Erica Stokke

Erica Stokke, 40-40

LARRY MAYER Gazette Staff

Age: 29

Hometown: Laurel/Billings, Montana

Erica Stokke graduated from Billings West High in 2006. Since then, she went from being a standout athlete to college student to being accepted to the University of California Los Angeles' School of Dentistry. She has received national and state awards for her work and accomplishments. 

How did you decide to become a dentist?

I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew that I did not want to be a dentist. In high school, I participated in Medical Careers where I explored careers in the medical field, but disappointingly there was nothing that I loved. I knew that I was meant to help people, but didn’t know how. In college, I met with multiple career counselors and they all said the same thing: You are going to be a dentist.

Throughout college I started to notice that during my school breaks I was spending the majority of my time at my dad’s dental office. I saw how he was combining the science that I was learning in college and art to help others while building relationships along the way. I admired the craft of working with your hands and the tremendous attention to detail it took to design smiles or take someone out of pain. At that point I knew I was meant to be a dentist.

Why did you choose to come back home to practice?

Being young and unattached after high school, I wanted to explore other parts of the country, develop into my own person, and see what I was made of. I moved to three different states without knowing a single person and had to make my own way. I was immersed in different cultures, beliefs and lifestyles and was able to create long lasting friendships and persevere through trying circumstances. But I always knew that I would return to Montana. We still have pristine wilderness, a strong and kind local community, and a great simplified lifestyle focusing on people rather than things. In the 10 years of living outside of Montana and pursuing my career, I never faltered with my decision to return home. There is truly something magical about Montana.

Why would you tell someone to relocate to the Billings area?

I would tell someone to relocate to the Billings area because we have a flourishing economy with a strong local community and small-town mentality. The area has everything a larger city has to offer while being accessible to any outdoor activity -- backpacking, hiking, hunting, fishing, mountain biking, and skiing. Whether you are looking for a quick river float after work or a weekend getaway, it is all available right here. Besides the city having multiple opportunities, we are less than an hour away from almost a million acres of true wilderness. The adventure possibilities are endless and offer a fulfilling, relaxed and simple lifestyle.

Did you ever think you would fail?

Growing up, I was taught that failure is not an option. My parents raised me to think positively, to think for myself, and to problem solve. My mother has been a teacher at Elder Grove School for more than 30 years and instilled resilience, perseverance and the importance of steady, hard work. She gave me the freedom to think independently, solve problems creatively, and stick to a task until I achieved it. This made me believe in myself.

This is not to say that daunting and trying moments did not arise; however, my lessons as a child allowed me to stay positive and resilient. I was fortunate enough to be one of 10 out-of-state students accepted into the UCLA School of Dentistry. My classmates came from private schools and schools for the gifted in California while I came from a country school. I had my mom as a teacher twice, my aunt once, and my grandfather was commissioned to come into the school to teach four of us algebra in the school office as it was not offered at the time. Needless to say, when I arrived at UCLA, I wondered how I would stack up against the other students. Through discipline and diligence, I systematically studied and practiced every day. I did this for myself, but more so because I wanted to be a great dentist that helped others to the absolute best of my ability. I loved every minute of it and soaked up every tidbit of knowledge so I could be an impactful, honest and helpful dentist for the people I would serve. At the end of my four years, I realized that through my discipline and passion, I graduated at the top of my class of more than 100 students and was inducted into a national dental honor society.

What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

The most rewarding aspect of my job is helping others, creating relationships, planning comprehensive cases, and educating patients to prevent future dental needs. I chose general dentistry because I am able to help people of all ages in a variety of ways. I can help patients by relieving pain, by helping someone chew again, or by improving self-confidence with a new smile. I enjoy working with patients to put together the pieces of the puzzle for individualized treatment and educating patients on their risk factors to prevent them from needing major dental work down the road.

One of your nominations mentions that you have training in medically complex patients. To some, that would sound scary. Why have you chosen to train for complex cases?

I chose to train for complex cases because I believe that everyone deserves competent dental care. If something is scary, I believe you should learn more about it. The more you understand the less scary something becomes.

What is one thing still on your list of goals to complete in the future?

One thing that is on my list of goals that I would like to complete in the future is to volunteer for dental missions abroad. In dental school I did free dental work in Guatemala during one of my breaks, and I’d like to continue to give back in the future. I am fortunate to be trained with a specific skill set and believe it is my responsibility to share it and help others.