Zigg’s 15-Year Journey to Dental School

Zachary 'Zigg' Francis

As the UF College of Dentistry DMD Class of 2026 crosses the stage at their Professional Coating Ceremony this weekend to earn their white coats, marking the official transition from didactic learning to providing clinical care for patients, class member Zachary Francis is also turning the page to a new chapter in his personal life – his wife and two children moved to Gainesville this week after two years apart. Stephonie has held the fort down in Mississippi with their son Zaire, 15, and daughter Egypt, 12, since Zachary started dental school in 2022.

BSAG photo shoot
(l to r) Michael Star, Owayne Haughton, Zachary Francis and Kiono Barnes.

To put it into context, he’s seen them just once since the Christmas holiday this year: spring break. But make no mistake about it, that’s the smallest hurdle Zachary and the family have had to overcome in life. In his words, perseverance, faith, grit and pride have all carried Zachary – aka ‘Zigg’ – through, along with some very special people along the way.

A natural-born leader, Zigg is considered a non-traditional dental student which, loosely defined, refers to students who don’t follow the typical path of applying to dental school after graduating from college. If you think the narrative sounds familiar, think deeper. Everyone’s stories and unique lived experiences define them in ways oftentimes unimaginable to others.

“I know no one who comes through the UF College of Dentistry is like me,” Zigg reflected when telling his story.

Zigg is an excellent dental student, authentic, reliable, carries a vibrant aura, and is a man of the people always willing to lend a laugh, hand or listening ear. He is currently UFCD’s Student National Dental Association president, serves on the Admissions Committee and as a member of the Black Student Advocacy Group, is a tutor for his peers and a diversity chair for his class, plus he’s continually served as a mentor for undergraduate, underrepresented students interested in the health professions as part of two UFCD pathway programs.

He’s making the most of his opportunity after a long and winding road to get here.   

Zigg’s path? You already know he’s a married father of two, but Zachary Norman Francis is 38, is the son of a single mom with three children – his dad had 15 kids total – and dental school has been nearly 15 years in the making.

Zachary Zigg Francis Class of 2026 White Coat
Zigg and Dr. Panos Zoidis at the DMD Class of 2026 Professional Coating Ceremony on June 1, 2024. Photo: Matt Pendleton Photography

A 2005 graduate of Boyd Anderson High School in Fort Lauderdale, Zigg was on a super-senior path that took him five years, though he still feels most at home with the Class of 2004 – even serving on the planning committee for their 20-year class reunion this summer. Despite taking an extra trip on the five-year plan, the reward was monumental when he became the first man in his family to earn a high school diploma.

For context and background, according to U.S. News and World Report in 2024, 88% of students at Boyd Anderson are Black, 72% of students are economically disadvantaged, 71% take part in the Free Lunch Program and the high school checked in with a 15.5 out of a maximum 100 on U.S. News’ College Readiness Index. To put it simply, the odds were stacked against him and his fellow high school classmates, who Zigg describes as believing their only ‘way out’ after high school was to join the Army.

But Zigg determined the Army wasn’t for him, and the hustle began. He lived what seems like a lifetime before dental school entered the picture. He worked at the mall – at Traffic and Victoria’s Secret – in roofing, as a custodian, as a manager at Walgreens and CVS, a caterer at Six Flags, a radiology courier, a basketball coach, track coach, a physician liaison and later in both a biology lab and gross anatomy lab, to name a few.

While Zigg and his wife went to high school together, the two re-connected a year later when he was working at the mall and Stephonie was attending Florida A&M University, or FAMU, in Tallahassee. As they say, the rest is history with Zigg and Stephonie – Tallahassee-bound, a wedding with student loans, a new baby, scraping by with WIC resources to help care for the family. Zigg worked the night shift and passed Stephonie on her way out the door as she headed into work and he came home to care for the kids – and vice versa; not to mention both Zachary and Stephonie balancing academic responsibilities.

It was the grind that shaped his grit.

He’d enrolled at Tallahassee Community College, or TCC, after arriving in Tallahassee; walked right into the financial aid office and encountered the first special person, Tangela Brown, who helped him get his financial affairs in order to begin his postsecondary education.

It took six years for a two-year degree at TCC amidst navigating marriage, two babies, Stephonie’s bachelor’s degree in animal sciences from FAMU and various jobs for streams of income, but thanks in part to the state of Florida’s 2+2 program that helps create a more reasonably-priced and seamless transition for students who earn an associate’s degree admission to a state university, Zigg started eyeing Florida State University.

Zigg Pre-Dental
Zigg and Dr. Sandow first crossed paths at a 2013-14 pre-dental meeting in Tallahassee.

