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Studying just alittle bit longer

Aug. 1, 2005
Although many hygienists are satisfied with their associate’s degree, an increasing number are discovering compelling reasons to go ahead and pursue a bachelor’s degree.
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Although many hygienists are satisfied with their associate’s degree, an increasing number are discovering compelling reasons to go ahead and pursue a bachelor’s degree.

Every hygienist with a two-year degree has probably wondered whether or not to keep going. There’s the personal side - intellectual growth is a good thing - and the professional side - bachelor’s and master’s degrees open many doors.

If you earned your associate degree or certificate in the 1950s, 1960s, or 1970s, you may have thought it was all you would ever need. Our mothers said, “Learn a profession so you’ll have something to fall back on.” Hygienists didn’t need higher education; all they needed was a job “to fall back on” if something happened to their breadwinners.

Still, we wondered. Could I? Should I? Why would I?

If you graduated in the 1980s, 1990s, or afterwards, you may have had a different idea. “I’ll start with this, and finish my bachelor’s later,” you said. Then life happened, and you never got back to school.

In dollars and cents, we know that bachelor’s degrees don’t mean much in clinical practice. Kristy Unterbrink of Vermillion, Ohio, has never seen a monetary benefit from her two extra years of college. “I get paid the same as hygienists with associate’s degrees, although some dentists I’ve interviewed with have been impressed I have a bachelor’s,” she said. “For anyone in clinical practice who only wants the title behind their name, I don’t believe it’s worth the time and expense.

“But for anyone planning a career change, maybe to teaching or sales, go for it. I’m glad I have a four-year degree because I know I won’t be doing clinical hygiene the rest of my life. Too much stress on my body!”

Despite the lack of financial incentive, a new emphasis has been placed on higher education for hygienists in recent years. If our profession is to evolve, we need to be more educated. If the hygienists of the future reach beyond traditional offices and restrictions, they’ll need more than traditional skills.

Sandra Stramoski of Shelton, Conn., who is in a degree completion program at Fones School of Dental Hygiene at the University of Bridgeport, believes that, although hygienists in metropolitan areas have more job opportunities because of universities and hospitals, even rural hygienists need more education in terms of access to care. “If we want to expand our horizons clinically, diagnostically, and administratively, we’ll need to broaden our academic bases to back up our new, broader roles.”

So what are today’s hygienists doing to prepare for the future?

Stramoski earned an associate’s degree in dental hygiene in 1977, and intended to return for her bachelor’s. “If I saw a job listing for a hygienist in a hospital setting, or public health, or the corporate world, I felt excluded. I never felt like a second-class hygienist, and I really enjoyed private practice, but I’ll like more choices in the future. We all know people who are successful without four-year degrees, but this is becoming more difficult in the professional world. The concept of more education has to spill over into the health-care profession.”

Stramoski didn’t expect it to take 27 years to start her bachelor’s, but it did. The entire University of Bridgeport program can be completed online, but Stramoski will be taking some courses on-site since she lives close.

“I believe the profession is headed toward possible bachelor’s degree entry-level requirements for some things, particularly expanded functions,” she said. “So I’m finishing my degree for two reasons - personal satisfaction, and a possible new direction into either teaching or expanded functions. I’m thrilled to finally be completing this.”

Harriet Ludjin of Bellingham, Wash., is a lifelong learner. “My mind needs constant feeding and challenging, and I decided years ago that I would never go to bed without learning something new. It’s also important to me that I finish whatever I begin. I felt that if I completed my degree, more opportunities would open up.”

Education and learning have no price tag, according to Ludjin. “We are what we make of ourselves. I chose to expand my knowledge base in order to become the best ‘me’ that I could, and perhaps to become more than a tooth scraper. I will always want more education, more understanding, more compassion!”

Ludjin earned her associate’s degree (Certificate of Dental Hygiene) in 1966, and a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1984. “That was a 20-year journey, but it was one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

For degree completion, Ludjin chose Applied Behavior Sciences at the National College of Education. “That was one of the early degree-completion programs in the Chicago area. We met weekly for one and a half years for four hours each meeting. We did research, reading, and compositions, culminating in a final research project that was workplace related.”

