A Bus Ride to Smile About: Dara Johnson, BA’20

By Adrienne Burns

Dara Johnson insists she wants to spend time after graduation on a bus—a mobile dental clinic, to be exact.

Dara Johnson, BA'20, Arts and ScienceThe Montgomery, Alabama, native is well-versed in the power of buses for social change. From Rosa Parks to the Freedom Riders, buses have been a potent symbol of change in Johnson’s hometown, and she’s working to become the next person to deliver transformation through transportation.

Johnson, a pre-dental student who majored in medicine, health and society and minored in African American and diaspora studies, is passionate about her quest to close the oral-health gap in underserved populations. She specialized in inequality, intersectionality and health justice for her major, which “emphasizes how diverse structures of inequality intersect and shape health disparities”—an academic pursuit Johnson says she knew was an immediate match for her as soon as she discovered it.

“I was all in!” Johnson says. “Taking these courses about racial and ethnic health disparities and men’s health really supplemented what I wanted to do as a health care professional.”

Public health dentistry and mobile clinics are two answers to what Johnson believes is an often-overlooked health issue. “I think too often we separate the mouth from the body and forget how much oral health impacts overall health,” she says. Her hope is to bring better health to rural America through mobile, affordable dental clinics.

“I started to find my space at Vanderbilt. I started to trust in myself and realized that I lack nothing.”

Johnson’s commitment to service and her desire to support those most in need began at home. Her mother is a health care professional, and both her parents are ministers who also operate a nonprofit organization. Community outreach was the norm growing up, and service was a family value. “Growing up immersed in it and seeing the great need for this type of education, advocacy and support really shaped my passion for service,” Johnson says.

Her years at Vanderbilt helped refine Johnson’s focus and passion, giving her the confidence to pursue big goals. Through the many organizations she’s been part of, Johnson says she has found the motivation and mentorship to dream big.

“I started to find my space at Vanderbilt,” Johnson says. “I started to trust in myself and realized that I lack nothing. The biggest thing I got out of my time here was an attitude of, ‘Why not me? Why can’t I do this?’”

It’s a mindset that continues to push her and, she hopes, will give her and others a future to smile about.