JOPLIN, Mo. — Joplin’s new dental school is still a year out from opening — but it’s already attracting attention and extra funding for future operations. It’s a grant – big bucks from the federal government aimed at improving dental care in rural areas.

“I expect our students to be excellent clinicians and be great dentists in their community,” said Dr. Linda Niessen, KCU Joplin Dental Dean.

Dr. Linda Niessen is hoping many of those will end up practicing in small towns. The founding dean of the KCU College of Dental Medicine points out rural areas have a growing need for dental healthcare.

“So there’s less than half the number of dentists in a rural community. So we know there’s a tremendous need. The Ozark Health Commission just came out and the people in the community of Joplin noted that oral health was their third most important health issue,” she said.

The US Health and Human Services Administration agree. They’re giving Joplin’s future dental school a grant worth nearly $1.5 million.

“We’re hoping that our grant, that our graduates will practice in rural communities. We’re recruiting students who have grown up in rural communities because we understand that if you’ve grown up in a rural community, you’re more likely to go back to a rural community. So we want to make sure that this grant helps our students understand the aspects of practicing in rural communities so that they can make that decision comfortably,” Niessen continued.

Through a new program called “Educational Navigation For Rural and Interprofessional Community Health” — or ENRICH. The goal is to recruit future dentists from target communities who will provide care in rural and underserved regions, which includes the Four States.

“I know that one of the hopes is that by opening the dental school here, Joplin and the surrounding communities maybe retain the talent that’s developed,” she added.

This is the second big grant for the KCU Joplin College of Dental Medicine. The first was also $1.5 million that focused on building resiliency in dental medicine in rural and underserved communities.