Abdullah Alawadhi smiling with his arms crossed.
This month, Abdullah Alawadhi, D.D.S., will become a three-time graduate of VCU after first coming from Kuwait through VCU's Kuwaiti Dentistry program for his undergraduate studies in 2007. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Class of 2022: After third VCU graduation in 15 years, dentist Abdullah Alawadhi is going home to Kuwait as an endodontist

Abdullah Alawadhi, D.D.S., part of VCU’s Kuwaiti Dentistry program, prepares to be a specialist and future mentor to Kuwaiti dental students.

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When Abdullah Alawadhi, D.D.S., first came to Virginia Commonwealth University in 2007, he had been in the U.S. for less than two days.

Having flown from his home in Kuwait to Washington, D.C., then-18-year-old Alawadhi peered out the window of his hotel and saw a new country where he knew he’d be spending the next eight years earning his degree at Virginia Commonwealth University to become a dentist. Little did he know that he would eventually live even longer in the U.S., going above and beyond his original plans to earn an additional degree and become a specialist within his field.

Alawadhi, an endodontics resident, will obtain his third VCU degree this month — an M.S. in Dentistry from the Advanced Specialty Education Program in Endodontics at the School of Dentistry. He previously majored in biology in the pre-dentistry track as an undergraduate at the College of Humanities and Sciences and then earned a D.D.S. at the VCU School of Dentistry. This month, he will become an endodontist and will return home to Kuwait to see his family for the first time since 2019.

Alawadhi’s journey across two continents began in 2006 when he earned a scholarship from Kuwait’s Ministry of Higher Education to study abroad, as a few of his four siblings had done, in the United States. His father asked dentists who had been through VCU’s Kuwaiti Dentistry program what they thought of it.

“VCU has a good reputation in Kuwait,” said Alawadhi, who said the dentists his family knew connected him by phone to some VCU students at the time. “I remember both students were named Hamad — they had the same name — and they were telling me about VCU, the program itself and the connection between the undergrad (pre-dentistry) and graduate dentistry programs, so that’s when I decided to apply.”

The Kuwaiti Dentistry program, established in 1991, has now graduated more than 100 VCU dentistry students from Kuwait. It caters to graduating Kuwaiti high school students interested in dentistry who want to attend VCU for undergraduate and dental school. The continuity of, and connection between, the undergraduate and graduate programs drew Alawadhi to select VCU among other schools.

He was confident in his choice, having wanted to become a dentist since childhood, but when he first arrived in the States, Alawadhi began second-guessing himself.

“The first night, I was looking through the window and was like, ‘Why am I here? I left my family, my friends and came here.’ It was a different feeling, a different language, different people, a different life,” Alawadhi said. “It was tough, I would say, for the first two months, but I think that’s normal and, after that, everything was easy.”

Learning English while acclimating to a new country was an early hurdle, and Alawadhi was doing so while away from his family for the first time, at a time when international calls and texts cost more and video calls on the go were more difficult than they are today. Visiting grocery stores or the DMV posed new challenges, said Alawadhi, recalling that he didn’t know what questions to ask.

At VCU, Alawadhi’s classmates were patient and helpful on group projects, he said, but what made the most difference were the resources available for international students and English language learners.

“The English Language Program, I’m thankful we have great people there,” Alawadhi said. “They help a lot, if you need any help; they’ll even help you with finding a place to live.”

The further into his first eight years at VCU Alawadhi got, the more he saw how helpful it might be for other Kuwaiti students to have an additional group that connected them. In their early D.D.S. days more than a decade ago, Alawadhi and several of his friends created the VCU Kuwaiti Student Organization.

Abdullah Alawadhi, right, his wife Sarah Alkanderi, left, and their children standing between them in a crass field overlooking rolling hills.
Abdullah Alawadhi, right, his wife Sarah Alkanderi, left, a 2020 graduate of the same program Alawadhi is finishing now at VCU School of Dentistry, and their two children pose for a family photo. They are looking forward to seeing their family and friends back home in Kuwait for the first time since their youngest was born. The two are preparing to welcome their third child this year. (Courtesy of Abdullah Alawadhi)

“Mainly, the goal was for the new students, new Kuwaitis coming to the States and undergraduate students to meet and do some stuff together,” Alawadhi said. “We had a barbecue night, we had some PS4 tournaments with games like FIFA, but it was just nice to see all the Kuwaitis here all in one place.”

As his community grew in Richmond, he continued gaining the dental skills he needed on his way to graduating with a D.D.S. in 2015. He returned to Kuwait, began rotations in dental clinics there and, during one of his rotations, met his now-wife Sarah Alkanderi. She was planning to become an endodontist, but Alawadhi wasn’t so sure he’d follow the same path in his own practice.

“When I finished dental school, endodontics was not one of the specialties that I was focusing on,” Alawadhi said. “But when I went back home and started working and doing a lot of debridement (procedures), I realized it’s a nice procedure, a nice service to the patient because, most of the time, they come to you with pain, and they expect you to do the treatment and then they will be out of pain. And most of the time, that’s the situation: They come with pain; they leave without pain.”

Alawadhi and Alkanderi moved back to Richmond in 2018 when Alkanderi began the Advanced Specialty Education Program in Endodontics at VCU and Alawadhi started an Advanced Education in General Dentistry certificate prior to pursuing his master’s degree.

As Alawadhi finishes what he said with a grin will be his final VCU program, it won’t be the end of his journey with higher education. He’s become interested in teaching and hopes to teach dental students at a university while providing care to patients at government-sponsored dental clinics in Kuwait, similar to what his mentor Garry Myers, D.D.S., the director of VCU’s endodontics program, has done.

Myers said Alawadhi has left “his footprints on this institution.”

“While Dr. Alawadhi may be a quiet individual, as a student, resident and clinical provider at VCU, he has been a powerhouse,” Myers said. “He is always willing to see a dental patient in pain on short notice and has had a skilled and compassionate approach when treating these patients. He is a team player in every respect of the term, helping his resident colleagues and the younger dental students at VCU.”

Alawadhi, Alkanderi and their young family haven’t been back home to Kuwait since 2019, their last visit before the pandemic. Now, with a 4-year-old, an 18-month-old and a third child on the way, staying connected virtually has been a priority and is a lot easier than when he was an undergrad, Alawadhi said. But this summer after graduation, Alawadhi is looking forward to spending some quality time with his whole family in person.

“I text my mom almost every day, and every weekend we FaceTime,” Alawadhi said. “But I’ve been really busy in the last couple of months with my thesis, exams and everything. So I want to spend some time with my kids and go back and see my family, spend some time with my mom and dad, brother and sisters.”