Reaching the top: reflections on the importance of education in the dental field.
Subject: Professional development (Methods)
Dentistry (Study and teaching)
Dentistry (Personal narratives)
Author: Domingue, Tracey A.
Pub Date: 05/01/2012
Publication: Name: The Dental Assistant Publisher: American Dental Assistants Association Audience: Academic; Trade Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Science and technology Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 American Dental Assistants Association ISSN: 1088-3886
Issue: Date: May-June, 2012 Source Volume: 81 Source Issue: 3
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 303073601
Full Text: Today, in the Air Force the dental profession can open the door to a fulfilling, rewarding and professional career. If you are thinking about a career in dental assisting or you are already working in this field, there are many opportunities to expand or branch out and really make a difference.

I never considered the dental field when deciding what to do with my life; it kind of fell into my lap, so to speak. I started working in the medical field as a chiropractic assistant when I was 16. When my husband and I married, we moved away and I started working for an orthodontist as the front desk attendant. This is where it all started. After a year of working for the orthodontist, I decided to join the military. My first two job choices were medical technician and dental assistant. Soon I learned I had been selected for the dental assisting career field. I would report to Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas to begin my training.

I worked as a dental assistant for 14 years; I started out as a new airman working in the general dentistry section. My hard work was recognized when I was selected for promotion to senior airman (E-4) Below the Zone six months earlier than originally projected. Next, I was selected to assist in the Advanced Education in general dentistry residency program where I worked for the next year. This increased my interest in dentistry, so I asked to work in the oral surgery department, where I was assigned for eight years. During that time, I continued to advance and was selected for promotion to Staff Sergeant (E-5) and later to Technical Sergeant (E-6).

My desire was to become a nurse practitioner; I was taking classes to reach this goal, utilizing tuition assistance offered by the Air Force, which was paying for 75 percent of my schooling at that time. I was one year from completing all of the courses required to apply for nursing school, when the Air Force began offering the Dental Hygiene Training Scholarship Program.

This scholarship offers a two year associate degree program. Dental assistants who have completed all the prerequisites, maintain professional standards and have a record of outstanding performance are eligible to apply. This is a very selective program and only accepts 10 qualified Air Force candidates annually. With encouragement from my leadership, fellow hygienists and dentists, I applied. I learned I was selected as an alternate; however a few months later, I was notified that one of the candidates had dropped out, and I was now filling their slot. I had one month to get things together and move to St. Petersburg, Florida, to attend St. Petersburg College, one of the two schools the Air Force partnered with for this program.

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The school was very intense. Even though I already had 14 years of experience working in the dental field, they started at ground level. I thought I knew how to "clean" teeth, which we learned quickly, was not the proper terminology to use when referring to our profession. There was so much I didn't know and I had so much to learn. Though the program was challenging, it was also a lot of fun. We worked hard and we played hard. I was so proud of myself when I walked across that stage and received my diploma. I was now a dental hygienist.

After graduation, I received an assignment to Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma. I arrived and immediately took over as the Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of Preventive Dentistry. Shortly thereafter, I was sent to the preventive dentistry course in San Antonio, Texas. While there I was partnered with periodontists, fellow hygienists and dentists. We discussed our clinics' practices and brainstormed ideas to improve them. It was a great experience and I brought newfound knowledge back to my clinic, but I didn't stop there.

St. Petersburg College offered one of the first on-line baccalaureate programs in dental hygiene, and now the Air Force was paying 100 percent of my tuition. Less than one year after graduation, I had enrolled back in St. Petersburg College for 18 more months of school. Working full-time in the Air Force and raising two children made it difficult, but all the more rewarding when I completed my bachelor's degree. Along with this degree, came another associates degree, and I was also selected for promotion to Master Sergeant (E-7).

The feeling of accomplishment was so addicting, I began looking into other avenues to broaden my horizons. I loved practicing dental hygiene, held two state licensures, and volunteered for community pro-bono work. I still felt that I needed to incorporate more into my career. I began researching master's degree programs in Public Health/Epidemiology. I decided on one from Kaplan University, which was another 18 month on-line program. After recently completing one 18 month online program, I had no doubt that I could tackle this too. I am now three classes from completion and will graduate this September.

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Along the way, I found it is very important to be a part of a professional organization that supports your career, such as the ADA, ADAA or ADHA. They fight for your profession and lobby for you in congress, but they need support from their member's to keep the organization going strong. As a student, the ADHA offered us a discounted membership, giving us a preview of what to expect of our future careers as hygienists. It also demonstrated what role their organization plays in our profession. We even had one of our fellow classmates lobby at the annual meeting in Orlando. She brought back information and passed her experience on to the class. Unfortunately, many of us allowed our memberships to lapse, including me. I reassessed how important it was to continue my membership and recently had it renewed. I will continue to be an advocate and encourage others to do the same.

Even though this is a small snapshot of my Air Force career, I hope I have helped at least one person understand the importance of expanding their education. Whether you enjoy working as a dental assistant, aspire to become a hygienist or even a dentist, go for it. You can do anything if you set your mind to it.

Master Sergeant Tracey A. Domingue is a Dental Hygienist assigned to the 72d Dental Squadron, Tinker AFB, OK. She is the Noncommissioned officer in charge of preventive dentistry. Sergeant Domingue is from Troy, IL, and is married with two children. Her career in the Air Force began as a dental assistant in 1992. She was selected for the Air Force Dental Hygiene Scholarship Program and attended St. Petersburg College, St. Petersburg, Florida. Sergeant Domingue graduated in May of 2007 with an Associate in Applied Science and was awarded her Registered Dental Hygienist (RDH) status upon completion of her written and clinical board examinations. She currently holds a license in the state of Florida and Oklahoma.
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