Gari Watson – Journey into Dentistry

Gari Watson is a Goreng Goreng, Gangulu and Biri Gubba man who grew up in Brisbane, Queensland, with his family, including three older siblings. Gari was the third Indigenous dentist to graduate from James Cook University (JCU) in 2014.

“I knew from the age of 12 when I got braces that I wanted to be a dentist,” said Gari. “In all the years of visiting the Aboriginal Medical Service and going to the dentist, I’d never met an Aboriginal dentist… So I was inspired, and I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life.”

“At school, I tried really hard,” said Gari. “I wasn’t the top of my class, but I was really interested in biology and health, so I got serious and finally finished year 12.”

Initially, Gari didn’t get the marks to get into dentistry so he did a year of Bachelor of Health Science at Griffith University and did a Certificate III in Dental Assisting. He then applied to study Dentistry at James Cook University (JCU) in Cairns.

“The application process to get into Dentistry was pretty intense and included interviews where I was able to demonstrate my commitment to, and passion for, being a dentist,” said Gari. “Having done the Cert III in Dental Assisting also showed my commitment and gave me valuable experiences that helped me realise I was on the right track.”

Eventually, Gari was offered a position in the Indigenous Health Career Access Program at JCU, which meant he could study the first year of dentistry over two years and receive mentoring and guidance during this time to facilitate his success. During the first few years of his degree, Gari also had tutoring support through the ITAS program.

“One of the things that really helped me at Uni was establishing an Indigenous Student Network at the Cairns campus of JCU,” said Gari. “It allowed us the opportunity to go to Uni and feel supported, so we didn’t feel marginalised. There was also an amazing Indigenous Student Support Officer who nurtured and supported me and went in to bat for me when I needed it.”

“Being at Uni wasn’t easy, especially because I was living so far from home for the first time in my life,” said Gari. “I got really homesick at first, and it was a struggle, but gradually I got to know more people through the Indigenous Student Network, and we formed our own family away from home, creating a sense of belonging.”

“Even though I was the only Indigenous person studying dentistry in my year level, it really didn’t matter as there was a cohort of Indigenous students studying dentistry in the years below me,” said Gari. “We would often work together to solve problems and talk things through. Being a mentor to them was a two-way street where we all learnt from and supported each other.”

“Throughout my degree, I regularly visited the local Aboriginal Medical Service in Cairns, where I was welcomed and given opportunities to observe some of the things I was learning,” said Gari. “They were able to answer many of my questions and help me stay motivated when things got tough.”

“What I love most about being a dentist is helping people to smile again,” said Gari. “It is so rewarding to watch someone’s confidence grow more every day and know that I played a part in that.”

“Dentistry is so much more than just doing fillings,” said Gari. “As a dentist, I also help solve complex oral and facial issues, screen for cancer and other oral conditions. It’s also about disease prevention and health promotion – I teach people how good oral health can positively impact the whole body. It’s never boring; I face new challenges every day, which keeps me on my toes.”

“To anyone thinking about studying dentistry, I would say that if you really want it, then put your mind to it, be persistent – and regardless of any barriers, you’ll get there one day,” said Gari. “It’s hard work and can be challenging at times, but at the end of the day, it’s worth it… For yourself, your family and your community.”

Gari is currently working at the Institute for Urban Indigenous health in his hometown of Brisbane.

“Working in Indigenous health, with my people, is my passion in life,” said Gari. “Working on the frontline to improve oral health and contributing to closing the gap in Indigenous health equality is exactly where I want to be. I’m living the dream.”