Everyone was transfixed on the computer monitor as Danielle Bruner gave a tour of the mouth.
Using a specialized camera embedded in a foot-long white wand — with one of her students as her patient — the dental hygiene clinical coordinator for Central Carolina Community College (CCCC) circled through the mouth and around teeth, stopping now and then to point out oral anatomy and even a tiny piece of lettuce left over from lunch.
Along the journey, Bruner answered plenty of questions. She talked about what she would tell her patient based on what she was seeing. She gave her perspective about what it’s really like to work as a dental hygienist. There were plenty of stories along the way, too; some were funny and others, well, let’s just say they were not for the squeamish.
This hour-long session on intraoral photography was part of the North Carolina college’s Prep for Success Academy, a four-day summer initiative designed to introduce prospective students to careers in dental assisting and dental hygiene — especially students representing various minority groups who are sorely needed in dental professions.
A pathway to success
All of the students packed around the dental chair for the intraoral photography introduction are current CCCC students selected through an application process, complete with an essay and letter of recommendation. Once admitted, they get to participate all week in free workshops on a broad range of dental topics, techniques to become more successful in college and how best to navigate CCCC’s competitive application process for dental programs.
Think of Prep for Success Academy as a mix of dental education, academic counseling and college recruiting.
Amy Gustavson, who delivered a one-hour session the previous day on time management and self-advocacy, said many of the participants are first-generation college students trying to navigate a highly competitive academic program. More than 100 students applied for 18 seats in CCCC’s dental hygiene program last year, she said, and were selected based on a points system that rewards academic preparation and tangible activities demonstrating that students are serious about enrolling in college dental programs. By understanding the intricacies of the process, they can maximize their chance of admission.
A sense of community
But it’s not just about exploring dental professions and gaining admission. As its name suggests, Prep for Success also helps students build a sense of community with each other and make connections with college faculty and staff that will help them succeed on campus.
Linette Hernandez Rodriguez is entering her second year at CCCC and applied to Prep for Success after receiving an invitation by email — a message sounding so good that she almost dismissed the opportunity as some sort of scam. Though she’s just halfway through the four days, Hernandez Rodriguez said the experience has already intensified her interest in dental hygiene. She’s now focused on finishing one prerequisite class, continuing to build that all-important network for success and refining her application to submit in March.
In the back of her mind, she’s playing with the idea of eventually becoming an orthodontist. Right now, though, she’s focused entirely on preparing to work as a dental hygienist.
Confirming her choice
LeeAnn Lilly had already applied to study dental assisting and enrolled in Prep for Success after someone in the dental school called to see if it’s something she’d like to try. The answer was a resounding yes. From the time she had a good experience with braces as a child, she thought this might be something she’d enjoy as a career. It matched her interests and her personality. Plus, as she puts it, “The whole mouth-thing never bothered me.” But this was a chance to see for sure.
For Lilly, the experience was captivating from the start. Going into the week, she expected to be fascinated by the “ins and outs” of dentistry. What she didn’t anticipate was loving all of the dental instructors and students who have given their time to come through the classroom, get to know the participants and then share real encouragement and insight.
“It’s definitely given me more interest,” she said, “and a drive to do better.”
Planning for next year
TRiO Student Support Services Director Jessica Rogers, who organized Prep for Success Academy, said this is the first time it has been offered, but won’t be the last. Already, plans are underway to offer this introduction to dental professions again next year — with the same hands-on labs, higher-education workshops and success coaching.
On the other hand, there could be even more to offer next year: insight from any incoming dental students who got inspired by what happened during this week. Because these students are already seeing themselves as part of a community.
After the intraoral photography clinic and just before the day ended, Bruner gathered students together in a circle. They went around, one by one, each student saying something she was thankful for. And then they put their hands into the center and counted, “One. Two Three. Go team!”