An Interview with James Starkey, Dental Hygiene Student

by Cathy Sivak
An Interview with James Starkey, Dental Hygiene Student

Columbus, Ohio, resident James Starkey started his education at Ohio State University (OSU) with an interest in dentistry inspired by extensive sports-related dental work he required as a teen. After two years of studies, he was one of two male students accepted to the school's dental hygiene degree program, and planned to use the undergrad path as the launching pad for a post-graduate dentistry program. Though an honors student, James started to perceive dental hygiene as a career that limited the goals and ambitions he had for serving others.

"I have always desired that my life mission would count for something more than my own self-interests, hoping to make a profound difference in our world," he explains. He felt another calling - the ministry - and he left school. For a four-year stretch, he worked full-time with his local church and held numerous leadership positions. At the same time, he worked 'day jobs' in restaurant management for the income. A new patient care job brought James' focus back to community healthcare and dental hygiene finally meshed with what he describes as his "vision of service to others and sharing love with those counted as the least in our society."

James re-embarked on his dental hygiene program at Columbus State Community College and received his associate's degree in dental hygiene in the spring of 2006. He's currently enrolled in the dental hygiene bachelor's completion program at OSU. The president of his dental hygiene class, James is also active in student and professional dental hygiene organizations. A member of American Dental Hygienist Association (ADHA), James served on Student American Dental Hygienist Association National Student Advisory Board in 2006. Also on his list of accomplishments is the publication of an article in the ADHA professional journal Access. With a 4.0 grade point average, James is a member of the Phi Theta Kappa, Phi Eta Sigma and Alpha Lambda Delta honor societies. In recognition of his academic achievements and student leadership, James received the Ohio Dental Hygienist Association's Christopher Simmons Memorial Scholarship.

As a student, James brings his passion for the dental hygiene field to his 'day job' as a patient care associate at the Ohio State University's James Cancer Hospital. He developed and implemented a community health practicum at the hospital, providing advanced oral hygiene instruction to inpatient caregivers. He plans to continue developing the skills to serve dental patients with special needs, including patients with mental disabilities, physical disabilities, systemic illness, cancer patients and autism. "I have come to view dental hygiene as a career with limitless possibilities," he says.

He and his wife Natalie are eagerly expecting the arrival of their child in July. Meantime, James is pursuing dental hygiene career opportunities as well as his bachelor's. "I hope use my degree to educate the community - especially those with special needs (including geriatrics and cancer patients), educate aspiring dental hygienists at the collegiate level, and provide positive leadership," he says.

Education Information & Advice

How did you decide to study to become a dental hygienist?

I became interested in dentistry in high school. I was forced to visit my dentist numerous times due to sports-related injuries. Through this time we became close friends and he supported me during most of my high school basketball career. Initially, I wanted to become a dentist and viewed dental hygiene as a way to prepare myself for continuing my education past undergrad.

Tell us about your dental hygienist education.

I attended Columbus State Community College to complete my degree in dental hygiene. Initially, I attended The Ohio State University seeking a degree in dental hygiene and decided to pursue full time ministry instead. After four years of serving in part-time ministry, dentistry seemed to keep coming up in my life as a way to serve others. I married my wife at the age of 26, and began classes at Columbus State to finish my degree.

Columbus State offers a two-year program in dental hygiene, providing students with an Associate's Degree of Applied Science. Although this is a community college, it was harder than any of my previous college courses. While attending OSU, I was an honor student and completed numerous honors courses - but that schedule was a piece of cake compared to Columbus State Dental Hygiene. This program is not like regular college. It is designed to shape students in numerous areas, multidimensional development - making you into a medical professional in every sense of the term.

Class started at noon nearly every day Monday through Thursday and lasted until 8:00 pm. We treated patients for 3.5 hours, four days a week, while maintaining three to four core courses. We were asked to follow a strict dress code and professional code throughout all school related activities. We organized community outreach, attended lunch and learn sessions, organized class functions, and conducted fund raisers - while maintaining our academic course of study. This program takes 110% commitment.

What led you back to dental hygiene school?

