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The Wisconsin Idea

Nov. 1, 2010
Hygiene background aids transition into 'student union' environment

Hygiene background aids transition into 'student union' environment

by Judith E. Sulik, RDH, MBA

In 1986, Mary Hoddy answered a newspaper ad for a "staff education and training director" at the University of Wisconsin Memorial Union. She credits dental hygiene - both the curriculum and her various experiences - with preparing her for the position, one she has grown with and still enjoys 22 years later.

Mary, who was born in Michigan, attended her father's favorite school, Ohio State University, which was just far enough away from home to give her independence, and majored in dental hygiene. She said, "While I picked dental hygiene somewhat blindly, I knew I liked working with my hands, and it seemed like something different to do." She worked as a dental hygienist as she completed her final year in dental hygiene education.

Reflecting on the dental hygiene curriculum and her experiences as a student, she began to believe there was a "better way to teach dental hygiene." She researched adult education graduate programs, and chose the University of Wisconsin in Madison because its philosophy resonated with her, especially the Wisconsin Idea.

"The Wisconsin Idea was developed around 1906 and holds that the boundaries of the university should be the boundaries of the state; it has one of the most evolved field extension systems in the country. The Wisconsin Idea stressed that research conducted at the University in Madison should be applied to solve problems and improve the lives of all of the state's citizens. The university had an excellent adult education department, particularly during the 1970s and 1980s. My classmates came from diverse backgrounds that reflected this philosophy. There were students from all professions and from many countries, who planned to bring what they learned back to their countries."

Wisconsin's extensive university field extension system helped Mary gain the qualifications she needed for the job advertised in the newspaper. Her responsibilities prevented her from earning her master's in continuing and vocational education during the usual two years. It actually took her six years of taking one course a semester while teaching dental hygiene at Madison Area Technical College in the fall and spring semesters and practicing dental hygiene during the summer.

"I specialized in learning styles, how to simplify learning by using audio, visual, kinesthetic, and tactile approaches because people learn differently," she said. "The dental hygiene curriculum of the 'old days' fit how I like to learn - experiential in labs and clinics, with some lecture-based learning. Now I emphasize experiential learning, which is applying what is taught immediately. Rather than giving a 60-minute lecture, I would give a four-minute lecture, and then I'd have students break into pairs and discuss how to apply what they just learned. They bounced between reading, listening, doing, and reflecting."

The next step in her career

Upon graduating in 1982, Mary took her degree, her five years of experience teaching at MATC, and her fiancé to Wausau, Wis., where she became the director of dental hygiene at North Central Technical College. The two-year-old program was not yet accredited. Mary proudly notes that she achieved accreditation in just one year. She directed the program for four years until another innovation caught her attention. True to the Wisconsin Idea, NCTC was a leader in developing "distance learning."

"We were ahead of other parts of the country when it came to implementing distance learning programs," she said. "NCTC was visionary. The towers existed to relay live audio and visual broadcasts between the main campus and northern Wisconsin residents taking classes. In 1986, dental hygiene courses were offered. I was the Director of Distance Learning for one year. My husband didn't care for Wausau, so he moved back to Madison and I commuted over two hours, five days a week, for the six months remaining on my contract."

She didn't know it at the time, but these experiences were giving her the qualifications that would make her the ideal candidate to answer the newspaper ad that caught her attention.

While a student union is prominent on many campuses, one doesn't exist at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Instead, there is a Memorial Union, which Mary describes as "a place in Madison where 'town and gown' come together. It is a university union, not a student union. Senators, students, and families share experiences. It is a membership organization; students are automatically members. Public individual memberships are $50 a year, but after five years it becomes a lifetime membership. The Memorial Union, which is located directly on Lake Mendota, has something for everyone, from theater productions to a rathskeller to mini courses in such areas as yoga. Our mission is 'making lifetime connections to the campus, one person at a time.'"

That mission sums up her job, Mary said.

When she accepted the position as staff education and training director, Mary was responsible for building a new department, and her goal was to help coordinate training for all of the students and staff who worked at the Union. This is where her dental hygiene background gave her the necessary tools.

"I drew upon my strong background in competency-based education from dental hygiene when I figured out the competencies required to do each task successfully. About 800 to 1,000 part-time students are hired annually with 50% turnover; we're constantly training new staff so it's important to have well-defined protocols. While I was at Wausau, I coauthored a manual on all the competencies for a hygienist. There was no reason to reinvent the wheel. Using the competency standards eliminated the grading curve. All students could get an 'A' if competency was demonstrated. Also, a student couldn't pass or graduate without achieving the required competency."

Needing to train 1,000 people each year, Mary developed a competency-based system. She said, "I work with about 15 students, who then teach new-staff workshops two at a time. There are seven mandatory classes - Union 101, an orientation class; Make My Day, which focuses on customer service; Cashier Training; Food Safety; Occupational Safety; Office Safety, i.e., ergonomics; and Alcohol Server.

Although Mary hasn't picked up a scaler in years, dental hygiene still plays an important role. She said, "In the middle of the food safety class, we go into the microbiology of food safety - staph, e. coli, etc. - and I have them do some glow germ exercises like we did in dental hygiene school. They're amazed, after washing their hands, to see where they missed. It's one of the things they remember."

Establishing an affinity with patients as a dental hygienist is similar to how staff members at the Union interact with customers - both must quickly establish rapport with strangers, put them at ease, and comfortably strike up a conversation. As someone who remembers temping in 20 dental offices when she was practicing dental hygiene, Mary can empathize with staff members that are hesitant in new situations.

More than two decades after joining the Memorial Union, Mary still looks forward to the next morning at work. "I like this job because I'm always learning and I get to implement new ideas right away," she said. "A lot has been written about knowledge skills and talents; you can teach knowledge and skills so a class can be passed, but you can't teach talent. I think my talent is that I'm curious about new people, I enjoy winning people over, and I like to get them excited about using strength-based learning. I like to be independent, creative, and active, so this job suits me perfectly."

Judith E. Sulik, RDH, MBA, is president of Finally Finished Press of Middleton, Wis. She recently published a cookbook based on Madison, Wisconsin area restaurants. For details, contact her by e-mail at [email protected].

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