Being drawn here

Gary Slade

Program Director of Oral Epidemiology and John W. Stamm Distinguished Professor, Department of Dental Ecology, School of Dentistry

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Gary Slade always wanted to be a dentist, and he knew from a young age that meant being the first in his family to go to college.

As he worked toward his dream at the University of Melbourne in Australia, he wasn’t the only Slade with his eyes on a college degree.

His father wasn’t far behind.

“He was in his 40s going to school studying the same books,” said Slade, the John W. Stamm Distinguished Professor of Dentist at the UNC School of Dentistry. “He really got this thirst because he saw that I was enjoying what I was doing and that some of this was cool stuff.”

Growing up in a small farm town in southeast Australia, it wasn’t just a college diploma that was rare. Neither of Slade’s parents were high school graduates when they headed out into the workforce.

Slade’s father, a mechanic, was the son of a bricklayer and schoolteacher, while his mother, a secretary, was the daughter of a boilermaker and dressmaker — normal upbringings in Australia.

“We were a comfortable family,’’ Slade said. “We had a car in the drive — in fact we had two cars by the time I was a teenager. We were comfortable. There was no shame to not finishing high school.”

During his childhood, only three or four people in the town of 1,000, Slade estimates, had a college degree. It was the culture of the time. Had his parents grown up a few decades later, they both would have been college graduates, he predicted. His mother, perhaps, would have been a professor.

But that culture change didn’t occur until the mid 1970s, when Slade was nearing the end of his high school career. Of his class of 100 students, half completed high school — twice the rate of his parents’ generation.

His dad, Peter, noticed.

“I’m going to high school and I’m telling Dad about all these books we’ve read and he’d get really interested,” Slade said. “I think he thought, ‘Gee, I’d like to go study some of that stuff.’

So he did. Ultimately, Peter Slade decided to reboot his education and enrolled in night classes at Slade’s high school.

Meanwhile, his son headed two hours south to the University of Melbourne to study dentistry. Gary Slade knew he was the first in his family to enroll in college, but didn’t let that hold him back.

“I think I was lucky because I’d always grown up in a very supportive family environment,” he said. “I was never short of an ego. I was nurtured to be reasonably self-confident and I had done well at school so I had no particular reason to think I was going to stop going forward. I also knew what hard work was, because that’s what you have to do.”

Transitioning from a small farm town to a city of 3 million and being lonely, Slade said, were his biggest fears as he began his college career. But he soon realized there were a lot of students just like him at Melbourne.

“I was a bit of an outsider, but I was not the only country kid,’’ he said. “I think the biggest threat is to think you’re on your own. Being selected for college isn’t like accidently wandering into some wilderness and realizing you’re now lost.

“No, you’ve been drawn by this magnet because of you have this skill and talent that has been recognized throughout your schooling and in your college application. You and thousands like you are being drawn here.”

When Gary Slade was nearly finished with his bachelor’s, degree, his father again followed the son’s lead and enrolled in a correspondent bachelor’s program. Peter Slade eventually earned his college degree in his 60’s. He never changed careers, but enjoyed the education.

“He’s a voracious reader, he loves to pick up the latest topic — he’s got this incredible curiosity,” said Gary Slade, who earned a diploma in dental public health from the University of Toronto in Canada and then a PhD in dentistry from the University of Adelaide in Australia.

“It’s taken a lot of hard work,” Slade said.

For him – and his dad.

By Brandon Bieltz