TMCC Dental Assisting Academic Program Director Julie Muhle was 17 years old when she got a taste of her future career and passion for dentistry. “I had wanted to be a nurse my whole life,” she said; and, coming from a family of healthcare professionals in which both her parents were nurses, that idea made sense. Yet, a driver’s education class that aired the film “Blood on the Asphalt” gifted Muhle with the quick realization that nursing might not be the career for her.
By chance, she was offered an opportunity to help a local dentist’s office where she found her calling in a healthcare profession that keeps patients from experiencing pain in the first place. “Once I started learning more about dentistry I thought: wow, you can really prevent some of these issues,” she said. “You’re getting people out of pain. Or, you’re creating that positive first experience for a child, and that paves the way [toward health] for them.”
For twenty years, Muhle worked as a dental assistant before an opportunity to teach part-time in the dental assisting program at TMCC became available. “And I thought, teaching? But, we teach all the time in dentistry: we’re teaching people how to care for themselves and you have to tailor-make the instructions to their personalities,” she said.
It turns out, she was right: Muhle discovered her second passion in the classroom. As a part-time instructor, Muhle taught classes as she took them, eventually earning two associate degrees from TMCC, which began her journey of lifelong learning. Three years after she began teaching as a part-time instructor, Muhle would become a full-time faculty member and the program coordinator. She would go on to complete both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in education.
“[Dental Assisting] can be a full-time career, but it can also be a door,” she said.
Why Dental Assisting
For those outside of the dentistry profession, the difference between a dental assistant and a dental hygienist might blur into the landscape of the dentist’s office, which includes many people in smocks who are charged with the cleaning and care of your teeth. But there is a difference, and according to Muhle, that difference matters especially when you’re thinking of what kind of career you want to pursue.
“Dental hygienists spend the majority of their time doing independent procedures, working on the supporting structures of the mouth, making sure the gum and bone are healthy; procedures that help people to keep their teeth,” she explained. By contrast, dental assistants work on the teeth themselves both independently and alongside a dentist.
“Dental assistants work more on keeping the teeth, or restoring the teeth—basically, it’s about keeping the teeth healthy,” she said. In other words: dental hygienists have fewer procedures they do for patients, and they do them independently and in-depth, whereas dental assistants perform a larger number of procedures, but they are often performed alongside a dentist.
“[Dental assistants] have to know how to do a lot of things,” Muhle explained. “We’re taking x-rays and impressions, assisting in the creation of crowns and bridges and other restorative care. And then we also work on preventive care, too.”
Currently, there are only two dental assisting programs in the state that are accredited by the American Dental Association’s Commission on Dental Accreditation and TMCC’s program is one of them. This accreditation dictates the high standards to which the program is held, which includes several externship hours that place students in not one, but three different types of dental offices for no less than 300 hours.
In a world when most people would prefer to have earned their degree or credential yesterday, this might sound like bad news. But, Muhle explained, the experience students gain from TMCC’s program builds a professional foundation that will last a lifetime. “If you’re going to a fast program, you’re limiting yourself for future training or future skills because you are only going to learn skills one way. Here, we are required to have you in more than one office and we teach you three, four, and five different ways to perform these skills.”
The degree program also enables students to take the Dental Assisting National Board Exam—graduates from non-accredited dental assisting programs must wait to take the exam after working as a professional in the field for two years.
As a result, TMCC’s Dental Assisting Program is well-known among local dentists who communicate frequently with Muhle. “We’ve developed really good relationships, and we’re in contact with them to make sure that what materials and procedures they perform match up to what we’re teaching our students. Granted, we’re teaching them what’s required by our accreditation, but we also take into account what our local industry requires, too. That keeps the program fresh and students learning what they need to know. In a way, it’s like we have an advisory board of 200 different dental offices,” she said.
These offices also call Muhle, looking to employ recent program graduates. During the Give Kids a Smile event that was held in late February, several TMCC students caught the attention of local dentist offices for their professionalism and expertise. “I had an email from a dental assisting manager for one of the offices where a student was volunteering...and then the dentist called me personally and said ‘I want to hire your students.’ He was so blown away. They were only there for six hours,” Muhle said. “We pride ourselves on having people who come out of the program well-rounded and ready to work.”
