Working at a minimum wage job at a middle school, Suzanne Hubbard found a mentor, examined her career options and resolved to accomplish her dream to graduate from college by the age of 40.
Currently a second year student in the 16-month accelerated dental hygiene program at Laramie County Community College (LCCC) in Cheyenne, Wy., she was considering a nursing program when her sister, a dental hygienist for 22 years, encouraged her to look into the field. Suzanne plans to graduate in October 2006 and has found a real calling for dental hygiene patient care, especially when it comes to making nervous patients comfortable.
Dedication is an important part in her success as a 'non-traditional' college student. She juggles a daily 70-mile commute from Greeley, Colo., to the LCCC campus in Cheyenne, takes a full schedule of coursework including two days of clinical duties, and manages to find time for her studies as well as her husband and two teenagers.
In addition, she serves as the president of Student American Dental Hygienists' Association (SADHA), a professional club that promotes the profession. As part of her SADHA responsibilities, she helps facilitate voting, fundraising and committee involvement, and will serve as the SADHA Student District Delegate at an upcoming national conference.
Suzanne has become a true advocate of the profession and its potential impact on the general public as well as her own need to find a career. She recently took the time out to share more about her dental hygiene education experiences and insights with dentalschools.com. For those who wonder just how challenging dental hygiene school is, Suzanne notes that potential students should "Expect the program to be harder than it is, and then you won't be disappointed."
What led you to return to the classroom as a 'non-traditional' student?
I was working at a minimum wage job at a middle school. I knew that I needed to do something different, as I was not happy in the role I was in. One of the teachers with whom I developed a neat friendship with said, "It's never too late to receive an education. Just look at me, I was 60 years old when I got my masters degree." I always wanted to say that I finished college - not just for myself, but also as a role model for my children. And I really wanted to make a difference.
How did you decide to study to become a dental hygienist?
I had been through several jobs, mostly making $7.00 an hour and performing the boss' job, and was tired of the wages I was making. My sister is a dental hygienist, and has often told me how much she loves her job, and urged me to look into dental hygiene. At the time, I was considering nursing school. The more I looked at the hours, and how nursing was changing, I liked the idea of dental hygiene. The dental field was similar to the medical field in that I could make a difference in someone's life.
What do you like and dislike about your dental hygienist education so far?
I like many aspects about my hygiene education; the fact that I will be competent in my skills before leaving the program is a positive. I enjoy the new friendships I've made, friendships that are sure to become life-long. The learning process is one of excitement as well - who knew there was so much to learn about teeth?
I love to learn about new and exciting aspects of dental hygiene and the courses have all been interesting. What I love about it most is when I have a patient sitting in front of me saying, "I was so scared to come and see you today, but you made me feel so comfortable" or "I never knew that about my oral health, thank you so much for telling me!"
The dislikes are very few. The program is very difficult, so of course at times I think, "I don't like school!" As students, most of us get to that point like a marathon runner who has hit the wall. We don't like to admit it, but there are days when we simply want to be graduated and fully into our careers.
Describe the 'hands-on' phases of dental hygienist education, including your clinical duties handling military and civilian patients.
The hands on phase is my favorite part of the education: sitting down with a client, discussing life, finding out about the neat experiences that someone has, sharing in their accomplishments and their sorrows, and being their cheerleader in life and for their health. It sounds corny, but as hygienists, we have a wonderful opportunity to be both clinician and friend.
I see patients two days a week. The military is a great experience, because you get the opportunity to work with people from all sorts of backgrounds and to hear about stories from the war, how some have traveled the world, and how many have met different challenges. It is interesting, and to be able to share with these men and women who serve our country and teach them how to better their health is rewarding as well.
What factors should prospective dental hygienist students consider when choosing a school?
Prospective students must take considerate and careful steps when deciding on a hygiene school. One of the ways I went about choosing a school was the old-fashioned way of sitting down and finding out the pros and cons of each school. I had to decide between two schools, both involved a commute (to a remote town or to a large city). Traffic was a big factor, and the shorter time-frame curriculum also was a deciding factor.
An important step is to make sure that you go and visit each school and the director of that school. Ask for a tour of the school, ask hygienists in the present curriculum how they like their school. Attend a table clinic session and ask about the school. The more informed you are, the better able to make an informed decision. Research, research, research! Whatever one chooses, it is important that everyone around you (boyfriends, husbands, families, mothers, brothers, sisters) is in on the planning process to give advice and constructive feedback.
What should dental hygienist students expect of the curriculum? How would you describe the difficulty level?
Expect the program to be harder than it is, and then you won't be disappointed. I sat down with my husband and children and said, "This is probably going to be the hardest thing I have done so far, I need to know that I have your support!"
