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Bachelor's Degrees Offer TMCC Students Opportunities to Succeed

A dental hygiene student practices on a patient.
Rebecca A. Eckland

In 2019, TMCC celebrated the first graduates from its Bachelor of Applied Science program in Emergency Management and Homeland Security and the BAS in Logistics Operations Management

This semester, we caught up with another four-year program—the Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene—to see how the class of 2021 is faring after their first official semester in this new degree program. 

Setting Goals and Working Hard

TMCC student Autumn Smith’s decision to pursue a Bachelor’s of Science in Dental Hygiene wasn’t an easy one. She had left a successful career in retail so she could be a full-time, stay-at-home parent to her two children. When Smith went through a divorce, however, she knew she wanted to do something that would support her family, and also be a fulfilling career. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. I knew I liked to clean things—and I’ve always been interested in teeth—so I looked into dental assisting programs. I looked at dental hygiene programs, too, but that would mean that I’d have to go to college, and I didn’t believe I could do that.” 

Smith took a 6-week dental assisting course and found a job working with a dental office in Reno. “I would watch the dental hygienists work, and I started playing with the idea, wondering if I could actually go back to college,” she said. Despite her training and the new job, she was still struggling to pay the bills. “And, I kept thinking that my children are getting older—how was I going to be able to help them to go to college?”

So, Smith made a deal with herself: she would take a 7-credit math class at TMCC. If she could do well in the class while working as a dental assistant, managing a small online business where Smith creates hand-stamped jewelry for cancer patients and being a full-time mom, she would go to college to become a dental hygienist.  When Smith received her “A” in the class, she had her answer. 

In order to focus on her education, Smith quit working full time to focus on completing the two years of  prerequisites for the Dental Hygiene Program. “Being accepted into the program was my top priority,” she said. 

Preparing Students to Help Patients

TMCC’s Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene offers students access to a unique instructional element called “Interprofessional Education.” In addition to the rigorous classes that were offered for the AS degree, the BS opens opportunities for students by introducing them to working with professionals in other disciplines. In their final year in the program, students will experience this interdisciplinary model by completing an interprofessional course in concept and theory. Then, in the fourth semester, students will apply the concepts they learned to work with other professionals in real-life situations on these interdisciplinary teams. 

“We would like our students to educate patients and other professionals on the team about how oral health is a part of a patient’s general health and can affect the entire body,” said Program Director Lori McDonald.  “This collaboration among different disciplines helps bring patients to a healthy state and expand the students' level of understanding and respect for the other disciplines they are working with on their team.  They can see how different professions and their scope of practice overlap.”

McDonald explains that oftentimes patients who are in a hospital for long term care—after an organ transplant, for example—are at higher risk for pneumonia due to a reduced immune system and  increased numbers of bacteria in the oral cavity. “This program interprofessional model will teach our students to communicate with all team members and to have a better understanding of all the professional disciplines that are needed to help a patient become healthy,” she said. 

Although the hospital setting might seem an odd place for dental hygienists, it is an environment where their presence on a specialized team can improve patient outcomes. “Hygienists can advocate for the patient, and educate the patient, their families and other team members about the importance of oral health,” said McDonald. In this way, dental hygienists join nurses, doctors, physical therapists and social workers (for patients in need of case management services) as a team who work collaboratively for the patient’s wellbeing. 

“This is how the bachelor’s degree can open more doors of opportunity once they graduate and become licensed,” said McDonald. Licensed graduates will have the opportunity to apply for state and government jobs which require a four-year degree. They could also become researchers (researching oral hygiene products), or teach in a dental hygiene program. “This degree program can give graduates more opportunities outside of  working as a clinical hygienist in a dental office,” said McDonald. 

Giving Back and Realizing Dreams

TMCC Dental Hygiene students—even before the introduction of the bachelor’s degree—traditionally completed a remarkable number of volunteer hours. This tradition carries through to the bachelor’s degree program where students will earn three credits for completing 50–60 hours of volunteer work over the course of four semesters.  This work is in addition to the class work, which by all accounts is challenging. 

Smith is learning to balance the course load with life and has nothing but praise for what can be a challenging curriculum.  “I love all the instructors; they’re knowledgeable and supportive. I love that we have ‘big buddies’ in the program—you’re paired with a second-year peer mentor, so you can ask them questions because no one can know what you’re going through unless they’ve gone through it themselves,” said Smith. 

The program pairs learning the academic subject matter, like anatomy and physiology, with practical skill sets, like keeping your mirror from fogging up in a patient’s mouth, wrestling with a patient’s tongue and successfully cleaning teeth without inadvertently causing harm. It all sounds simple enough, but learning to do all of this is extremely challenging. “It’s important because you are learning a profession that helps others,” said Smith, who envisions herself pursuing a career where she can give back to those in need. “I want to give back to the community by working in a team-oriented environment that puts patient care and oral hygiene instruction as a priority. I also want to volunteer my spare time to helping those in need. So many people deserve to have high-quality care even if they can’t necessarily afford it.”

For now, however, Smith is focused on the challenges directly in front of her: mock patient days filled with health history forms, taking vitals, pre-cancer screenings, filling out charts and of course, learning the techniques of how to assess a patient’s oral health and clean their teeth. 

“This is an amazing career if you’re passionate about oral health and helping people,” said Smith. “It’s one of the most intense things I have ever put myself through. It’s definitely been worth it.”  

For more information about TMCC’s newest four-year degree, the Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene, contact the department at 775-673-8247.