Alumni Story: From Dentist to Civic Leader

Posted on: Wednesday, 06/06/2018

From Dentist to Civic Leader

“I never expected to become a dentist, let alone a community leader in organized dentistry and higher education,” said Dr. Naomi Ellison, Class of 1981. “Leadership opportunities find you and then you rise to the occasion.”

Naomi became interested in dentistry when she came across informational material about dental assisting programs during her undergraduate education. She was drawn to the field and decided to enroll in the program. After working for several years as a dental assistant and office manager, she knew in her heart that becoming a dentist was her future. With a strong science and biology foundation in her undergraduate work, Naomi was a viable dental school candidate. She applied to and was accepted into the Class of 1981 at UCLA School of Dentistry.

“I was overjoyed when I got into UCLA. I was impressed with the caliber of training that students received for the affordable price,” said Naomi. “And the selection of advanced training programs was another huge plus as it spoke to the caliber of the faculty.”

When Naomi entered dental school, she already had a few years of work experience and was able to use her slight age difference to her advantage. She found that leadership roles came easily to her, and she regularly led class projects and outreach events while also juggling the rigors of courses and clinic. 

“Those first few years of dental school were challenging, but I believe it laid the foundation for leadership positions that came up later on in my dental career. UCLA teaches you how to be a dentist and a leader.”

Following graduation, Naomi chose to settle in Orange County, and was five years into working in private practice when she assumed a leadership role with the California Dental Association (CDA). As chairperson for CDA’s Council of Legislation, Naomi interfaced with representatives from the state of California, including Congresswoman Maxine Waters. For more than 25 years, Naomi was an instrumental leader with the CDA and served as a valuable advocate for organized dentistry. In fact, she spoke several times in front of California governor, at-the-time, Pete Wilson, about issues in the dental field.

Naomi’s advocacy work with the CDA eventually pushed her to be elected as chairperson of the board for The Dentists Insurance Company (TDIC), a dentist-owned insurance company. The firm, which was started by a group of CDA members in response to skyrocketing insurance premiums, only insures dentists. TDIC added workers’ compensation insurance later on. 

“My position with TDIC was the biggest leadership role I had ever held,” said Naomi. “I was speaking in front of dental societies all across the state and country, consulting on multi-million dollar risk management portfolios, and routinely presenting in the boardroom of a fairly male-dominated field.”

With a desire to give back to her roots, Naomi reached out to UCLA School of Dentistry’s leadership to see what areas had the greatest need. Student scholarship and facility renovations were two areas that needed attention, to which she generously donated funds to support. She also found another way to give back. The dean at the time, Dr. Henry Cherrick, was in need of a strong leader to serve as the chairperson for the School’s board of counselors. She was just the individual he was looking for – passionate about the school and the profession. 

“Leading the School’s board of counselors has been one of the most fulfilling roles I’ve ever held,” said Naomi. “It’s been an incredible honor to help provide counsel and drive the philanthropy that has helped turn my alma mater into one of the top dental schools in the country – THE top school if you ask me!”

Naomi’s career as a community leader does not stop at UCLA Dentistry’s Board of Counselors. She has served as director of the UCLA Foundation and is currently a member of the UCLA Centennial Campaign Cabinet as well as president of the Board of Directors for UCLA Women & Philanthropy.

“I feel fortunate to work with the UCLA community to help achieve the School of Dentistry’s vision for excellence in all that we do. UCLA and the profession of dentistry have given us all so much, and I am grateful for the opportunity to support this world-class institution.”