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June 17, 2021

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Dental Hygiene students have plenty to smile about

Current job market has lots of demand for Clark College dental grads

Not everyone looks forward to visiting their dental hygienist. But according to industry insiders, plenty of people are eager to hire them — especially if they come with high-quality credentials.

“Our students are highly sought after,” said Kristi Taylor, director of Clark College’s Bachelor of Applied Science in Dental Hygiene program. “I regularly get called by dentists locally — and from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and even a few from Alaska — asking if we have any students about to graduate looking for jobs.”

The program is highly competitive, receiving around 100 applications a year for the 25 spots accepted into the program each fall. Small wonder: 100 percent of recent graduates from the program found jobs, Taylor said.

A career-focused program

Clark College has offered a dental hygiene degree program for many years. Originally a two-year associate degree program, the college switched to offering a bachelor’s degree five years ago in recognition of both changing industry standards and the fact that most students needed to complete two years of prerequisites before entering the two-year, seven-term program.

Dental hygienists provide preventive, educational, and therapeutic dental health services directly to patients, and focus on preventing and treating dental diseases in support of the patient’s overall health. They earn an average of $78,050 a year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The combination of a rewarding career and good job prospects means that despite the program’s time commitment and reputation for challenging workload, it remains popular with career-minded students.

One thing that helps the Clark program stand out is the on-campus clinic, which the school remodeled in 2014.

“Students learn in a place that is at the top of industry standards,” Taylor said. “Students know they can step out into the workforce knowing about all of the newest tools. We’re constantly looking at what is new and what is expected in the industry.”

Challenging, but worth it

Now in his final term in the program, student David Leontyuk said he landed on dental hygiene after shadowing professionals in a variety of healthcare professions. He lives in Clackamas, Ore., but decided it was worth the travel to attend Clark due to the program’s positive reputation and his experiences talking with staffers and former students.

He said the professors work with students on becoming great clinicians in addition to learning all the ins and outs of dental hygiene. How? Each student has to work a set amount of clinical hours in the program, where they help treat the local community.

Leontyuk said working with the community and real patients creates a valuable learning experience. He advised incoming students to make the most of that opportunity.

“The instructors will really push you to become a great clinician, so I would really recommend this program if you are trying to get the most of your schooling rather than just trying to get by and just getting licensed so that you can get a job that pays good,” Leontyuk said. “This is a program that will really challenge you, but the experience and learning that you get from it is very valuable. There’s no doubt that the program at Clark College is known to have some of the best education when compared to other dental hygiene programs in the area.”

Taylor agreed that the students who excel in the program need to be self-starters and adaptable.

“You have to be somebody who has some confidence, somebody who is open to learning how to communicate with people, and someone who doesn’t give up easily,” she said. “It’s a challenging program. We don’t try to trick anybody that it’s an easy program.”

Alicia Moore, a junior in the program, said the coursework can add up, but that’s why the program and its graduates are so successful.

“The kind of student that excels in this program are students who are organized and goal-driven,” she said. “There is a certain level of organization required to keep track of the schedule, as well as all of the assignments.”

She added that students also need to figure out a good work-life balance so they don’t get burned out with the workload.

“With two small boys at home, I keep a very fine balance to keep my house running smoothly and the grades that I have, but I feel that I am succeeding in doing so,” she said.

A supportive environment

Moore said the instructors have played a large role in her success so far, especially as a mother to two young children.

“They are thoughtful and considerate to our needs and spend so much of their time working with us,” she said. “Their goal has never been for us to just memorize information for exams but to truly understand and learn the material so that we are not only successful in the program but with our careers. They are also incredibly flexible with deadlines when things come up in our personal lives.”

Moore added that since Clark is a community college, she also feels she’s getting a bachelor’s degree for less money than she’d typically have to spend to obtain one. Tuition for bachelor’s degree programs vary, but the cost for 15 credits per term at the 300- and 400-level is $2,340 plus books, supplies, and miscellaneous fees.

Leontyuk said students in the program form a strong bond as they move through each quarter together. Some of the highlights so far, prior to Covid, were the potlucks they had to celebrate milestones in the program and guest speakers coming to class to talk about various different parts of the industry. Students also worked together at special events at the college clinic, he said.

Taylor said the program will make sure to keep up with the most current practices in the industry as they continue to place graduates in jobs all throughout the Northwest, something she doesn’t anticipate slowing down any time soon.

“The outlook is stellar,” she said. “There are zero problems with finding a job. When I’ve read articles or talked to others from the dental association, I’m hearing the same thing all around: We’re going into about a decade of needing dental hygienists. People will always have teeth.”

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