to do what was needed to become a dentist. But then he went through basic law enforcement training.

“You’re going to learn discipline or you’re going to fail out. If you have the mindset that you’re not going to fail, you will become more disciplined,” Oxendine said. “I think that’s what the police department did for me.”

While an officer, Oxendine went to ECU and got a degree in chemistry in 2009. He then took some prerequisites so he could eventually apply to the School of Dental Medicine. He started his new journey in August.

“You walk in here knowing that it is going to be difficult and you don’t know what to expect,” Oxendine said. “I had a good semester; I’m pleased with my performance. I have a lot to learn.”

Oxendine works in the simulation lab on the mannequin he has named Santiago. (Photo by Rhett Butler)

These days, instead of walking the beat downtown, you’ll see Oxendine walking from the lecture hall to the simulation lab in Ross Hall on ECU’s Health Sciences campus. Instead of Oxendine working with the latest law enforcement equipment at the range, he’s working with his restorative kit, fixing cavities and other defects in the mouth of a mannequin he’s affectionately named Santiago.

“Each week you’re learning something new – you’re having to apply it – and no matter how good you were the previous week, you’re going to have a new thing to learn, a new hardship that you’re going to have to overcome,” Oxendine said.

Watkins said Oxendine’s current dental education is essentially like he’s on training wheels, but not for long. “Next, we will take the training wheels off and he will have to work in our clinics while we watch him. And then he’s going to be doing real live patient care in our service learning centers.”

Extended family

Oxendine’s transition from officer to future dentist has him working closely with a new set of peers, which seems to be extending his family.

“All of my closest friends were obviously related to (GPD). You miss the people – they’re your friends, they’re your family, you’ve gone through a lot of traumatic things together which creates a bond. That’s probably the most difficult part – not seeing your friends every day,” Oxendine said. “However, I’m growing close to a lot of people at the dental school. So I’m really pleased that I found some great friends over here.”

His former colleagues say ECU is gaining a student who leads by example.

“As for GPD, I don’t think they’re going to be able to replace him, he’s just one of a kind. He was a great supervisor, he’s a great leader. People just love being around him, people love working with him,” Paldino said. “As for ECU, I think they’re definitely in for a treat. He’s just extremely motivated and he’s going to really have an impact over there.

For more information on the ECU School of Dental Medicine, visit http://www.ecu.edu/cs-dhs/dental/.

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