For her master’s degree, Ludjin entered a self-directed online program through Summit University of Louisiana. “I did not have to go there at all. It was truly a distance program. It was not for people who needed a tremendous amount of direction.”

An outline for progressing through the program was drawn up and arrangements for supportive contact were established. Ludjin communicated with her provost via phone or e-mail at least once a month, and met in person quarterly. Everything was submitted to the provost for review before sending it to SUL.

“After I had been working on this for some time, I changed from holistic therapy to continuing adult education facilitation. It’s amazing what we discover about ourselves if we remain open to the direction of our hearts. It was a challenge and a wonderful exercise in growth.”

She worked as a clinical dental hygiene instructor at William Rainey Harper College in Palatine, Ill., for seven years. She left in 2004 to pursue a longtime dream of living in the western states.

Today, Ludjin is combining all her experiences in a unique setting at Lummi Indian Reservation in Washington. She performs clinical and public health services and tribal school screenings, attends tribal health fairs, and conducts training programs. She remains an active member of ADHA on the component and state levels, and looks forward to participating in more outreach programs. “Now is the time to pursue all those learning opportunities I dreamed of.”

Toni Adams of Rocklin, Calif., had a specific goal for her life after hygiene. “When I went back for my bachelor’s, I’d been out of school 26 years. I was satisfied with an AS degree, and very happy in my clinical practice. I left only because I was forced to, when my orthopedist said, ‘You just wore out your hands.’”

Adams always had that bachelor’s degree in the back of her mind, but never felt she’d have the energy to juggle family responsibilities, work, and school. “Every time that idea bubbled up, I just laid down until it went away.”

But when the end of her career and her empty nest came at the same time, she took advantage of workers’ comp retraining benefits to go back to school.

“To earn a bachelor’s in hygiene, I would have had to retake all of the science classes, so I chose communication studies instead. The field has always interested me, and I thought it would mesh well with my hygiene knowledge.”

She earned that degree, and started on the next one. “When I finish my Master of Arts - again in Comm Studies, but with an emphasis on health communication - I want to teach at the community college level. I also want to write more for magazines and journals, and perhaps do some speaking.”

She’s presently working as a graduate assistant at California State University Sacramento, and will be a teaching assistant with her own class next year.

“I love school. I wish I had done it years ago, though with kids and other things it would have been extremely difficult. There is a huge advantage to being in college with some life experience behind you. For me, it was never about the money. My biggest incentives were personal growth and a sense of accomplishment.”

Kyle Julin of San Geronimo, Calif., also likes the personal growth idea. Finding herself with free time after a divorce, she wanted to “do something more for my mind. A bachelor’s degree will give me the freedom to possibly go on to graduate school. I’m not sure I want to, but at least with a bachelor’s I’ll be able to.”

Julin grew up in a dental family. Her father and brother are dentists, and her mother is a hygienist. “I never really had a chance to take regular college courses and see what might interest me. I love hygiene, but I also want to be able to try something else, especially as I get older.”

Eileen Morrissey of Clarksburg, N.J., believes a bachelor’s degree is a great idea, but hygienists shouldn’t limit themselves to hygiene. She said, “I am all for getting your bachelor’s degree, but my recommendation is to find a different field. I have few regrets in life, but getting a BS in hygiene is one of them. I also have a master’s degree, but that’s in health-care management.”

Morrissey believes more doors will open with a degree in another discipline. “Pick something less limiting, like business, management, nutrition, education, anything. You can still advance in hygiene if you choose, but a different degree will give you more opportunity.”

Mandi Smith Cooper, who lives near Philadelphia, decided on two separate fields when she returned to college. “I knew during hygiene school that I would continue my education ... I was just unsure in which field. I knew I didn’t want to do hygiene full time for the rest of my life.”

She took a semester off after earning her associate’s degree to work and pay back loans, then returned to school part time. A few years later, she completed her bachelor’s degree in elementary education. “I teach first grade, but still do hygiene on Saturdays and during vacations. I’m happy to have something else I can do that isn’t so physically taxing. It’s the best of both worlds. I may end up doing just hygiene when I have children, because you can’t beat the flexibility and pay for a part-time job.”

