New School of Dentistry dean shares her journey
In preparation for this interview, Jillian Wallen, BDS, MS, the new dean of the Creighton School of Dentistry, phoned her brother, Neil, in Scotland, and, as siblings often do, he took the opportunity to gently rib his older sister.
“He said, ‘Why would they want to interview you? You’re not really that interesting,’” Wallen says with a laugh. “You can always rely on your younger brother to bring you back down to earth.”
Wallen’s life, in fact, has plenty of interesting twists and turns, but the one thing that has remained constant is her love of dentistry. For that, she considers herself lucky.
“I count myself as one of life’s lucky people,” she says. “I’ve found something that I was passionate about, and I’ve never looked back.
“Dentistry gives you a chance to touch people’s lives in a way that’s so rewarding. It gives you a chance to connect with people on a deeper level.”
Growing Up in Scotland
Wallen grew up in the small village of Markinch in Fife, Scotland. Located on Scotland’s eastern coast, the village of about 2,400 residents is located about 20 miles southwest of St. Andrews, the famed birthplace of golf and home to the world’s oldest course.
Wallen’s parents were both educators, as were other extended family members. Her mom taught home economics at a secondary school, and her dad taught art at a community college, where he was the American equivalent of a department chair.
“It was a really small, close-knit community,” Wallen says. “Everybody’s family knew everybody else.”
She went to high school in a nearby town. A future career in dentistry entered her mind, but she did not have any significant connection to the profession, other than a close family friend whom she admired.
When graduation neared, however, she decided to take the leap of faith.
In Scotland, students enroll in dental school straight out of high school, for a five-year program that leads to a bachelor of dental surgery (BDS) degree.
“I applied to dental school when I was 17, went to dental school at 18, and graduated when I was 23,” Wallen says.
“I always tell people that dentistry found me more than I found it,” she continues. “I don’t have a unique story. I don’t have dentists in my family. Going through high school, I thought, ‘That’s kind of a good career. I would like to see what that’s about.’”
On to the University of Glasgow
Wallen was one of about 75 freshmen to enter the University of Glasgow Dental Hospital and School in 1995 – one of only two dental schools in Scotland.
“It was just a wonderful experience,” she says. “I enjoyed my time there.”
But there were painful, difficult times, too.
During her second year of dental school, her mom, who had been bravely fighting cancer for most of Jillian’s high school years, died.
“I can talk about it now,” Wallen says. “But there was a long period in my life where it was very difficult for me to talk about.”
It was her professors and fellow classmates who helped her pull through. In coming to Creighton in August from the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Dentistry, Wallen stumbled across letters that her Glasgow professors had written for her when she was applying for her first job in the United States.
“They knew how difficult a time I had had,” she says, “and how I persevered.
“It was really a raw moment for me to read what they had written for me in an obviously very difficult period in my life.”
Wallen now uses that difficult experience to connect with dental students.
“I’ll talk to the students, especially the D1s, and say, ‘There will be times that are hard here, and you’ll have personal challenges. You need to find that group of people and professors here that you can lean on.’”
She then reassures them: “And you know that everybody here, the professors and staff, are here for a reason: They want to share their knowledge and make you a better person and shape your future.”
Journey to the United States
In Scotland, dental students are required to do a period of research study between their fourth and fifth years. Oftentimes, students go overseas. Wallen headed to Ohio State University, where she studied under Stephen Wilson, DDS, PhD, who, at the time, was director of the pediatric residency program at Ohio State.
It was Wilson who offered Wallen an opportunity to join the residency program at Ohio State upon her graduation from the University of Glasgow in 2000. Wallen again took the leap of faith and headed back to the United States.
“I just needed to make a change in my life, experience something different,” Wallen says. “I really didn’t know what it meant for me.”
She loved her residency work at Ohio State, which led to a master’s degree in pediatric dentistry and a certificate in pediatric dentistry from the university-affiliated Nationwide Children’s Hospital. She especially enjoyed the hospital work and the focus on interprofessional care.
“You were working alongside colleagues in nursing, medicine, OT, PT, speech,” Wallen says. “It was very fast-paced, but wonderful. You have an opportunity every day to touch different families and make a difference in the life of a child.”
The experience left such an indelible imprint that Wallen can still remember many of her patients’ names and situations – even today, 20-plus years later. “I can still see them clearly; it stays with you,” she says.
Career Takes Off
After completing her residency training in 2002, Wallen joined Wilson at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center School of Dentistry and Children’s Hospital Colorado, where Wilson hired her as an assistant clinical professor in pediatric dentistry.
“My life from there has just taken off,” she says. “The opportunities that have been given to me have just been amazing. I’ve made it my philosophy to always pay that forward and give people the opportunities that were given to me.”
In 2007, Wallen joined the University of Maryland Dental School as an assistant professor and director of the Advanced Specialty Program in Pediatric Dentistry. She held that position until being recruited to the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) College of Dentistry in 2011.
“I interviewed here in Nebraska (at UNMC) in February 2011; there was a snowstorm,” recalls Wallen with a laugh. “I remember getting off the airplane at Eppley and being met by the recruiting team. At the time, I thought, ‘What are you doing here?’ It was another leap of faith, definitely.”
She started as an assistant professor and director of the post-graduate program in pediatric dentistry. The following year, in 2012, she was named chair of the Department of Growth and Development in the College of Dentistry. In 2018, she was named the Merritt C. Pedersen Professor of Dentistry and, in 2019, assistant dean of extramural activities and outreach.
Coming to Creighton
In May 2021, she was announced as the new dean of Creighton’s dental school, succeeding Mark Latta, DMD, who stepped down after a decade as dean. She officially began her duties on Aug. 1, 2021.
“I love a challenge, and I was ready for something new,” Wallen says. “I have a lot of energy, and I very much appreciate the Jesuit mission and values. That, to me, is very important.”
Raised in the Church of Scotland, she converted to Catholicism after her oldest child was born. She says it was important for her and her husband to raise their three children, ages 8, 7 and 4, in a faith-filled home, and she is now learning more about the Jesuit tradition through a Creighton faculty seminar on Jesuit higher education.
“It’s making me a better person, a better dean, a better parent. Everything. It touches everything I do.
“It’s been an interesting journey for me.”
It certainly has.