Kassie Chavez is one of the first graduates to receive a Bachelor of Science degree from the TMCC Dental Hygiene Program. For Chavez, this is the culmination of a journey that began in 2014 when she came to TMCC from her hometown of Truckee, California.
She knew the path her journey would take: her love of dentistry began at an early age. “When I was growing up, I really liked going to the dentist. I always had good experiences—everyone there always seemed really nice. As I got older, I started asking more questions to the dental hygienists about what made them pick their career, and I built really good relationships with them,” she said.
These conversations prompted Chavez to investigate a career in dental hygiene. She enrolled at TMCC with the intent of being accepted into and completing what was then the 2-year Dental Hygiene program. It would take Chavez years to realize that goal. “I felt like I was at TMCC for a long time taking my prerequisites, and there was a time when I had to take one class at a time because I was working,” she said.
Chavez, who calls her Grad Story “Commitment,” said that her best moment at TMCC was the day she was finally accepted into the Dental Hygiene Program.
“There were so many obstacles in my life that could have kept me from continuing my education. But, I committed to it, and I stayed committed to wanting to be a dental hygienist and getting into the program. It took dedication to study hard and to work on assignments... but it eventually paid off.”
Chavez actually applied to the Dental Hygiene program twice; once when she was still in the process of completing the pre-requisite classes, and then a second time once she had completed them all.
Despite her hard work, though, Chavez couldn’t bring herself to open the email that would have the worst or the best news. “I was checking the website every day and I saw that they sent out the email announcing who was approved. I was so scared to look at that email, so I had a friend of mine open it for me,” she said.
Once she was accepted into the Dental Hygiene program, opportunities began to open: Chavez formed friendships with her classmates and was also challenged not only in the subject matter in her classes but also the requirement that she develop skills specific to her future profession. Her favorite class has been a class focused on administering local anesthesia. “That class had a lot of hands-on learning, which I really love because that’s how I learn best,” she said.
A statistics class would challenge Chavez, even though learning to interpret graphs and data are skills that she used later in the Dental Hygiene program in a class focused on public health. In that class, students are tasked with designing educational curricula and care tailored to specific at-need populations.
“My classmate and I designed an oral health educational program last fall for caregivers at a memory care facility in Reno as a part of our capstone project… We had to investigate and gather data on the needs of this population, almost like public health epidemiologists. I had to use statistics to analyze and create our final presentation,” she said. However, the challenges of one class paled in comparison to the challenge offered by a global pandemic that surfaced during her second semester in the program.
“When we all switched to remote learning in the Spring of 2020, it was difficult to do when you’re stuck all day at home with your family members and it’s loud, and you need to Zoom your classes. We couldn’t just go to a library or a cafe to get things done. You just had to find a way to stay motivated and focused at home,” she said.
The Dental Hygiene Program was able to resume clinical hours early last summer thanks to heightened safety and sanitization protocols. Yet, Chavez admits the community component has not been as robust given the risks associated with COVID-19. “A large part of our program is doing a lot of external rotations and implementing educational programs within the community. This semester has been difficult because we can’t implement those same programs in quite the same way.”
For example, one observation rotation that involved the University Center for Autism and Neurodevelopment (UCAN), a multi-disciplinary team of professionals that diagnose children with neurological disorders, had to be conducted via Zoom and not in-person as it has been in the past. This clinical rotation allows future dental professionals like Chavez to experience what it is like to work as a part of a multi-disciplinary team.
“At least we still got the opportunity to see how professionals from different disciplines work together to diagnose children with autism,” she said. “I’m glad we were able to find ways to continue our rotations and observations and to still be part of activities in the community.”
After graduation, Chavez plans on working in private practice. “I want to get a few years of clinical experience before continuing my education,” she said. However, she admitted that the recent legislation that passed regarding dental therapy has opened a possible new career path for Chavez, who can certainly envision herself offering dental services to populations in need of them as a dental therapist. For now, though, she’s looking forward to starting her career and moving forward into the next stage of her life.
Despite COVID-19, despite the challenges of supporting herself through school, Chavez will cross the graduation stage this May to receive her Bachelor of Science degree. “It takes a lot of commitment to achieve your dreams and what you want to do in life,” she said.
To other students, Chavez offers these words of wisdom that a dental hygiene instructor gave to her and her classmates: “She used to tell us that ‘if this was easy, then anybody could do it.’ And that’s something I take with me because, yes, especially with this program, it’s not easy but you can do it if you push yourself enough. There’s always light at the end of the tunnel so just keep going.”
My Grad Story Series
In this series of stories, we celebrate students who are achieving their degrees and dreams despite the challenges offered by the ongoing pandemic. Starting the week of April 12, we will share one story each week up until commencement from its inspiring classes of 2020 and 2021.
This series also includes a video interview with participants on our YouTube Channel. Join us in celebrating these incredible stories and graduates as we count down the weeks to our drive-through commencement ceremony that is happening May 17–21.