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May 6, 2020

Class of 2020: Shared passions propel cousins from SVSU to dental school

Reece-DurkeeAshley Reece and Caitlin Durkee take being part of the “Cardinal family” literally. The inspiring cousins and seniors at Saginaw Valley State University not only share familial ties, but they also share a similar college journey and passion for serving others. Each will earn her bachelor’s degree in biology, with a minor in chemistry, from SVSU this month and will be attending dental school together at the University of Michigan in the fall.
The hard-working cousins grew up near each other in Macomb County — Reece in Richmond and Durkee in Clinton Township — but attending SVSU together made them closer than ever.
“I am so glad that we decided to take on this adventure together. We grew up together, and we’ve always been close; however, going to college together and seeing each other every day — and practically taking every class together — made this experience so much more fun and valuable,” Reece said.
“Almost everything we tried out at SVSU, we tried together. We have been residential assistants together, Orientation Leaders together, tour guides together, on the board of organizations together, all while doing our shadowing, volunteering and classes together. I could not look back at many memories at SVSU without Caitlin being there.”
The pair took the same classes, joined the same organizations, and were both inspired by the same dedicated mentor: Heidi Lang, pre-health professions advisor at SVSU.
“Heidi Lang is one of SVSU’s most valuable resources, and the number of students she helps is immeasurable. She really goes the extra mile to make each student feel heard, while also making sure that all of her students have the resources they need to be successful,” Reece said.
Lang also helped them discover their passion for dentistry by providing them both with job shadowing opportunities at Great Lakes Bay Health Centers' dental clinic in Saginaw.
“It was eye opening to witness the vast dental-related need in the community, and observing the work the doctors did to alleviate people’s pain increased my desire to make an impact in similar communities,” Durkee said.
“Coming into my freshman year, I did not know anything about graduate school, if I even wanted to pursue dentistry, or how to find out. Heidi helped connect me with great resources and was with me for each step of my undergraduate journey, both academically and personally.”
Both cousins were inspired to go into health care — specifically, dentistry — as a way to help others and serve their community.
“I always knew that I wanted to go into health care. I have always loved service, and health care seemed to be the best way to help people and see the immediate benefits of your actions,” Reece said.
They are driven to help as many people as they can, so in addition to job shadowing and volunteering in the Great Lakes Bay Region, they expanded their humanitarian efforts across the country and the globe.
Reece and Durkee both attended volunteer trips to North Carolina and Virginia through SVSU; they also studied abroad in Nepal together to learn about international health care systems.
“The Remote Area Medical trip I went on with Heidi Lang and a group of pre-health students to Wise, Virginia was hands-down my favorite experience I’ve ever had. I was able to learn about a new community and its needs, and completely immerse myself in direct, impactful service with an incredible group of girls who share similar passions,” Durkee said.
The pair looks forward to continuing to make a positive impact in dental school and beyond.
When they decided they wanted to further their education, they knew they wanted to do it together. Their determination and perseverance earned them each acceptance to the University of Michigan School of Dentistry, and they will continue their journey together at one of the top dental programs in the nation.
“U-M’s dental school has been rated the No. 1 dental school in the country, and I feel as if it is a great honor to be accepted into their program,” Reece said.
“I also chose U-M because Caitlin wanted to go there, and I don’t know why we wouldn’t take the opportunity to experience a new school and new way of life together. We’ve been strong support systems for each other for a long time, and I think we will need that support more than ever when we get to dental school.”
Their paths likely won’t diverge until they graduate from dental school, as each cousin has her own career goals and future plans. However, Reece and Durkee both share the same objective: to keep serving others.
“After obtaining my DDS, I plan to find work in an underserved area of Michigan. I hope to travel and volunteer my services at free clinics in my spare time,’ Durkee said.
Reece has accepted a scholarship through the U.S. Navy Health Professions Scholarship Program and will serve her country as a dentist upon graduation.
“Upon becoming a dentist, I will be caring for active-duty sailors as well as their families at bases around the country and potentially out of the country. I am so excited to be part of such an awesome opportunity,” Reece said.
In addition to her naval scholarship, Reece is also SVSU’s second recipient of the Dr. Jessica R. Bentoski Endowed Scholarship for Pre-Dental Students, which assists in paying for dental school applications and testing fees. Bentoski is an SVSU alumna and has a pediatric dental practice in Saginaw.
“I felt very fortunate to receive such a generous scholarship from Dr. Bentoski," Reece said. "I hope that someday I can find a way to repay her for her continuous support that she provides the pre-dental students at SVSU. I truly could never repay her for the hope and sense of encouragement that her scholarship provided me."
As Reece and Durkee look forward to their next chapter, they also are taking time to reflect on their experiences at SVSU.
“SVSU has greatly prepared me through my various involvements and experiences," Durkee said. "I am confident that the skills I have gained and lessons I have learned from SVSU — both inside and outside of the classroom — have prepared me for both dental school and my career beyond."
Reece shares the sentiment:
“SVSU has prepared me in every way for my future. From the classes I took and the connections I’ve made, to the professors who genuinely cared, and the endless opportunities I was presented, I will be eternally grateful for my journey at SVSU. I don’t think I could’ve possibly gotten this much out of college if I would’ve gone anywhere else."
The SVSU tradition doesn’t end with the cousins. They’ve inspired many others to attend the university, and their family legacy there will continue.
“My sister and our closest friends came to SVSU with us, and I’m so glad we made college such a 'family affair,' because it was so much fun,” Reece said.
She and Durkee know they have a lot of hard work ahead of them, but credit their opportunities at SVSU for preparing them for what’s next.
As long as they stick together and support each other, they know the limits to what they can achieve are endless.
“Pursuing graduate school was a daunting task, but having Ashley with me every step of the way made the journey much easier and more enjoyable. We have always been close, but now pretty much anyone who knows us knows ‘we do everything together,’ and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Durkee said.
“I really cannot image having gone through all of these years without her.”