Three years ago, I began working for the James Cancer Research Institute, located in Columbus Ohio. I can not express, in words, the joy that this job has brought into my life. By serving dying patients, I have learned a great deal about living. Many of the patients that I have cared for have developed severe oral disease, in addition to their advancing systemic disorders. I found myself wanting to do more, give more, and help more for these people. It was this experience that led me back to community health care. This experience has also granted me the opportunity to foster wonderful relationships through the most difficult of times, leaving me forever changed. Two years ago I came back to school, attending CSCC, deciding to pursue dental hygiene, once again. It has been a wonderful experience. I love learning, working with my fellow classmates, and serving our patient population.

What do you like and dislike about your dental hygienist education so far?

There are numerous things I appreciate regarding my education. The instructors in my program were extremely dedicated to each student - offering clinical remediation, external study sessions, and guest lectures to further explain difficult material. I have never attended a program with so much attention to detail. We were offered every available opportunity to excel in our education. For those of us who choose to seek leadership positions, community outreach and professional development; we were encouraged and directly guided by our faculty.

My instructors were very strict and expected high standards of academic excellence from every student, because they were dedicated in making us the best in our chosen profession. That is exactly what they did, my class had 6 students score a 90% or above on our National Board and an average score of 97% on our North East Regional Clinical Board Examination. In short, every student passed all their required examinations - this is a mark of committed students and dedicated faculty.

The only thing I would say I disliked about this educational experience was the condensed nature of our education. Dental hygiene is an extremely diverse and complicated major. The material covered in this program is multifunctional. It combines the physical coordination and implementation of clinical instrumentation with advanced knowledge in oral anatomy and physiology. Additionally, dental hygienists are required to attain a basic knowledge in pharmacology, pathology, systemic disease and interpersonal psychology. Putting together this type of knowledge base in two years was extremely difficult, especially while simultaneously preparing for board examinations. Yes, in dental hygiene you take your board examinations prior to graduation - while you are enrolled in other courses. This calls for intense organization and dedication by each student. Do not enroll into a two-year program thinking it is easier than a four-year degree-granting program. In fact, I would say a two-year program is much more difficult because you cover the same information in half the amount of time. This program definitely stretched and challenged me as a person. It is definitely do-able, but you must be completely dedicated.

The only other thing I dislike about dental hygiene education is the need to provide your own patients. Ultimately, students are required to find patients to meet specific clinical requirements and select a patient for their clinical board exam. At times, this caused a great deal of extrinsic stress, as students we can't really control if a patient shows for their appointment and if their oral condition meets our requirements. Fortunately, every student found exactly what they needed to meet all their requirements - but this aspect of dental education poses a great deal of additional stress. I have no real solution for this, because it is important that each student is well rounded, and experiences various treatment situations.

What was your favorite course?

My favorite course was by far anatomy. The way our bodies function is simply fascinating to me. I love learning the how's and why's of physiology. The human body is absolutely amazing in its ability to function and adapt to its environment. Somebody definitely knew what they were doing when they put us together.

Describe the 'hands-on' phases of dental hygienist education.

Dental hygiene is a hands-on profession. We are the front lines of oral health - often spending much more time with patients than the actual supervising dentist. It is the role of the dental hygienist to offer non-surgical periodontal therapy, preventive therapies, oral pathology screenings, radiology, oral hygiene education, community program development and professional development.

My clinical and hands-on experienced involved taking sharp instruments into other student's mouths after learning how to use them correctly in a lab oriented setting - every student will perform the role of clinician and patient. Not only did we practice our instrumentation on each other, we also placed dental sealants in each other's teeth - after each site was approved by a supervising dentist. We also had in-depth training on basic dental materials - composite resin, impression materials, amalgam, glass ionomer and others.

Dental hygiene is an extremely hands-on profession. Personally, I love the integration of physical skill and scientific knowledge that is found in dentistry. It is essential that students master the art of instrumentation, along with the use of common dental materials.

What factors should prospective dental hygienist students consider when choosing a school?

The major things to look for are:

  • Is the school program nationally accredited in dental hygiene?
  • What is the school's pass rate on previous board exams?
  • What regional board exams are required in your area, if you move to another state will you need to take additional board examinations?
  • What is the student teacher ratio?
  • How many students are in each class?
  • Is there an on-site clinic available?
  • Who is responsible for scheduling patients or providing patients?
  • Are there any require/core classes you can take prior to entering the program?
  • Does the school support SADHA?
  • What scholarships are available?