One of the biggest mistakes that I have heard from fellow students is that they thought it would be like regular college, where you can skip a class here or there, show up late and ask friends to take notes while you're gone… and it just isn't that way in hygiene school. There are strict expectations and there are higher standards. This year I have heard many students saying, "Wow, I didn't know it would be this hard!" I'm not trying to deter anyone from embracing the program, just a slight switch in mindset and how the program should be perceived. It is difficult - plan on it!
How has your involvement with SADHA supported your educational and career development goals? How can other dental hygienist students expect to benefit?
SADHA is an excellent way to develop and understand the hygiene profession. As SADHA president, I have had so many wonderful experiences being able to volunteer at public health events such as health fairs, and teaching underprivileged children about the importance of oral care and nutrition. Some have the misconception that SADHA is a fundraising event. SADHA has opportunities to fundraise, but the funds are then reestablished into the community where dental health is making a difference.
The richest experience that I received from SADHA was when I volunteered at an elementary school where we were teaching children how to clean their teeth and keep their mouths healthy. We passed out free toothbrushes and floss and a little boy stated, "I am so glad that you gave me a toothbrush, now I won't have to share with my little brothers and sisters." We have no idea where our SADHA involvement leads us. My hope is that it brings a smile to others, as it did this young boy.
What is encouraging about the SADHA and American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA) programs is that there are very few professional programs that collectively support, encourage, develop and enhance one's profession. In a sense, we have our own personal and professional cheerleading section. What other career can offer this?
Tell us about your dental hygienist career choice. What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future? In what type of setting do you plan to practice?
I've always had a desire to serve the underprivileged. In my community, we have a large number of migrant workers who do not have the privilege of seeing a dentist. I was working at health fair not too long ago, volunteering for oral health, and a man came in with his family and I found a tooth that was infected. I told his wife (who was the interpreter), she relayed the information to him and he looked sad. I knew what he was thinking - he couldn't afford the services necessary to attain health. I wrote down a number for a clinic that had helped those with reduced income. He smiled. If I can make a difference that way, I think it would be beneficial. I think I might become bored with the routine of a dentist office. I have to know that I am making a difference.
I also have a love for writing and would love to use my writing and publishing background to enhance the dental hygiene field.
What was it like when you worked on your first patient?
Everyone warned me, "You'll always remember your first patient, because you will be so nervous!" I actually don't remember my first patient, not that I don't want to remember, it's just that patient care has always been in my blood. I had been a certified nursing assistant for years and was used to patient care, so when my first patient came to sit in my chair I wasn't nervous at all. I was actually excited to get to know my patient and how I could help him best.
A case study you wrote appeared in Access magazine (an ADHA publication that provides news on issues that are important to dental hygienists). What led you to submit the case study to the publications?
I wrote my first article when I was 20 years old and it was published in Reader's Digest. I was so excited that it actually made it into publication. I thought, "Wow, someone actually wants to read what I have written." From there, I have written for other publications, including an article about a friend of mine whose whole family had died in a plane crash and how it had changed her life. I was so inspired by her. I received several letters when the article came out, and knew that others could relate to what was written. When I saw that Access was asking people to write articles, I had the same feeling. I wanted others to appreciate all angles of dental hygiene and as a student be able to say, 'I can relate.' I chose the particular case study on the geriatric patient I was working with because she was such an inspiring person. She had good oral health, and she still loved chocolate! Something we had in common!
What other steps are you taking as a student to launch your dental hygienist career?
I studied under a dentist before going to hygiene school and it was a rich experience. I called the dentist and said, "I want to be a great clinician, can I just watch what you do? Then if you don't mind, can I watch what your hygienist does?" The dentist (Dr. Shaddock) was so accommodating and treated me as if I were already a part of his dental team. I would be working in another operatory room and he would holler, "Hey you gotta come and see this!" It was like two kids finding their first anthill. I felt privileged to be under such great leadership and given the opportunity to share in the excitement of all aspects of dentistry.
What are some dental field trends which could help potential dental hygienist students plan for the future?
There are several trends in dental hygiene that seem to surface globally, statewide, and on a local level. I chose several routes in order to stay fresh on dental hygiene before entering school. I read every dental hygiene magazine I could get my hands on, even though I didn't know or understand the terminology. This helped me understand what product was out there, and what marketing was influencing decision-making. I joined ADHA as soon as I found out I had been accepted to hygiene school so that I could visit the website and peruse the different links for hygiene. I also called friends, who were hygienists, regularly to pick their brain on new technology and trends. I would ask, "Is this important to know?" I incorporated these people as mentors in the process of my dental hygiene education. It can be so intimidating, because there is so much to know.
Do you feel that is important to be passionate about the field of dentistry in order to be successful as a dental hygienist?
I think if you don't have passion in dental hygiene, you've likely chosen the wrong career. I hope as a hygienist I never lose that wonderful "I wonder who I am going to see today?" feeling and that I always incorporate into my treatment the thought of "How can I help this person leave here a better, healthier, happier person, than when they came in." There is no greater reward than that!