A curiosity he developed about pursuing dental hygiene at TCC led Zigg, in a roundabout way, to a front row seat at one of FSU’s pre-dental meetings where the presentation that evening was from none other than UFCD’s Associate Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid, Pamela Sandow, D.M.D.

“I remember that day so vividly. I feel like Dr. Sandow is the first person who really saw me and spoke to my needs. She spoke to a room of pre-dental students, but in that moment her words only spoke to me. I walked her out to her car after the meeting at FSU and she invited me to UFCD’s presentation the next day at FAMU.”

Zachary N. Francis, DMD Class of 2026

At FAMU the following day, representation with four Black UF dental students who looked like him – among them Patrick Lolo, D.M.D., and Shaun Bullard, D.M.D., M.S., – enthralled Zigg, and a challenge from Dr. Sandow helped sow the seeds for what was to come.

“Why dental hygiene? Why not become a dentist?” Sandow challenged Zigg.

Dr. Stan Baldwin and Dr. Pamela Sandow
Zigg’s Mississippi College mentor, Dr. Stan Baldwin, and UFCD’s Associate Dean for Admissions and Financial Aid, Dr. Pam Sandow.

Queue a bachelor’s degree in biology and sociology from FSU in 2014, where he found his second family next to 10 line brothers in the Chi Theta chapter of Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., whose motto ‘Friendship is essential to the soul’ and Cardinal Principles ‘manhood, scholarship, perseverance and uplift, have defined him, served as a solid foundation for Zigg’s success and bolstered his path ever since.

If there’s one thing Omegas are going to do, according to Zigg, it’s hold you accountable and lift you up. While the line will forever feel the loss of their brother Tyrice Santiel, who passed away three years ago, Zigg stands tall beside several different types of engineers, a doctor, an accountant, a former FSU football player turned producer, a Ph.D. and an FBI agent. The only missing component? That doctor of dental medicine.

After Zigg and Stephonie earned their undergraduate degrees in Tallahassee, life took the Francis family to the Treasure Coast for several years where he was a basketball and track coach. But those line brothers – they never cease to lift you up, and hold you accountable. The dental school itch was still there, Dr. Sandow’s words ringing in the back of his mind, but so, too, was the heavy burden of being a great husband, father and ensuring he could provide for his young family.

His father’s quick and sudden death from cancer and a simple urge – “How long?” – from his line brother lit the fire for the next zig zag that uprooted the family to Mississippi College, a private Christian university in Clinton, Mississippi, “on a hope and a prayer,” for Zigg’s master’s degree in biological medical sciences, where another incredible mentor in Dr. Stan Baldwin, dean of the School of Science and Mathematics, was another very special person in Zigg’s life who helped the family settle, provide, guide, uplift, and serve as the launching pad for dental school.

Bachelor’s degree in 2014, check. Master’s degree in 2021, check. Admission to three dental schools for 2022, check. Making UF home – despite being an FSU grad, despite being without his wife, two kids and a car for two years, check.

Now, it’s Zigg’s turn to add a D.M.D. to his Omega line. A recipient of scholarship funding from UFCD’s Cecil White, Jr. Scholars Fund and as the recipient of this year’s Reid Scholarship, Zigg is making good on his word almost 15 years later, halfway through dental school and chasing that DMD in 2026.

Zachary Zigg Francis, Class of 2026 White Coat Family
Zigg and his family, friends and supporters at the DMD Class of 2026 Professional Coating Ceremony on June 1, 2024. Photo: Matt Pendleton Photography

The crowd at the Professional Coating Ceremony will include his family and friends – including most of his line brothers, his two children and his wife who’s worn the heaviest crown. Next, Stephonie will take her turn with plans to pursue a PharmD.

“This really means something, because the journey has been long,” he said. “When people hear those cheers, they’ll be thinking about the loud celebration, but nobody realizes how many ‘NOs’ I’ve endured and how tumultuous this road has been at times. If you only knew…”

If there’s one thing Zigg hopes to be his identifying trait as a human, dentist and oral health care provider, it’s his authenticity: be 100 percent yourself, do your job, work hard. There are always going to be mistakes made along the way, but choose to live on purpose – you are good enough.

“I want to be looked at as a dentist who’s one of the people,” Zigg said. “People first.”

Pretty encompassing of the ‘Golden Class with the Golden Hearts’ DMD Class of 2026 motto.

“A lot of people think dental school is the hard part,” Zigg said. “But for me, this is the easy part. The hardest part for me was getting here. Endurance and perseverance are the keys to life, it’s all about how you finish and I just wanted the chance. There are elevators everywhere. I took the stairs and it took a little longer, but I own my path, I’m here and I can’t wait to get where I’m going.”