Illustrated portrait of Hibret Hailu Benjamin
Illustration: John Jay Cabuay

Growing up in Ethiopia, Hibret Hailu Benjamin spent a lot of time in the hospital, but not because she was unwell. 

Benjamin’s mother was the head nurse at a large hospital in Addis Ababa, and young Hibret often would tag along. She noticed the deep care and thoughtfulness her mother showed everyone she came across – patients, other nurses, doctors, even the custodians. 

“I always looked up to her and how she treated everyone equally,” Benjamin says. “And I thought, what a great profession. You get to help people, get to practice medicine, and at the same time change people’s lives in so many ways.” 

Benjamin followed her mother into health care but chose dentistry instead of nursing. She thinks often of her mother, who died in 2017. 

“UCSF gave me a career where I was able to help my family and my community,” Benjamin says. “It was a career where I could take care of my mother. That’s why I keep going back to teach, to mentor. My door is always open to every single student. I always tell them, ‘Come spend a day or two observing the day-to-day life of a practicing dentist because you never know what you can pick up.’” 

Finding inspiration in a dentist’s chair 

In 1987, Ethiopia was in the midst of political turmoil, and Benjamin’s mother decided to move to the US for a job opportunity as a traveling nurse. She began bringing her children over one at a time. 

Benjamin made the trip in 1990 when she was 13. Upon her arrival, she tested into high school as a sophomore. 

“Entering high school in a different country at that age was a huge cultural shock,” says Benjamin, who pushed through with her family’s support. “My focus was always on education, on excelling in what I know best instead of trying to be accepted socially.” 

She spent a lot of time studying but also a lot of time in the chair of a pediatric dentist who’d studied at UCSF. Benjamin needed several treatments, and in the process, she found a mentor in the dentist. 

“Every time I saw her, she would tell me how she got into dentistry, how it was such a great profession, how she’s able to have a life outside of her career,” Benjamin says. 

Later, Benjamin volunteered at a Veterans Affairs hospital, where she shadowed residents and attending physicians. She loved working with veterans, learning about their lives, hearing their war stories, and helping them with their dental issues. She realized the impact that quality dental care or a new set of dentures could have on someone’s life. 

“I was hooked after that,” she says. 

After earning an undergraduate degree in biology at the University of San Francisco, she began graduate studies at the UCSF School of Dentistry. Attending local universities meant she could stay close to family. 

UCSF was challenging, but Benjamin wasn’t daunted. 

“Every opportunity is a possibility for me, whether it’s good or bad,” she says. And she saw criticism from her professors as merely another way to learn. “How can I get better if I don’t know what I’m doing wrong, right?” 

Partnership with patients 

After finishing dental school, she took over a small two-chair practice in San Francisco’s Marina District, which she called Marina Tooth Fairy. She likes the humor and lightness of the name and loves how it brings a smile to the faces of her patients, many of whom suffer from dentophobia – fear of dentists. 

Reducing that fear is a big part of her practice. She uses tools like eye masks, noise-canceling headphones, and blankets to help her patients feel more comfortable. But the most important tool is listening. 

“I sit and listen to what causes fear for them, what’s holding them back from dental care, and we figure out together what would make it better for them so they can get the care they need,” she says. 

Her passion for dentistry and service has been noticed by her 14-year-old son, who hopes to follow in her footsteps and become a dentist someday.  

Benjamin also serves as an assistant clinical professor in the UCSF Department of Preventive and Restorative Dental Sciences and is active in the UCSF Dental Alumni Association, which awarded her its 2024 Medal of Honor

Even with her stellar reputation and résumé, Benjamin was shocked when she heard she’d be receiving this recognition. 

“It’s such a huge honor,” she says. “I am humbled and wonder if I could be doing even more. But it’s incredible to be recognized for something that you do so naturally.”

Award recipients featured in this video about mentorship:
• Hibret Hailu Benjamin, DDS ’02 - Dental Alumni Association Medal of Honor
• William Carroll, DDS ’80 - Alumni Mentor Award
• Michael P. Go, PT ’74, MPH - Graduate Program in Physical Therapy Alum of the Year
Find out what else awardees shared with us.
Access the videos