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Life's like a Circuit Board

Aug. 1, 2001
Guyana native forms the connections for a successful career as a teacher and hygienist.

Guyana native forms the connections for a successful career as a teacher and hygienist.

by Judith E. Sulik, RDH

Some lives are like a circuit board with its many seemingly complicated twists and turns that form connections and outcomes that were previously unimaginable.

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Salim Rayman's life fits that description. Born in Georgetown, Guyana, his family migrated to Richmond Hill in Queens, N.Y., in 1986, when he was 12 years old. As with immigrants past and present, he said his parents "realized there were limited opportunities in Guyana for younger individuals. The country wasn't doing well economically." It was a decision the family never regretted.

Rayman has clear memories of his school days in Guyana, the country once known as British Guyana which, while part of South America, is often considered part of the West Indies. He said, "We wore school uniforms. It was a military-type school. We would stand when the teacher entered the room. We had an assembly daily in front of the school, where we would sing the national anthem. We also had the same teacher all year, for all grades. While the quality of the education was good, the building was in poor condition and we used outdated books. I learned English there, and I read a lot."

The circumstances in Guyana, though, often mean that intelligent, well-educated young people have few career and advanced educational opportunities. Rayman explained that students, after finishing high school, take an exam to qualify for a college or university. Although he was a good student, he said, "I wasn't good enough. You have to be one of the elite to be able to go on to the university."

Facing no such restrictions in the United States, he attended City University of New York for about 1½ years as a technology major until he recognized that he "needed a more interactive environment." He wanted to "work with people, rather than with just a computer screen." A friend, who was a dental hygiene student, encouraged him to take a look at her chosen profession. So he went to the State University of New York (SUNY) in Farmingdale on Long Island where she was studying, was her patient that day, and decided her advice was correct.

After earning his associate's degree at SUNY-Farmingdale, he decided that he wanted to have options beyond clinical dental hygiene. While working in private practice, he began studying for a bachelor's degree in health science education, a program geared toward dental health, at New York University.

And then another twist presented itself. He said, "The NYU program requires students to do an internship teaching in the hygiene clinic. I was still practicing hygiene while taking classes, teaching in the clinic, etc. But then I accepted a full-time job as a sales rep for an implant company."

NYU's dental school performs many implants, and the rep who handled the school's account left for Florida. Rayman seized the opportunity. Since it was a full-time position, the company paid his tuition for the year he worked for them. He learned everything about surgical implants, developing an understanding of implant procedures, ranging from "lifting the sinus so the implant can be positioned in the maxilla to bone grafts and chin grafts." He described the job as a 'hands-on surgical position."

Teaching, though, was still his top priority. When he learned about an opening in NYU's dental assisting program, he quickly applied. He said, "This [job] is the most rewarding of all. Sales deals with people, but you're trying to sell something. With dental hygiene, you're trying to sell education and trying to help the patient. But in this job, I'm teaching others to help other people."

Rayman said that NYU's dental assisting program serves a diverse population of people. Some students attend the program directly after high school while others are making career changes. Some students are single parents on public assistance. And, interestingly, he has noticed that more men are entering the profession.

While a general assumption is that most dentists train their own assistants, Rayman said, "It's hard to find dentists to train you; they're now looking for someone to jump right into the job. Doctors frequently call the school looking for employees. NYU offers job-search support, making it easier for students to get a position."

Students in the dental assisting program can transfer those credits to the dental hygiene curriculum. Rayman is aware of 12 or 15 students who went straight to dental hygiene from assisting. He said that efforts are underway so that certain classes will be transferable into dental hygiene.

Between 20 and 30 students enroll in each of his five classes. Semesters begin in September and March, and he teaches classes on dental office management, dental materials, and clinical dental radiology. The dental assisting program offers flexibility. It takes one year to complete it, if attending full-time; 1½ years (or three semesters), if part-time. Rayman teaches from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays and from 1 p.m. until 8 p.m. on Thursdays and Fridays.

In addition, his hectic schedule includes practicing dental hygiene in a private practice in Westchester on Saturdays. And he continues to take night classes at NYU while working toward a master's degree in public administration.

Previous professors developed some of the courses in the dental assisting program, but he plays a role in choosing textbooks. This is particularly true for the course on office management, which he said emphasizes technology more than ever. He is rewriting the class's curriculum with an emphasis on computer technology — a task that takes him full circle back to his days as a technology major. What is readily apparent from listening to Rayman is that he is always open to new opportunities and experiences. Whether it's changes in hygiene technology, dental implants, or teaching, he's always cognizant of how things can be connected in new and novel ways, just like that circuit board.

For example, teaching someone how to take precise dental radiographs is challenging to both the teacher and the student. But thanks to advances in technology, Rayman and two other professors came up with a 21st century solution. They created a video showing X-ray film and holder placements in relation to the teeth. They are in the process of revising the original with the assistance of NYU's media department for improved quality. Other teaching doctors use the video, and private practitioners are interested in it for teaching assistants how to take X-rays. Eventually, they hope to market the video to other teaching programs, but they're still negotiating rights with the university.

Rayman feels a great empathy toward his students. He said, "I feel drawn to returning to the class every day because of the people. They've been through a lot. It's not just instruction, but there's also a social worker component. It's rewarding when they look up to you, and I've become good friends with many of the students. People need a path to show them where to go. I don't want to let them down."

He continues to practice dental hygiene because "I still have to be out there so I can bring real life into the class. If you're going to teach scaling and root planing, you have to be out there doing it yourself."

As a male, he did find it difficult at first to find a position in a private practice. Many male dentists still feel dental hygiene is a "female profession." Interestingly, he said he seemed to get more opportunities with female dentists, but he has worked for men as well. He said some male dentists were reluctant to hire him initially, but they became more comfortable with a male hygienist as he proved his competence.

He notes that, as more women enter dental school, more men are becoming dental hygienists and assistants. Rayman refers to the demographics at NYU to illustrate how old stereotypes are changing.

He said, "The world of dentistry is changing, and we all have to change with it. Many of the men who are coming to NYU didn't know that dental assisting was a female-dominated field. Some left when they realized it, but others stayed once they understood they would be treated fairly. Now out of 80 students, 20 are men."

Rayman lives in a neighborhood in Queens that is known as Little Guyana. He spends much of his prophy appointment time teaching patients about the importance of home care and brushing. Dental care is not widely available or emphasized in Guyana, so many of his patients do minimal brushing, if any, he said.

From seemingly disconnected parts, Salim Rayman has constructed a professional life that allows him to integrate and build upon his various life experiences and interests, turning them into a cohesive, productive whole. He has definitely achieved one of his goals — to practice traditional dental hygiene while expanding his options beyond the core role.

Judith E. Sulik, RDH, is a frequent contributor to RDH who is based in Bridgeport, Conn. She also is the author of An Adventure for Your Palate II: Coastal Connecticut Waterfront Dining with Chefs' Recipes. For more information about the book, contact her at Finely Finished Press, 60 Acton Road, Bridgeport, CT 06606.