Matt Williams always felt drawn to health care. Going through high school in Kirksville, he always excelled in science classes and was fascinated by how the body works.


After wrapping up a biology degree, he planned his next step. He was talking with his mom, LaDonna, one day when she mentioned that A.T. Still University was soon opening its Missouri School of Dentistry & Oral Health in Kirksville. Dentistry wasn’t his first plan, but he became interested in the field and the opportunity to return to his hometown.


Now, four years later, he’s nearly finished his degree and will become the first Kirksville native to graduate through MOSDOH.


"I didn’t want to be in the emergency room, I didn’t want to do anything like that. But I wanted to give back to the community, help people, change their lives, give them their smile back," Williams said. "Dentistry was just something that clicked.


"I wanted to give back to the community, too. That’s one of the reasons why I went to Kirksville, to the ATSU-MOSDOH," Williams said. "I had a chance to go to UMKC as well, but I chose to go to Kirksville because it was my hometown, and I wanted to support my hometown and the school that started up right as I was thinking about dental school."


ATSU held virtual commencements on May 15 and 16 and Williams watched the MOSDOH ceremony on his computer while surrounded by his mom, wife and three kids. The dental program has students spend their first two years on the Kirksville campus before doing the next two at the St. Louis Dental Center. Each student has to complete a number of patient encounters and procedures before graduating, so that is where Williams has been and where he watched the festivities.


Just as COVID-19 forced the commencement proceedings to a virtual setting, it also altered the final weeks of his coursework. The bulk of work for fourth-year students are clinicals, which he was working on. So Williams still has some work to finish with that once facilities open up. He said he should be all done with that in early June.


Since the commencement was more ceremonial, he hopes he and his family can celebrate more when he is actually done. He still wore his cap and gown and took pictures with his family members, though.


"It’s kind of a disappointment not to walk and share that with your family, but it’s nice to have that put together," Williams said. "Just not what you are expecting.


"It was very nice to have that recognition and still do some kind of ceremony."


Williams graduated from Kirksville High School in 2002. After that, he went to Indian Hills first and played baseball. He was part of their 2003 team that made the JUCO World Series. He then went on and got a business degree from Columbia College. He spent a couple of years working different jobs before realizing he needed to go back to school, that his business degree wasn’t enough.


That sent him back to Columbia College for his biology degree and the path he’s on now. Along with being the first Kirksville resident to complete the MOSDOH program, Williams will also return to his hometown to work.


In July, Williams will start working at the Northeast Missouri Health Council. As part of giving back, he is happy to be working with patients who are most in need of care. He will see people who haven’t had great access to oral health care before, serving as a last line of defense.


That is the mission that’s most important for his working life, and having his family in Kirksville is what’s most important for his personal life.


"Coming out of high school, you don’t really think about getting back home, you just want to get away. But when you have a family, you realize there are a lot of important things about being near your family," Williams said. "Even since the beginning of dental school, that was in the back of my mind."