A community of support

As a student in the UW School of Dentistry’s RIDE program, Renelle Conner is working to bring a world of good to the Yakama Nation community, one smile at a time.

We > Me

Committed to helping her Yakama Nation community and inspired by the dentists who treated her, UW dental student Renelle Conner joined the RIDE program to help bring orthodontic excellence to her hometown.

Over the years, a skewed ratio developed in Washington state; while rural populations continued growing, the number of dentists serving those areas did not. For many people, the shortage prevented them from receiving the dental care they needed.


  • Name: Renelle Conner
  • Age: 29
  • Hometown: Toppenish, Washington
  • Undergrad: Eastern Washington University
  • Undergrad majors: Biology and chemistry
  • Favorite pastimes: Cooking with friends and going out for Mexican food
  • Future plans: Work as an orthodontist in her hometown with either the Indian Health Service or the Department of Veterans Affairs

The impact of dentists in rural communities goes beyond fixing teeth, as UW School of Dentistry student Renelle Conner knows firsthand. Renelle suffered from a dental abnormality that took its toll mentally. “I felt the whiplash society gives to people like me,” she explains. “It creates a significant social and psychological impact on your life.” A member of the Yakama Nation, she sought orthodontic treatment from the lone specialist at the Indian Health Service clinic in her hometown of Toppenish, Washington.

Experiencing the power of serving a small community, Renelle joined the Air Force when she was 19. Stationed in Alaska, she forecasted storms in conjunction with rescue operations in the deadly waters off the coast, as well as facilitating flights for necessary supplies in and out of remote towns. During her service, she also underwent the oral surgeries that were not available on the reservation. Receiving compassionate care from the specialists, Renelle regained her self-confidence. “They didn’t just fix what was going on in my mouth; they helped fix what was going on in my heart.” While she enjoyed her work in Alaska, the dental care led Renelle to think about the career that would best fit her. While she had received treatment many others were not as fortunate, solidifying her decision to enter the Air Force Reserve and give back through the agencies that had helped her.

Rural health care doesn’t have enough attention, and there are so many people in need.

Renelle began taking the small steps toward achieving her goal, beginning with pre-dental coursework at Eastern Washington University (EWU). With constant support from her family and her husband — who completed two tours in Iraq while serving in the Air Force, and is a two-time Commendation Medal recipient — she graduated from EWU with honors. Searching for dental schools, Renelle came across the UW School of Dentistry’s Regional Initiatives in Dental Education (RIDE) program, and, seeing the same values and beliefs she held, knew that the UW would equip her with the tools to effect change. Established in 2008, RIDE exposes students to community dentistry in underserved areas in the hope that they return after graduation, bringing dental excellence to the populations that need it most.

Now in her second year of the program, Renelle rejoined her dental class in Seattle after participating in a clinical rotation near Toppenish. She’s also preparing to specialize in orthodontics, hoping to practice at the same Indian Health Service clinic she visited as a child, serving as an inspiration for her Yakama Nation community and bringing her journey full circle. “We’re given these amazing tools,” says Renelle, “and we have a responsibility to help those in need.”

RIDE (Regional Initiatives in Dental Education)

In 2007, King County had six times as many dentists per capita as Pend Oreille County in northeastern Washington state. Since few dentists were likely to leave established practices and move to underserved areas, the UW School of Dentistry dared to do something different: bring the best and brightest dental students to those areas, opening their eyes to the incredible impact they can have through the RIDE program. Now in its eighth year, RIDE works to improve dental care in the state’s most underserved areas by inspiring students to practice in rural communities after graduation.

An undaunted partnership

A collaborative effort between Eastern Washington University, Washington State University and UW Medicine’s WWAMI (Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, Idaho) program, RIDE students receive an innovative and unique education. Classes spend their first year studying in Spokane in a small-group learning environment with other health profession students, building an understanding of the team approach to health care. The real difference RIDE students experience is a highly accelerated fourth-year rotation, during which students see as many as five or six times the number of patients as their Seattle peers in preparation for general practice.

Learn more