Service takes flight
It’s a long way home for dental student Zazell “Zaz” Staheli
By April Beane
The small Alaskan town of Kiana is 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. There are no roads to connect it to the more than 13 nearby villages. In this part of the world, the temperature can range from 60 degrees below zero to 90 degrees Fahrenheit at summer’s peak.
The more than 350 residents, almost all Iñupiaq Eskimos, depend on fuel brought by barge once a year. Mostly, people travel by airplane. There is no local doctor or dentist. But, soon, there will be Zaz.
Zazell “Zaz” Staheli and her three siblings are third-generation commercial pilots who work at Lee’s Sea Air, the family business her grandfather started in the late 1960s. Staheli family members are in the air before they’ve learned to walk and licensed to fly before they’re licensed to drive.
“It wasn’t ‘Do you want to come with me on this flight today?’ It was: ‘Get your stuff on. We’re going,’” Zaz says of growing up in a flying family. “We kind of had a resentment toward flying because it was like (sigh) ‘I gotta go flying again.’”
Her dad’s insistence that they learn this family business paid off. “They wouldn’t trade it for the world now,” Lee Staheli says of his brood.
Zaz found her second calling in junior high school when a dentist came to Kiana for the annual service visit. The visiting dentist needed a local assistant. Because Zaz was a good student and could afford to miss class, her principal thought she would be a good fit.
“It was a week free from school so I was like ‘all right I’ll do it,’” she says.
She became a skilled and trusted dental assistant, called upon whenever needed by a visiting dentist. During high school, a family friend, mentor and dentist from Fairbanks (located 330 miles east of Kiana) set up a shadowing opportunity, and for two weeks Zaz rotated through several dentist offices — seeing everything from general practice to pediatrics to oral surgery.
After that, Zaz knew she wanted to be a dentist.
She left Kiana and attended college at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, earning associate degrees in aviation and science and a bachelor’s degree with a minor in aviation science. After graduation, she went home to help out with the family business and get her commercial pilot’s license.
Zaz was happy to help keep the business going but eager to get into dental school.
“I got accepted to a different dental school first, and I almost went there because it was closer to home,” she says.
But the “personality factor” of Marquette’s School of Dentistry became a draw.
“Students don’t always select a school based on geography, cost or curricular execution. Zaz was looking for a school in which students make a real difference in the community,” says Brian Trecek, director of admissions for Marquette’s dental school.
“The community service factor was huge for me … and the friendliness of the staff,” Zaz says. “They seemed to really care about me as a person.”
But without a medical or biological sciences background, Zaz had some catching up to do. She participated in the Pre-enrollment Support Program that’s designed to give accepted students a jump start on dental school. There were eight other students in her class.
“We kind of have a support system between the nine of us that, you know, not all 80 students are going to have,” Zaz says. “It’s like a little family away from your family.”
Living more than 3,000 miles from home, raising two children under the age of 6 and attending dental school — support is just what Zaz needs. She is determined to succeed, not just for herself but for the people back home.
For the first time, people living in Kiana and the surrounding villages will have a home-grown, full-time dentist within reach. Zaz is planning for that day.
“I will probably have to live in Kotzebue, which is the hub for the surrounding villages (that lie anywhere from 30 to 150 miles away), or travel out to the villages like the dentist who would come for a week a year and go to different communities to provide service,” she says. “That’ll probably be the best way to serve the most people.”
Zaz feels a pressing need to give back. As a first-generation native Alaskan college student, she received full financial aid for her undergraduate studies.
“For us kids in the village, opportunities are very hard to come by,” she says. “Upon returning home, I hope to help mentor more kids to reach for their goals. Like my grandpa told me, ‘You can do anything you’re big enough to.’”
IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Zazell “Zaz” Staheli, a first-year dental student, is a commercial pilot in Kiana whose life was chronicled with stories and videos on the National Geographic Channel.
National Geographic television went to Kiana to scout locations and pilots to feature on the documentary series Alaska Wing Men. When producer Chuck Smith arrived on Super Bowl Sunday 2011, the whole Staheli family came out to greet him.
“I said, ‘So who are you guys rooting for in the Super Bowl?’” Smith remembers. “And Zaz said, ‘What’s the Super Bowl?’ … That’s when I knew I was in the right place.”
Five episodes was enough time in the spotlight for Zaz, her family and their small village.
“It was fun,” she says. “I won’t do it again. It’s hard to have a camera on you 24/7 and, not only that, but in a town of 360 people there aren’t any hotels. So, I mean, they’re living with you and you barely have enough privacy to go to the bathroom.”
Zaz shuttles 14 sled dogs on one flight and heads to Noorvik to pick up a sheriff and his prisoner in just two segments of the Alaska Wing Men series.
What is PESP?
To increase retention and help ensure student success, eligible students attend the six-week School of Dentistry Pre-enrollment Support Program in late August. It provides a preview of their first-year core curriculum material. Participating students are selected by the dental school’s admissions committee.