Cooper hopes to complete a master’s degree in education, and will then have the option of combining both careers to teach at a hygiene school. “I’m so glad I decided to go back to school. The only thing I would do differently is waiting several years after graduating the first time. There is so much more financial aid available after you turn 23.”

Cathy Hester Seckman, RDH, is a frequent contributor based in Calcutta, Ohio. She can be reached at [email protected].

Getting a bachelor’s online in hygiene

Though doors can open everywhere, from biology to business, there is still a need for hygienists with bachelor’s degrees and higher in their own field, especially for careers in education and sales.

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The problem with continuing one’s education in hygiene is that there isn’t a dental hygiene program on every corner. Eastern Tennessee State University is one of several institutions around the country to offer bachelor’s degrees in dental hygiene online.

Rebecca Nunley, RDH, DDS, is coordinator for the BSDH Online Program at ETSU. The program is tailored specifically for bachelor’s degree completion by licensed associate degree hygienists.

Though students can reside anywhere and complete all of their coursework online, Nunley requests two campus visits at the beginning of the program. One is a five-hour orientation course, and the other is a local anesthesia lab.

“We try to be accommodating,” Nunley says, “and we’ve been able to make exceptions, but we just can’t do telephone orientations for everyone. Coming to campus gives students a chance to meet their classmates, and it’s a real jumpstart for that first course. The orientation isn’t exhaustive, but it’s a beginning. Between the hygienist who graduated two years ago, and the one who graduated 20 years ago, it provides a level playing field.”

It’s also a big jump for students who are not computer literate. “We try to get over those hurdles at orientation. For someone without computer skills, it’s a tall order to do research on the Internet, write a paper, save it to a file, and submit it online.”

The classes are not just lectures transferred to a computer screen. Karen King, RDH, MEd, is the faculty development person who designed the program. Each course is highly individualized, and may involve papers, quizzes to gauge progress, and group projects. Some students meet weekly in online chat rooms with their teacher.

“There are different ways adults learn,” Nunley explains. “Practicing professionals have different goals than a typical student, and the courses are designed with that in mind.”

One goal of ETSU’s program, Nunley says, is to make hygienists familiar with information technology. “The new buzzwords in dentistry are ‘evidence-based practice.’ Where do you go to get that evidence? Our students learn to find, evaluate, and organize evidence, put it together in a concise way to present to their employer or patient, and alter their practice.”

The program is more expensive for out-of-state residents, but there’s a convenient loophole through the Tennessee Dental Hygiene Association. An out-of-state student can transfer ADHA membership to a Tennessee cohort, or component, pay dues, and thus qualify for in-state tuition.

The program is designed for completion in two years, and Nunley estimates that 25 percent of students do that. The rest proceed at their own pace. It’s possible to stop and start when necessary for family, work, or financial reasons. At ETSU, online students range in age from mid-20s to mid-50s. Why are they in the program?

“Students come out of their love for dental hygiene, and a desire to learn more,” Nunley says. “Many of them tell wonderful stories like, ‘I always promised my mother I’d go back.’

“It’s also a commitment to their practice. Students tell us that their employers notice an increase in their interest in work. They really enjoy learning, and it’s satisfying for me to see their excitement.”

One big reason students enter the course is because they want to teach. “The market for dental hygiene faculty is high. If you’re willing to move, there’s a big demand. As long as there are associate’s degree programs, there will be a need for bachelor’s degree hygienists to teach them. And as long as we have bachelor’s programs, we’ll need master’s degree educators for those.”

For information about East Tennessee State University’s online BSDH program, see ntal/bsdh.

For more information

The first step to earning a degree is often a trip to the local college or university. For a dental hygiene degree, whether through a bachelor’s degree completion program or a master’s program, investigate these resources.

Dental hygiene bachelor’s degree completion programs

Dental hygiene master’s degree programs

Idaho State University

Old Dominion University

University of Maryland

University of Michigan

University of Missouri Kansas City

University of New Mexico

West Virginia University