Dental Hygienist changes career to pave the way for many others to follow
When San Joaquin Valley College started its first Dental Hygiene program on the Visalia campus 23-years ago, Brenda Serpa was there to help its launch and guide its evolution toward the stature it enjoys today. But becoming Program Director for such a program had never been part of her original career plan.
In 1997 Brenda had been a Dental Hygienist for a private practice for 5-years when she heard SJVC was starting a Dental Hygiene program in Visalia. “I wanted to be a teacher when I was younger but couldn’t picture myself teaching kids in elementary or high school. The thought of teaching college level classes never crossed my mind,” she remembers.
All that changed when she was invited to apply for a Dental Hygiene faculty position for 30 initial enrollees. Being part of the first Dental Hygiene (DH) program in Visalia was too exciting to refuse. “The new Health-Science building wasn’t even ready yet, so we held classes at the local Holiday Inn,” Brenda remembers. Fortunately, by the time hands-on experience in clinical studies rotated in, the laboratories and classrooms were ready for occupation.
Brenda felt the challenge of transferring her practical knowledge and expertise to those eager to develop their own chair-side skills. “We (faculty) were all pretty green when we started to teach. Telling someone how to move an instrument when you’re so used to it it’s like picking up a pencil; or how to set your wrist so you can hold and move your instrument properly, and where to put pressure, is not as easy as you might think. Doing it is one thing, passing that (technique) along to someone else is something else entirely.”
Those fond memories of a program start-up shape Brenda’s broad understanding of her current responsibilities and goals as the Visalia campus Dental Hygiene Program Director. “I supervise (DH) faculty, dentists and clinical operations, make sure that the clinic is meeting all the safety standards and ensure the program is compliant with our accreditation, CODA (Commission on Dental Accreditation) and the Dental Hygiene Board of California. Along with administrative duties I am still in the classroom and the clinic helping to prepare students for their Board exams.”
Recently Brenda was contracted to serve as a consultant for the Dental Hygiene Board of California to provide expert opinion on technical subject matter and professional standards. This is a prestigious invitation that reflects positively on SJVC and the Dental Hygiene program.
All of those consequential responsibilities fall under one primary goal: support the success of each and every student, as well as the staff and faculty who participate in their education experience. Every 8-months a new group of students takes their seats on the first day of a program that will change their lives, as it has for so many Dental Hygiene graduates over the years.
That is not always an easy commitment to fulfill. Many students have academic, employment, personal, family-related, health or time management problems that threaten their program success. “If a student is in our program and struggling, we’re on them,” says Brenda. “If they’re willing to put in the time and effort, we’re going to meet them there and dig in as deep as we can.” That extra effort might mean a faculty member meets with a student outside regularly scheduled class time for tutoring.
“We had a student who stood out because it took several explanations for her to grasp a concept,” says Brenda. “It was just harder for her. But she didn’t give up and we’re not going to give up on anyone.” The student was about to take the clinical exam she would have to pass to be licensed to practice in California. Her career and her future were on the line. “We created a mock exam for our students to demonstrate their skills and knowledge on an actual patient that is as close to the real exam as we can get it; and we grade them on the same criteria,” says Brenda. Successful performance in this exercise provides an important indicator of student competence and projects potential success on the exam.
It is also an exercise where a struggling student might find their understanding is stronger than they imagined. Whatever the result, tests can be anxiety producing. “She looked so nervous, but there were no errors on her patient,” says Brenda. “She had done an absolutely amazing job. She gasped when she realized that and, honestly, we cried together. She said to me, ‘I’ve come a long way, haven’t I, Mrs. Serpa?’ Sometimes all they need is the confidence.”
The rewards go both ways. “I am so privileged to be a part of just a touch of someone’s dream and get to share that with her,” says Brenda. “At that moment she (student) saw that she worked hard, and she succeeded.”
Sometimes challenges come in another form. “COVID-19 turned this year upside down,” says Brenda. “All teachers had to go to teaching online, and in the labs we have to have special social distancing, so we can’t have all students here (on campus) at the same time.” Safety practices are firmly in place.
Appropriate PPE (Personal Protective Equipment such as masks, gowns, face shields) are issued and a thorough screening process provides further protection from exposure to the virus. Increased air circulation and new air conditioning equipment treats the air with ultraviolet light that will kill any viruses. “We’re fortunate in Dental Hygiene that we already were on the edge of ultimate safety because we are working in people’s mouths and are exposed to body fluids and potential infectious pathogens,” says Brenda.
Such intense circumstances require constant vigilance and forethought. And exercising high levels of caution slows down each step of instruction and activity. “There have been many 12–14-hour days and few days off since March,” says Brenda. “I was trying to hire people in my sleep last night,” she laughs.
The challenges of the last several months have only underscored SJVC’s commitment to provide students in all SJVC Business, Medical and Technical programs with a safe environment in which they might continue to progress in their chosen fields.
Brenda only sees the upside to the career she never planned to choose. “I loved it in the beginning and I still love it,” she says. “It seems like the best of everything. I get to work with students. I get to work in the clinic with patients and still practice dental hygiene by teaching. I learned to become a teacher and continue to grow in my own education.”
Her goal is steadfast. “I think if I could see every student leave the (DH) program feeling confident in themselves and knowing that they can make a difference for others from what they’ve learned here – whether in their professionalism or dental hygiene skills – they are powerful.”
Her students have but to absorb and emulate the example in front of them every day.
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