What should dental hygienist students expect of the curriculum? How would you describe the difficulty level?

It's common for people to not be accepted on their first attempt applying to dental hygiene programs - admittance is very competitive. Dental hygiene involves a great deal of scientific study. I would not recommend this program for students who struggle with basic science course or anatomy. Dental hygiene incorporates basic scientific skills with critical thinking skills, causing the students to recall a vast amount of information to form relative diagnosis and treatments. Simply said, I am a strong student and this course of study was the toughest I've ever had. All course work is accumulative, meaning it builds on previous courses. It is not possible to slack off in one area and expect to succeed in another. Dental hygiene is a holistic field of study.

Tell us about your campus and national student leadership activities.

Throughout this program I held numerous positions. I was class president, an SADHA member and organizer, regional representative for the ADHA's Student Advisory Committee, member of three national honor societies and held numerous titles within a student based ministry. These kept things pretty busy throughout my schooling experience.

How has your involvement with SADHA supported your educational and career development goals?

SADHA is an amazing organization that links students immediately with their professional organization, the ADHA. The ADHA is the driving force behind the dental hygiene profession in the United States. They present extended functions bills and access to care legislation in order to expand the possibilities of dental hygiene.

SADHA helps develop student leaders and prepares students to be influential members of their profession and communities. SADHA offers students opportunities to present table clinics, participate in ADHA policy decisions, raise class funds and organize community outreach events.

How can other dental hygienist students expect to benefit from similar involvement?

Enrolling yourself in SADHA leadership and other professional organizations is a great benefit. These experiences will refine and develop your leadership skills, helping you develop organizational and communication skills that will inevitably advance your career. Dental hygiene has numerous opportunities for people who are willing to take initiative and take action.

You & Your Career

Tell us about your dental hygienist career choice. What are some of your professional goals for the future?

My primary goal has been and will always be the patient care. No matter how advanced our clinical skill and technology may become, the simple courtesies of caring for our patients needs must continue to remain the utmost of importance. Patients come to us for help when they are in need. They expect us to be knowledgeable, trusting that we will care for their oral health needs. As dental hygienists, we have a responsibility to provide the highest quality of treatment to every patient, in conjunction with the highest perceptions of individual worth and humanity. I have learned through experience that most people desire empathy, understanding, and friendship when faced with advanced medical concerns. Personally, I find it both fulfilling and rewarding to provide support for these basic needs throughout medical treatment.

Current research materials are essential to providing excellent care for our patients as well. I spend hours reading current research, in order to gain the opportunity to share the benefits of this information with others .It is our responsibility to educate and serve the public regarding oral disease I have had multiple patients say to me, "No one has ever taught me how to brush my teeth!" That is because there are not many people who actually know how, and it is our job to educate them. Dental caries is an epidemic in our culture and it must not slip off the radar of public awareness. Recently, more and more research has been conducted linking oral disease to other systemic diseases and conditions - making oral disease a whole body disease, not a compartmentalized problem. In dental hygiene we are fighting on the front lines of this epidemic, and I hope to stay in the trenches.

A friend once told me, "Be the change you are looking for." That is exactly what I intend to do. My wife has been involved in the education of children with special needs, and I hope to develop skills to serve dental patients with special needs, including: mental disabilities, physical disabilities, systemic illness, cancer patients, and autism. My wife and I also eventually hope to serve people in foreign countries by providing medical relief with short term and possible long term mission trips.

My secondary goal is to advance the career of dental hygiene, be it research, education, legislation, or progressive thinking. Within the scope of my schooling we have conducted numerous research projects with a variety of focus points. I hope to eventually be involved in furthering dental hygiene through research journals and independent study. A few of the topics that I find interesting since being employed at the James Cancer Research Institute include: Is it true most hospitals in the United States place a very low standard on their patient's oral health? Why does this occur? What can be implemented to change this situation? How can we help the community discover oral cancer sooner? What factors aid in the pathology of oral cancer? How does oral disease affect the entire body?

