Earning a degree is expensive. Total student loan debt in the U.S. today amounts to $1.52 trillion, according to Forbes.

With a financial burden weighing on her shoulders, Dr. Malieka Johnson, DDS, is uncomfortably acquainted with the student loan debt struggle — and that’s why she’s putting a stop to it.

Dr. Johnson, raised by her teenaged single mother, is the first generation in her family to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees. This past May, she also became a Fellow in the Pierre Fauchard Academy, an international honorary dental organization that focuses on recognizing and growing leaders in the dental profession, the community and society.

Dr. Johnson began her dental story in 2004 as a pre-dental student at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). There, she served as a volunteer dental assistant, clinic manager, and was heavily involved with the Pre-Dental Society, where she eventually worked her way up to co-director.

“I saw, firsthand, the power of dentistry to improve the health and psychology of a human being, and it won me over,” Dr. Johnson said. “In addition, I like science, the human body, using my hands to create, humanitarian work, education and art. Dentistry is a profession that allows all of these to coexist to the benefit of the provider and those being treated.”

The Humanitarian & Educational Relief Operation award logo.

Becoming a H.E.R.O.

In 2012, Dr. Johnson accepted a position in a community health center where she was promised she would receive student loan repayment assistance. Soon after, she discovered a different reality for many young professional graduates entering their careers — corporate false promises.

After applying multiple times for state and federal loan repayment programs and being declined, Dr. Johnson learned that government programs don’t have nearly enough funding to provide awards, nor did they have the method for determining who receives those awards. As such, she decided to take a different approach.

Knowing that she wasn’t the first (and will certainly not be the last) professional graduate student to experience debt, Dr. Johnson established the Humanitarian and Educational Relief Operation Project (H.E.R.O) in 2016. This project was designed to help professional grads from underserved backgrounds pay off student loan debt.

“The process of founding the Humanitarian and Educational Relief Operation Project (H.E.R.O.) was born out of sheer frustration with the student loan debt epidemic. I consider it to be a public health crisis because emotionally, mentally and physically, the amount of debt some of us are in after graduating and residency is too large to comprehend. I experienced anxiety, regret and depression ruminating about my debt. It was an unhealthy time for me, but out of it The H.E.R.O. Project was born.

“I realized many of my colleagues were in the same position. My concern was for the future of those from underrepresented backgrounds who couldn’t afford professional school in the first place and now enter life with student loan debt the size of a mortgage.”

According to Dr. Johnson, the program consists of a scholarship opportunity, educational curriculum and service learning.

“The hope is that we continue to achieve upward mobility for those who come from more humble beginnings and also to give them the tools to make better life leadership decisions. The process of seeing the non-profit come to fruition has been slow, but rewarding,” Dr. Johnson said.

H.E.R.O is now in the initial stages of fundraising and creating brand awareness. Dr. Johnson said that throughout 2019, she will continue raising funds and launch a call for applicants. H.E.R.O will select a Fellow by late 2019 and then make its first official award in January 2020.

“The most rewarding aspect of this will be simply making a tangible difference in a deserving person’s life,” Dr. Johnson said. “I want the young person who comes from low and middle socioeconomic backgrounds and desires higher professional education to know that someone cares about their ability to reach that goal without it being a financial burden and a hindrance to upward mobility.”

Dr. Malieka Johnson (shown left) presenting H.E.R.O. award to the pastor of her church, Pastor Miles McPherson (right), former NFL player for San Diego Chargers.

“I recently presented H.E.R.O to the pastor of my church, Pastor Miles McPherson (shown above, right), who happens to be a former NFL player for San Diego Chargers!” Dr. Malieka Johnson (shown above, left) said. Photo/Dr. Malieka Johnson

Finding the Niche

Once she began working in the profession of dentistry, Dr. Johnson found fulfillment in serving adults with special needs. Special needs include a variety of conditions, such as intellectual deficits, autism, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, behavioral health conditions, spinal cord injuries and other complex medical conditions.

After getting comfortable with working with this population of people, Dr. Johnson realized that they flew under the radar when it came to health care.

“Many of us are not trained to work with patients with special needs conditions. As a result, many adult patients are turned away for services and slip through the cracks of the healthcare system. My patients and caregivers or parents regularly tell us how they were never able to find a dentist to properly care for their son, daughter or client… I know my work is making a great difference.”

As a general and adult special needs dentist, Dr. Johnson believes in a patient-centered approach to oral healthcare, which includes actively listening to the needs and desires of her patients and working collectively with them to achieve the best outcomes.

In 2013, Dr. Johnson helped pioneer a community health center dental program for adults with special needs and has been treating those patients at San Ysidro Health, located in San Diego County, ever since.

“Every day that I care for adult patients with intellectual and developmental disabilities, I know that I provide a real, tangible and much-needed service,” Dr. Johnson said. “I am privileged to be a part of the dental profession and want to do as much good with this opportunity as I possibly can.”

In addition to her efforts with special needs patients, Dr. Johnson also has volunteered at free dental clinics around the United States and has participated on mission trips to Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and Jamaica to exercise her humanitarian nature.

Dr. Malieka Johnson on a mission trip to Tijuana, Mexico, show with a local family.

While on a mission trip to Tijuana, Mexico, Dr. Malieka Johnson (center) helped to build 13 houses. Photo/Dr. Malieka Johnson.

Factoring in the Feats

Dr. Johnson describes the multiple factors that play a role in her success:

“My spirituality and faith, my work ethic, understanding my personal and ancestral roots and not taking blessings for granted, my love of service and learning and my integrity are all big contributors to my success. I also enjoy projects and challenging myself to grow in all areas of my life.

“Many people have inspired me on this journey, but one person I would like to highlight is my pre-dental school mentor and friend, Dr. Irvin Silverstein, or Dr. S as many of us call him. He has demonstrated by his own actions what it means to lead. He has helped to guide over 200 students into dental school and volunteered countless hours toward expanding the UCSD pre-dental program and making free clinics a success.

“I am fortunate to have had such an amazing example set for me early in my career. His way of living a give-back life has encouraged me to continue in that spirit without hesitation.”

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

Though working in dentistry and working toward the betterment of the community is a huge passion of hers, Dr. Johnson also has a hidden creative side.

Since she was five years old, Dr. Johnson has been a huge fan of 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles. She also enjoys creating art, songwriting, singing and playing musical instruments. A member of the Nashville Songwriters Association International (NSAI) for three years, she is currently working on her first music project.

Dr. Johnson, a health and nutrition enthusiast for more than 25 years, recently earned her certified personal training program certification.

As a side project, Dr. Johnson created a company called SWA:REI, which focuses on creating art, music, apparel and books that encourage the soul and inspires positive life change.

As if that wasn’t a lot already, Dr. Johnson will also be able to check off ‘published author’ and ‘musical artist’ on her list of accomplishments. Her first book, titled The Rx for L.I.F.E, 365 Daily Doses of Inspiration for Living in Faith Everyday, will be released in 2019, along with her first musical single, titled Disappear.

Dr. Malieka Johnson National Anthem at the San Diego Dental Health Foundation's Gala and Fundraiser.

“I had the pleasure of singing the National Anthem at the San Diego Dental Health Foundation’s Gala and Fundraiser for our free dental clinic for Veterans,” Dr. Malieka Johnson said. “We raised over $100,000!” Photo/Dr. Malieka Johnson

Check out Dr. Johnson on social media.