The Changing Landscape of Dental Assisting
Despite its longtime focus on building a solid foundation for its students, the Dental Assisting Program has changed remarkably over the years to accommodate a shifting student demographic. “My goal has always been to make our program, the course offerings, and the degrees relevant to what you need to have in order to be a great dental assistant,” said Muhle. While the essence of the program remains the same, the students interested in this profession have become much more diverse than they used to be.
“We have one of the most diverse groups on campus,” said Muhle. “We have people from 17-years-old up until their 50s. We have parents and grandparents and single parents, males and females, and at least half of our class is made up of other diverse groups such as English Language Learners.”
The Dental Assisting Certificate of Achievement is 42.5 credits, and was restructured with the working student in mind: the math requirement and human relations classes have been embedded into the degree, while the science requirement can be satisfied by Biology 100 (General Biology for Non-Majors) or Nutrition 121 (Human Nutrition), two classes that are particularly relevant, but a student may choose to take a more advanced science course if they would like. “Before, it was a lot harder to earn the degree because many of the degree requirements asked for so many prerequisites. Embedding the requirements into the program has streamlined the course sequences for students.”
This semester, the Dental Assisting Program is also offering three new classes that are not a part of the certificate or degree program, but that offer students an introduction to infection control/sterilization, dental chairside and radiation training. “We wanted students to be able to get their foot in the door [working as a dental assistant] with the knowledge that the biggest thing is safety...and sterilization control is a vital part of keeping yourself, your dental office, and patients safe,” she said.
The program has also added a radiation health and safety certification that can be completed entirely online. Students have a semester to complete the class, but Muhle said that for those who are dedicated and have the time, the material can be covered in about a week. “Only working dental assistants can take that course,” she noted.
In short, the Dental Assisting Program has evolved to meet the needs of students who are juggling responsibilities that can include a career and family. “We’re very aware that people have lives outside the program… so we’ve tried to make our program doable. We treat your time here like you are working in a dental office,” Muhle said.
TMCC is Community
Supporting student success is at the top of Muhle’s priorities, which is something she does by supporting student journeys and encouraging them to continue their education. “If you’re going into healthcare, you have to be more than the sum of your parts...you’re learning to become that honest, self-evaluating person who is open to new experiences, and that is what we bring to students,” she said.
Yet Muhle remembers a dental assisting student who, last semester, came to the realization that the program just wasn’t right for her. “And that’s OK… I asked the student: what’s your plan? We weren’t ‘done’ with that student just because she didn’t want to pursue a degree in dental assisting,” Muhle said, citing one of the many unique aspects of TMCC: its strong commitment to student success and building a supportive community that can help students to reach their goals, regardless of academic major.
“For me, this isn’t about a job,” said Muhle. “This is a lifestyle that facilitates opportunities for people who never thought they’d be able to do something like this.” Granted, after completing the certificate or degree requirements for dental assisting, there are many opportunities that await program completers: working in private or corporate offices as a dental assistant, a lead dental assistant manager, a lab manager, working in the front office, or working as a regional or district manager for the larger corporate offices. Or, a graduate could explore working in tribal health, or even at a VA hospital. But, said Muhle, education—no matter the major—is the pathway to student success.
As a TMCC alumna, Muhle has experienced this journey firsthand: after receiving her first associate degree, she walked at the commencement ceremony that spring alongside students she had taught. “I was so proud,” she remembered. As she continued her academic journey through both a bachelor’s and a master’s program, there were plenty of moments that were challenging and stressful. And yet, education, she said, made the difference. This is the message she continues to impart to students every day.
“As a student, I felt like the instructors, the people in Admissions and Records, Counseling—everyone I encountered at TMCC—was a part of my journey. They were all so encouraging. [Now as a full-time faculty member] I see that we are behind every student, and we want them to do well. We have a vested interest in them, and their future,” she said.
The past two semesters, which pushed much of instruction online thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrated this dedication to student success with the creation of new interactive case studies and a partnership with UNLV Dental School that provided students access to their certificate and degree pathways even in the face of a global pandemic. Yet, that is what TMCC has always done, and continues to do.
“Student success is at the heart of 100% of what we do,” said Muhle.
For more information about the Dental Assisting Program at TMCC, contact the department at 775-673-7125.