I would also like to become a dental hygiene educator, because I enjoy teaching others. Currently, I lead numerous study groups with my fellow classmates, because I love learning with others - so much more can be seen through multiple view points. It also brings me great pleasure to unravel some of the difficult concepts in medical science, so that these concepts may be explained with understandable and logical sense. It would be a great privilege and honor to eventually share my experiences with future dental hygienists. Learning can be both insightful and enjoyable, if done correctly. I hope to follow the example of my instructors by providing both.

Lastly, I am a male in a female dominated career; I hope to make this career more accessible for other men in the future, by setting a good example for other men and educating them that dental hygiene is no longer a gender-specific career. I hope to do this through both clinical and academic environments.

In what type of setting do you plan to practice?

I hope to work in a periodontal office because these patients require extensive dental hygiene therapy - which is both rewarding and challenging. I recently shadowed a dental hygienist working in a prominent periodontal office and I absolutely loved it. Much of our time as hygienist is spent convincing our patients that their oral health is important. In a periodontal office, most of the patients come to us seeking to save their teeth and we are able to help them achieve that goal. Additionally, I hope to work with patients with advanced systemic diseases - offering them much needed and often neglected dental care. Currently, I work in the James Cancer Hospital and have had the opportunity to develop an oral hygiene care program for inpatient care givers. It has proven to be a great success and extremely rewarding. I also hope to offer my services to various community groups as a form of medical missions in the future.

What was it like when you worked on your first patient? Any tips for future students?

I was absolutely terrified, because my first patient was my wife. We had practiced our skills for 11 weeks in pre-clinic before she sat in my chair. It took me three hours to complete her medical/dental history and intra/extra oral exam. On our next appointment, it took me three hours to complete her dental charting, radiographs (x-rays), dental hygiene diagnosis and treatment plan. On her third appointment, it took three hours to clean half of her mouth. On her fourth three- hour appointment, I cleaned the other half. On her fifth and final three-hour appointment, I polished her teeth, gave a fluoride treatment and had a restorative exam. It took me 15 hours to complete my first case because I was so meticulous and afraid. Fortunately, we are still happily married and the following year. I was able to finish her dental care in one appointment.

So practice on those you love, for they are the most forgiving, and forgiveness builds confidence. Don't get too stressed out if you're slow at first, you'll get faster - but never sacrifice detailed care for speed. Speed comes with practice.

Beyond your coursework, including 700-plus hours of hands-on dental hygiene practice, what steps are you taking as a student to launch your dental hygienist career?

  • I have developed an oral care educational program for patient care givers at The Ohio State Medical Center.
  • I have been published in a national journal.
  • I have participated in numerous leadership roles.
  • I have developed and participated in health fairs, senior dental educational programs, and elementary/high school educational programs.
  • I have shadowed dental hygienists for more than 25 hours.
  • I have worked to network my skills with local dentists.

What are some dental field trends which could help potential dental hygienist students plan for the future?

It has come to my attention that jobs are not readily available in the field of dental hygiene in Columbus, Ohio. Many hygienists work part-time at two separate dental offices in order to maintain fulltime status. When applying for a dental hygiene jobs, be sure to ask the dentist about medical insurance, holiday pay, office close dates, uniform allowance and vacation. Benefits are not always offered with dental hygiene employment and vary greatly from office to office.

Do you feel that is important to be passionate about the field of dentistry in order to be successful as a dental hygienist?

If you are not passionate about dentistry, do not begin this program. This is one of the most intense and time consuming programs in the market. It will push, stress, and challenge you. Do not waste your time and energy unless you are sure you really want a career in dentistry, because it is not an easy degree to attain. In my graduating class alone, we had four students quit the program because they decided it wasn't for them - after they endured all their pre-reqs and one year of intensive dental hygiene education. This is a serious commitment and will require a lot of time and sacrifice. Think it through.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career goals, or the dental hygienist profession that would be interesting or helpful to potential students?

Completing a degree in dental hygiene is very do-able, but it will take a great deal of discipline and determination. In the end, I can say all my hard work was worth it. I love what I do.

One of my favorite quotes reads as follows, "Don't ask yourself what the world needs, ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive." - Gil Bailie

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