According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Native Americans make-up about 1.5 percent of the U.S. population. Last month, during Native American History Month observance, we recognized their significant past and present contributions to this country, including efforts to give back to their communities.
Tech. Sgt. Renelle Conner, 944th Medical Squadron dental flight chief and Reserve Citizen Airman, is working toward becoming an orthodontist. A member of the Yakama Native American Nation, in her hometown of Toppenish, Washington, Conner is committed to serving underserved communities.
“I didn’t look the social norm as a child,” Conner said. “I got made fun of a lot.”
Conner suffered from dental abnormalities and her journey to repair those issues, as well as discover her life’s passion, began on the reservation.
“The only orthodontist on the reservation at the time educated me on treatment plans and provided the best care he could with the skeletal disadvantages I presented him,” Conner said.
At 19 years old, Conner enlisted in the U.S. Air Force as a weather meteorologist specialist. As an active-duty Airmen, she was able to receive the care that helped repair her dental issues.
“After they helped fix what was going on in my mouth, they helped fix what was going on in my heart,” she said. “I realized then, that’s something I wanted to be a part of.”
Conner expressed how much she loved the weather career field and how difficult the choice was to begin a different path to become an orthodontist.
“People don’t just drop what they are doing when they love something to put forth effort to do something entirely different,” Conner said. “I collected bits of information I didn’t know about myself to make a good decision for myself. I wanted a career where I could serve people and be thankful and proud of the service I give them.”
Conner has been working toward achieving her goal for more than nine years, beginning with pre-dental coursework at Eastern Washington University, where she graduated with honors. Conner then attended the University of Washington, School of Dentistry’s Regional Initiatives in Dental Education program. The RIDE program exposes students to community dentistry in underserved areas in the hope that they return after graduation, serving the populations that need it most.
“Renelle is passionate about her heritage and her career,” said Dr. Natalie Trongtham, doctor of dental surgery. “Those things largely define her as a person, and I am excited to see where her big personality will take her in the future.”
Trongtham met Conner in dental school and both were enrolled in the RIDE program together. Trongtham witnessed Conner’s determination to accomplish her goals.
“I always admired Renelle, because she balanced her family, being in the Reserve, and getting through dental school all at the same time,” she said. “Despite all the things she was juggling, Renelle was grounded and always had her mind on the big picture.”
In 2009, after a four-year stint, Conner left active-duty and joined the Air Force Reserve Command as a dental assistant. On the civilian side, since 2017, she has been an orthodontic resident and her dream to serve people, represent her Native American culture, and become an orthodontist is finally coming true.
As she looks to the future, Conner plans to remain a reservist. She has always had a sense of responsibility to serve.
“I felt like I had a duty to my country to serve. My father set that example,” she said. “It’s so prevalent to join the military when you’re from a native community; my culture was influence in and of itself.”
“Growing up, my father used to ask me, ‘What are you going to be when you grow up? How are you going to get there?’” Conner said. “If my father were alive today, I would say to him, ‘Thank you for the example you set. I will never forget your service.’ And I would tell him, I want to be an officer in the Air Force.”
Conner has recently submitted a commissioning package to become an officer in the AFRC within the dental career field.
Through everything she has accomplished, she credits her husband and mother for her success.
“My husband has been a source of constant encouragement, support and guidance, through our 15 years together,” she said. “From the military, where we served together, to college, where he completed his engineering degree, he always had time to root me on, as I continued to climb the educational ladder.”
“My mother is the reason why I work so diligently and practice kindness in my service to others,” Conner said. “She taught me hard work, compassion and understanding for others. Needless to say, my mom is the one who has inspired me the most.”
Lavon Meiser, Conner’s mother, also has a heart of service and was active in the Johnson O’Malley Program, which aims to improve the education of Native American students enrolled in public schools.
“I always told my children, education is key to getting out of poverty,” Meiser said.
Meiser expressed how proud she was of her daughter and how she knew she would be all right because of who she was and where she came from.
“I felt it was important my children embrace their culture,” Meiser said. “I made sure they knew their history.