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Rhett Berg: Persevering Through Past Challenges

By Jyoti Madhusoodanan

Rhett Berg sitting in the Dental Center

Photo by Susan Merrell

First-year dentistry student Rhett Berg has just embarked on his health care career, but he already has years of experience as a caregiver – often in extremely challenging situations.

Growing up in Roseburg, Ore., Berg struggled through a difficult childhood: his parents’ divorce, an abusive stepfather and then an accident that left his stepfather severely disabled. Berg began caring for his mother and siblings early on, and worked fulltime through college to financially support his family.

His happiest times were when visiting his grandmother, where he’d immerse himself in stacks of encyclopedias, he recalls.

“I was in a place without a lot of options. I wasn’t an athlete so that wasn’t a solution either,” Berg says. “But you don’t have to live in the circumstances you were born into.”

Berg left his troubled past behind to join the Navy, an experience he recalls as “absolutely freeing.” During his military career, he studied nuclear reactors, lived on a submarine and traveled to the South Pacific, a region that had long held his fascination. After he left, he spent several months caring for a friend who lost limbs following a roadside bomb explosion.

Returning to college, Berg got a master’s degree in public health at Oregon State University, and completed a Masters of Biomedical Science at Barry University before choosing to pursue dentistry at UC San Francisco. “I loved to learn, and I knew that I wanted to do something where I could care for people and bring a smile to their faces,” he says.

He does not credit luck or any special talents with his remarkable journey. To him, it’s simply about grit and discipline – traits that have been honed by his military experience. “I know I want to gain the skills to help others. In order to do that, I often have to put in hours and hours more than the next person just to be on par,” he says. “But I do, because that is what it takes.”

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