A photo of a man wearing dental scrubs standing in a room full of dentists.
Mo Ghazal, who earned a D.D.S. from VCU this month, will work as an intern resident at the School of Dentistry’s Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery. (Vernon Freeman, School of Dentistry)

Class of 2024: Mo Ghazal finds a second home – and a second degree – in VCU’s International Dentist Program

A winding path from the Middle East, including years as a trained practitioner, led him to VCU so that he can treat patients in the U.S.

Share this story

When Muhannad “Mo” Ghazal was presented with his Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from Virginia Commonwealth University this month, it wasn’t his first time wearing a cap and gown. 

Ghazal had graduated from dental school in Egypt more than a decade ago. But his latest degree is from VCU School of Dentistry’s International Dentist Program, which helps dentists trained in foreign programs meet the requirements for practicing in the U.S. He says his time at VCU not only enhanced his skills as a dentist but also provided a path to his “American Dream.”

Ghazal’s parents were born in the Gaza Strip in the Middle East and immigrated when they were young. He and his brothers grew up throughout the region, spending time in Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

“My family had to move from one place to another based on which country would allow us in,” he said. “Before we were allowed residency within a particular country, we always needed to have a reason to stay.”

For Ghazal, his reason was always about advancing his education.

“My mom used to say that when your life turns from a steady ship to a rocking boat, education is the anchor that can hold you down,” he said. “She and my dad did everything they could to help us be more educationally involved every single day.”

Ghazal and his brothers developed an early interest in health and medicine after their father was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. Pursuing careers in health care also served to provide their family with medical and financial assistance that they otherwise struggled to find because of their immigrant status. In Egypt, his older brother enrolled in medical school while Ghazal and his younger brother attended dental school. 

After finishing school, Ghazal began an oral surgery residency program in Germany. However, his plans were rerouted after his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. He moved back to his parents’ home in Saudi Arabia and began working as a resident at the same hospital where his mother was receiving chemotherapy.

While he was looking after his mother, Ghazal began to think about what he wanted in life, ultimately deciding that he would try to immigrate to the United States. After finishing his shifts at the hospital, he would keep his mother company and study for the national dental boards. 

“It was a long, exhausting five years,” Ghazal said. “I watched her health rise and fall. Because of the immigration process, we had a hard time finding a place where she would qualify for treatment. Her health went from bad to worse, and she passed away in 2016.”

“That was the biggest heartbreak for me. I think that was the turning point in my life that made me who I am today.”

Driven by a hope for better opportunities abroad, Ghazal traveled to the U.S. to take his dental board exams and start the immigration process. There were times when he slept on friends’ couches, on Greyhound buses and at train stations. “For a while it was just me and my backpack,” he said. 

To be allowed to practice dentistry in the U.S., Ghazal needed a degree from an accredited dental education program. When accepted into VCU’s School of Dentistry, he said, it felt like a miracle. 

“VCU was a long shot for me because of how competitive their international program is. They only enroll about 10 students each year,” Ghazal said. “When I was accepted, I called my dad and my brothers, and everybody was crying. I’m just this guy who didn’t have a residency status anywhere but somehow got accepted into one of the most competitive programs in the country. I’m still in disbelief every single day.” 

A photo of a man wearing blue scrubs and a face mask cleaning the teeth of another person sitting in a dental chair in front of him.
Mo Ghazal said his time at the VCU School of Dentistry exposed him to new perspectives for treating patients. (Vernon Freeman, School of Dentistry)

Even though Ghazal was already equipped with years of clinical experience, he said his time at the VCU School of Dentistry exposed him to new perspectives for treating patients. 

“If I thought I knew anything about dentistry, VCU proved to me that I knew nothing. The program showed me a different aspect of dentistry that I hadn’t experienced before,” Ghazal said. “Back home in the Middle East, dental treatment is unfortunately often symptomatic because of the socioeconomic status of the patients. VCU helped me look at the bigger picture. We learned how to look beyond the tooth and treat the patient comprehensively.”

Ghazal said a number of professors helped smooth his transition to VCU, including Awab Abdulmajeed, D.D.S., director of the International Dentist Program, and Peter Antinopoulos, D.D.S., who was his general practice group leader. He also expressed gratitude for Alexandra Glickman, D.D.S., director of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery Predoctoral Education, who encouraged him to continue his career path in oral surgery.

Ghazal will now work as an intern resident at the School of Dentistry’s Department of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery, where he will provide surgical care to patients with facial fractures, impacted wisdom teeth, tumors and other oral health issues.

He said he was motivated to stay at VCU because of the way faculty and staff advocated for their patients’ health, regardless of their circumstances.

“I hope to give patients and their caregivers peace of mind,” Ghazal said. “Often patients have so many other sources of stress in their lives. I want them to know that as long as I am their provider, their health is in safe hands.”

After completing a four-year residency, he ultimately plans to work in an academic health system. He hopes to serve as an anchor for other dental students on their education journey.

“VCU provided me with the knowledge and resources to become a better health care professional. It gave me everything,” Ghazal said. “I want to expose students to the same opportunities that I was seeking.”