Riggs and his family

“That scholarship is not for me. That scholarship is going directly to my family.”

Search for David Riggs on YouTube and you’ll find videos of him as a competitive rollerblader – grinding rails, flipping through the air, and balancing on whatever he could find.

Now the 37-year-old balances life as a full-time dental student, a husband, and father of five.

Riggs and his family
David Riggs with his family

“My oldest is 16,” David said. “We have a 6-year-old, a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old, and a 1-year- old.”

David wasn’t always so driven. As an undergraduate at the University of Central Arkansas, he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He changed majors three times before deciding to take a break from school. Around the same time, he found out he was going to be a dad for the first time. His priorities immediately shifted to finding a job with insurance.

“I started working in a cafeteria at a hospital when I found out my oldest son was on the way,” David said. “Mainly so I could get benefits.”

In less than a year, he was working in the operating room as a scrub. There he met a maxillofacial surgeon who offered him a job and taught him the basics of dentistry.

“He’s the one who really took me under his wing and showed me the ins and outs of dentistry,” David said. “Model pouring, waxing up teeth, how to make simple temporary partials. I was really very blessed to have that opportunity.”

After working as a surgical dental assistant for a few years, David knew he wanted to be a dentist. He went back to school in 2005 to study biology. By the end of 2006, his life changed again. “I was in school, working, and going through a divorce,” David said. He also took on full custody of his 4-year-old son – raising him alone while working towards his degree.

Despite the added stress of working full-time and being a single dad, David got good grades his second time around. But his first few semesters in college still brought down his overall average. “That messed up my GPA a lot,” David said.

David first took the Dental Admission Test (DAT) his junior year. He took the test again his senior year, and once more after graduation. His scores were improving but his options were not – he was waitlisted everywhere he applied.

“For me, I just didn’t know that it was going to be an option in the future,” said David.

Instead, he focused on providing for his growing family. David remarried after graduation and within a few years, the new family of three became a family of five. David remembers explaining to a new boss why he hadn’t gone to dental school.

“I was like, ‘Well, you know… I gave that a shot, I decided to work… and try to get myself financially in a better position for my family.’ He said, ‘Well, now that you've done that, what's your excuse?’”

It was the push he needed. David asked and received a special exception to take the DAT a fourth time.

Riggs and Dean Huja
Riggs with College of Dental Medicine Dean Dr. Sarandeep Huja

“I studied my butt off and really dug in,” David said. This time, the results were different. “When I got the phone call saying I was accepted to MUSC, I think my heart actually stopped. I felt like I was in a dream.”

After 13 years as a surgical dental assistant, David’s dream was back on track. “I was really excited that all that hard work was totally worth it.”

In May of 2016, he moved his family more than 800 miles from Arkansas to go to the James B. Edwards College of Dental Medicine at MUSC.

David knew it would be hard to go back to school while raising a family, but he also knew it would be worth it. His own mother had shown him that.

“She was single, raising two kids, and getting her degrees,” David explained. “She now has an MBA degree and she’s CFO for Travel Nurse back in Arkansas. Watching her work from basically nothing to building everything that she has right now has been one of the biggest inspirations.”

Going back to school would mean sacrifices for the whole family. No steady paycheck, but steadily building debt from the loans David needs to pay for school. David estimates he’ll owe half a million by the time he graduates.

“My wife and I budget, we’ve always been very frugal because we have children, and we’re constantly aware of our spending,” he said. “But when I get out of dental school I’m just hoping that carries over and we’re able to accomplish getting rid of our large debt kind of as soon as we can while living in our means.”

He also relies on scholarships to help pay down his loans. Earlier this year David was the recipient of the Arthur L. Haisten Scholarship, named for a former dean. David says getting a scholarship feels like a reward for hard work, but more than that, it makes a real difference to his family.

“That scholarship is not for me,” David explained. “That scholarship is going directly to my family. Considering how much money you have to pay back with interest on your student loans, that scholarship is actually much more valuable than the dollar amount.”

Scholarships will also be important for his teenage son, who graduates high school in 2020 – the same year David graduates dental school.

“I stress to him to take advantage of those opportunities,” he said. “Because when you get into grad school or any professional school a lot of those options aren’t the same… that's one reason I do feel very privileged to accept the scholarships that I have because there’s not a lot of them out there and we have a lot of debt coming our way.”

David’s family is proud of all he’s accomplished.

“I’ll be the first doctor in my family, and one of the first to graduate high school on my dad’s side.”

The Riggs family plans to return to Arkansas after graduation. The boss who pushed David to go to dental school opened a dental plaza with his brother – and they’re saving a spot for David.

“They have an open suite that will be available when I finish school,” he said. “They said it’s mine if I want it.”

Once he establishes a practice, David wants to start paying it forward.

“I want to invest and I want to set up a skate park for kids,” he said. “Dentistry is going to allow me to do so many other things that I wanted to do.”