Dental Student Overcomes Hardships to Find His Passion

‘I was horrified at the prospect of attending college’

Dental Student Overcomes Personal Challenges, Hardships to Find His Passion

By Adam Klinker

By the time he was 13 years old, Stuart Tucker had done or was doing a lot of things.

Living on a mountainside in remote northern Idaho with seven brothers and sisters, he was working in sawmills and on tree farms, tending to a flock of chickens whose eggs he sold in roadside stands, searching for nightcrawlers that he could also sell to the anglers who frequented the running waters of the Kootenai River Valley.

“You name it, I probably did it,” says Tucker, who just completed his third year in the Creighton University School of Dentistry. “Chopped firewood, raised a few animals. Anything you can imagine happening on 40 acres of wooded mountainside, we were doing it all.”

All, that is, except going to school.

In 1996, when he was 11, Tucker’s mother and father had moved the family to Idaho from Pasco, Washington, looking for a fresh start after Tucker’s father’s business failed. Living on a mountain, the plan was to home-school the kids. The problem, Tucker says, was his dad’s new job wasn’t quite as lucrative as the one in Pasco, and the children were needed to help supplement some of the income.

In Pasco, gang violence in the school system had pushed the Tuckers to enroll the children in private school. When financial stresses made meeting the tuition bill difficult, the family decided to home-school the children.

Tucker says things went well for about a year. But as financial burdens continued to mount, out of desperation his parents turned to the children to aid in supporting the family.

“When necessities like food, rent and utilities, on what you fight to cover day by day, education becomes a luxury, and one there just wasn’t time for,” Tucker says.

As he came upon high school age, however, the young Tucker began to wonder if something was missing. He’d had an elementary education, he could read, could do mathematics and knew a little about science.

In his precious spare hours, he began wandering down into Bonners Ferry, the small town at the foot of the mountain where he and his family lived.

“I’d go to the public library,” Tucker says. “It was made clear to us that if we wanted any kind of education, we’d have to get it ourselves. So, I started studying on my own. I checked out books on English, math, reading, writing. I was working in a lumber mill at the time. You do logging in the summer and winter, and in the fall and the spring, you work in the mills. It’s about as tough an environment as you can be in, and here I was a teenage kid. That’s what really spurred me on. I didn’t want to continue having to live that kind of a life.”

Studying as often as time allowed, Tucker gradually acquired an entirely self-directed education and passed a high school equivalency exam, just in time for him to debark on his Latter-day Saints mission, a two-year stint undertaken by many young members of the faith in which they proselytize and perform service.

Serving in Tijuana, Mexico, Tucker quickly picked up the Spanish language. He also took stock of the conditions he saw in some of the city’s poorer quarters where he served.

“I thought of myself as having come from a disadvantaged background,” Tucker says. “But some of the circumstances I saw people living in, saw children living in, really had an effect on me. It was heartbreaking to see. I grew to love Tijuana and Mexico and the time I spent with the people there. I’ve never forgotten the experience.”

One of the people Tucker encountered in Mexico was the mission president, a businessman who had dedicated three years of his life to helping and counseling the young missionaries. On one occasion, as Tucker related the story of his later childhood years, the mission president was visibly moved and, in line with the teachings of the LDS church, impressed upon Tucker the importance of a college education.

“I told him flat-out I was horrified at the prospect of attending college,” Tucker says. “After all, it’s been almost 10 years since I last sat in a classroom and had formal schooling. I’m not doing it. No way. Well, he told me to pray about it and I did.”

The mission president continued to advocate; Tucker continued to resist. Finally, the president came to Tucker and said he had paid Tucker’s entry fee to take the ACT exam just across the border in San Diego. Tucker relented.

“I asked him if I could study for it and he said, ‘No, just trust in the Lord to work it out,’” Tucker says. “I respectfully told him he was crazy, but I went along with the plan.”

The plan worked. Tucker scored well enough on the exam to open several college possibilities and scholarships. He ended up at Brigham Young University-Idaho, where he met his wife, Nicole.

And it’s at this point his dental career took shape.

After a few months of marriage, Nicole put the question to Tucker: What are you planning to do with your life? Having been out of the classroom so long, Tucker said he was taking introductory courses in just about everything and figured on entering some field of business. But when Nicole announced she was taking a biology course he’d already taken and asked him to take a human anatomy and physiology class alongside, he said he would.

It didn’t start well. Tucker said he was lost from the very first class and wrote the class off as one he just wasn’t going to understand. But then Nicole saw how poorly he scored on the first exam.

“She said, ‘Are you even going to try?’” he remembers. “So I got the book out again, and I don’t know what happened. Something just came alive in me, and I dove into that book for hours and hours. Things started making sense.”

He got a 99 on his second exam, and Tucker went to the professor of the course to ask what he could do if he changed his major from business to biology. There were careers in academia, research, fieldwork, health care. Tucker shadowed scientists working in wildlife biology, doctors, dentists.

“I fell in love with the health care side of it,” he says. “I saw that helping people is what I really wanted to do.”

Ultimately, Tucker chose dentistry because he felt it provided him a closer connection with patients and afforded him opportunities to spend more time with Nicole and his four children. Tucker also chose pediatric dentistry as a means of giving back to disadvantaged children who remind him so much of himself as a youth.

This spring, Tucker spearheaded the student portion of a new campaign by the School of Dentistry to partner with Nelson Mandela Elementary in North Omaha to provide dental services for students and reach out to students’ families on the importance of oral health.

“I’m so thankful for the challenges in my life,” he says. “Adversity is incredible — how it can strengthen your soul. Do I let these challenges in my life canker me? Or do I use them to let me show someone else that I’ve been there, that you can succeed, too?”