U of A dental hygiene degree program graduates its first cohort

2020 marked a milestone for the Dental Hygiene program at the University of Alberta. The first cohort of students to complete the Bachelor of Science, Dental Hygiene degree program graduated in June 2020.

Jessalyn King - 07 August 2020

Curriculum redistribution

With students beginning in Fall 2017, the degree program replaced the Diploma of Dental Hygiene program (running since 1961). Dr. Sharon Compton, Professor and Associate Chair (Dental Hygiene) at the School of Dentistry, led the charge to get the program running. She says extending the program provided instructors with the ability to redistribute the learning so that the program was easier on student wellbeing and their learning experience.

Ayesha Haq, one of the first students who graduated with the new degree, experienced both curricula. She says, "It is an extensive course, but the way they've restructured it is somehow less hectic. There is less pressure to get everything done in two years. A fast-tracked university program can be overwhelming, but if you're having trouble, there's a support system in place."

Program expansion

Another reason for making the change to a degree program was to expand the skill set of graduates. Prescribing specific medications and performing atraumatic restorative treatment were added to the curriculum to match Alberta's broad scope of practice for hygienists. Dr. Ava Chow, Associate Professor and one of the faculty who helped launch the program, says, "Graduates of the Bachelor of Science, Dental Hygiene degree will have the most comprehensive scope of practice in the country."

Compton advocated for increased external learning opportunities to the curriculum, such as assisted living and long term care facilities, the Cross Cancer Institute, and the Edmonton Remand Centre. She says more experiences in the inner city and with the geriatric cohort, cancer patients, and other vulnerable groups prepare graduates to take their practice in multiple directions. "It's challenging, complex care and broadens their perspective and abilities."

Compton explains that with a degree, additional career and development opportunities arise beyond traditional private practice, such as working in community health, clinical teaching, sales or industry, and advancing their education with graduate studies.

Compton recently received an award for her service to education. In her commendation letter, Shirley Schipper, Vice-Dean, Education at the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, said, "[The new degree] has elevated the program nationally. A degree program not only provides a curriculum focused on oral and clinical science but emphasizes health promotion and prevention, research and community outreach."

A long road

As with any new program, there were hiccups for the first class. "Being the first class to do the bachelor of science program, our professors were already calling us the class of resiliency," says Kirsten Rodacker, another graduate of the class of 2020.

Jenika Kopala, who came to the program with a diploma in power engineering, says the opportunity to graduate with a degree was the main reason she chose the U of A for her education. "We are very proud first graduating students of the degree. We've had our challenges, but the faculty was always willing to listen and help us move forward."

Now that the first graduates have passed through the program, Compton and her team are completing ongoing course revisions to further distribute the learning across three years. They will also be working with the Doctor of Dental Surgery program, which has recently renewed their own curriculum, to enhance the learning between the dentistry and dental hygiene students.

Compton says, "Now that the first student cohort has graduated — and all scored above the national average on their national board exam, I might add! —I have mixed feelings. We've all worked so hard and for so many years, and it feels like we don't have closure because of COVID. I hope we can have a special celebration to mark this significant milestone in our program's history and to recognize the students' success once restrictions for group gatherings are fully removed."

Compton would like to thank the services provided by Organizational Development, Engagement & Health and the faculty and staff who worked hard to launch the curriculum: Minn Yoon, Ava Chow, Alexandra Sheppard, Sally Lockwood, Salima Thawer, Barbara Gitzel, Wendy Male, Arlynn Brodie, Nadia Kobagi, Rachelle Pratt, Kathy Ateyyat, Shelley Schindell and Meghan Rannells.