Divorced mom went from having no career direction to a hi-level Dental Assistant position
Rebecca Van Tassel did not have a specific career plan when she walked onto SJVC’s Bakersfield campus. All she knew was that as a divorced 37-year-old, she was tired of waitressing and delivering pizza. Over the years she had taken a few General Education classes at community college in between giving birth to five children; and now she was ready to commit to career education and training.
“I didn’t really have any kind of direction, but I knew I wanted a career that would be fast so I could start work as soon as possible after graduation,” she said.
During Rebecca’s meeting with an SJVC Admissions Advisor they discussed many career options. The Dental Assisting (DA) program sounded interesting, so Rebecca met with faculty members Mrs. Christy and Mrs. Vasquez.
“Those ladies are actually why I signed up that day,” says Rebecca. “They were single moms who went through the DA program, as well, and have created wonderful lives for themselves and their children. They were strong role models.”
She made up her mind on-the-spot. “The Dental Assisting program sounded like something I’d like to do, and it fit my work schedule.” Her kids Hannah (17), Lilly (15), Gabriel (9) and Roman (6) were part of the support team. Grief for the loss of her daughter, Hailey who was fifteen years old at the time of her passing, pressed on Rebecca’s heart even as it pushed her forward.
How did you handle the stress of going back to college?
There were times I definitely felt overwhelmed. At about that time the pandemic was real bad and everything had to shut down (transition to distance learning). The kids were home schooled, and we had to encourage each other as a family. They knew the goal was for me to get a career so that we could have health insurance and a better life for them. It was the first time I could see myself having a real career and being able to provide for my kids and myself. I kept telling myself, “Just get through today and I’ll worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.”
Did you have a routine that helped you balance school, work and home life?
I would work until 2:00 AM and then be at school at 7:00 AM. It was hard work, but every single day added up. I tried not to think about the big picture, just what I could do to finish my day strong. My kids were my greatest motivation.
What kind of support did you get from SJVC staff and faculty?
The teachers were always there even when we couldn’t come to class because of the pandemic. And, coming from an abusive relationship, I had no self-confidence. They told me, “We will help you; you’ll never feel lost.” I felt very encouraged and I knew that they had my back.
What was it like when you were able to get back to the classroom?
Everyone was excited to see you every day. They (staff and faculty) really knew who you were and what was going on in our life. They cared, and it mattered. If someone took a leave-of-absence, teachers fought to keep them motivated and in our program. They made sure if someone took a LOA they came back.
What were some of your favorite moments in the Dental Assisting program?
During Dental Assisting Appreciation Week, I was so touched that the teachers put so much effort into it for new students. They threw one heck of a party.
In the beginning of my program, I couldn’t think about a whole year, so I just broke it down into a list that got shorter and shorter. I was so focused on one-day-at-a-time that it kind of snuck up on me that I’d actually finished my classes.
What inspired you to chip away at that list no matter how hard things might have gotten?
The kids, for sure, are my inspiration. I feel like my daughters are seeing a better version of me. They’re teenagers and used to seeing the battered-down me. I didn’t want them to see that anymore. Now they see somebody who has accomplished something and who has stood up for what I really believe in. And I stood up for them and the idea that they could do anything too.
Would you encourage others through your own example, words and experience to make the sacrifices needed to go back to school to achieve their career goals?
I’m very happy to tell my story. SJVC really changed my life and the lives of my children. If I could shout from the rooftops how awesome the school is, I would!
At the end of your DA program, you get to practice hands-on skills at an extern site. What was that like?
In addition to everything else that goes on when you have been abused, I have a lot of anxiety. That first day I was so nervous that I sat outside and threw up before going in. I wanted to be super dedicated in hopes they would hire me at the end of the program.
How did that on-the-job experience turn out for you?
Because of the pandemic many dental offices didn’t have any openings, and this dental office only had openings in Reno (NV). I had to quit my job and commute back and forth for a couple of months, while my kids stayed with their father. After about a month I realized that they were definitely going to hire me. I had a lot of emotional baggage there in Bakersfield, so I was ready to have a new start.
What is it like to be a Dental Assistant in a professional dental office?
I started with Pacific Dental Services last September and am now with their specialty group’s Endodontics team. I get to do so much! In general dentistry I’m responsible for taking x-rays, general cleaning, taking vitals, updating records and keeping doctors’ notes. I’m learning how to make crowns on a milling machine – put porcelain blocks in and bake it for permanent crowns. I assist in root canals and use top-of-the-line equipment. I’m also a traveling assistant to the doctor, who specializes in endodontics.
Are you surprised at the success you have found as a Dental Assistant?
I never thought teeth were interesting; but it turns out they’re very interesting. I personally love the dental field. There is great opportunity for growth in my field; but, honestly, any field you go through at SJVC is like that. It isn’t just my program.
At first, it was the teachers’ confidence they had in me. I felt I was too timid, too dumb to learn. If you’d told me I would finish Dental Assisting school with a 4.0 (GPA) and perfect attendance and then work chairside with an endodontist in Reno, I never would have believed it. And now I’m part of a team that operates a specialty department. It’s pretty crazy.
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