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dental hygiene graduates

First Foothill Students to Earn Bachelor's Degrees Share Their Goals, Experiences

When she joined Foothill College’s first bachelor’s degree class in dental hygiene two years ago, Lydia Daniel’s thinking was “dental hygiene – get in and get out.” Now, the first-generation college student plans to work for a year before continuing her studies to earn a master’s degree and become a dental hygiene instructor.

Ruth Gardner knew exactly what she was looking for when she entered the dental hygiene baccalaureate program – a stable, high-wage career that offers lots of opportunity and the flexibility to accommodate the family she hopes to have one day.

For Jenny Nguyen, the Foothill dental hygiene program opened the door not only to a desirable career but to unexpected personal growth. Along the way she discovered her passion for community service, which has added a rewarding new dimension to her life.

These three are among the inaugural class of 23 students who will graduate June 29 with the first bachelor’s degrees awarded by Foothill College. Daniel, Gardner and Nguyen are about to begin their dental hygiene careers as the result of a ground-breaking pilot program launched after the state Legislature approved a bill in 2014 allowing 15 California community colleges to award bachelor’s degrees in technical career fields.

Daniel, 33, who has three children under the age of 5, said the dental hygiene program requires a lot of hard work and discipline, which for her meant missing many family events and outings so she would have enough time to study. “I had to put this first,” she said, “but ultimately all this is for them anyway. It’s making a small sacrifice for a larger reward at the end.”

Like many of her fellow students, Daniel said, “I didn’t realize how much I was capable of doing.  I never missed a day of school or turned in an assignment late, even though I could have come up with a lot of excuses. It made me so proud of myself!” A natural leader, Daniel served as class president and is one of two speakers at Foothill College’s commencement ceremony.

The students said that being part of a cohort program and learning in small classes helped them meet the challenges of a demanding program. Members of each entering class form a close bond and help pull each other through the rough spots.

Gardner, 26, was studying humanities and early childhood education before she took a hard look at how her career path stacked up with her personal goals. A fan of English and history classes, she switched gears and plunged into the sciences, following the footsteps of her mother and sister, both nurses.

She chose dental hygiene, she said, because it offered an affordable path to a good career that would support the life she desires. It has flexible hours and having a bachelor’s degree opens the door to more career possibilities in the future, she said, such as being a representative of a dental company. She said she also likes it that dental hygienists have autonomy to decide on patient treatments.

Gardner has volunteered in the Foothill College Medical/Dental Brigade and traveled overseas to Vietnam, Honduras and Panama delivering care in rural communities. She also was part of a team that carried out a research project on Parkinson’s disease and oral health, working with a support group at Stanford University. Her team’s project was one of the winning entries at the Foothill College Research & Service Leadership Symposium.

Nguyen, 25, never expected to become the first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree. In fact, she hadn’t expected to go to college at all before she and her mother and siblings immigrated to the Bay Area a decade ago. She said she loves the dental hygiene program because she loves learning about oral health and seeing the difference her work can make in people’s lives.

The program has helped make her a stronger person, Nguyen said. It helped her learn how to transcend shyness and cultural reserve to work as part of a team and interact with patients so she can make them feel comfortable. It also helped her become more independent. Although that is not a typical attribute for the youngest daughter in a traditional Vietnamese family, she said, her family is proud of her.

Vietnamese is Nguyen’s native language, which made studying particularly time-consuming. Mastering dental terminology was difficult. The going was slow, she said, but she eventually realized that she is a good learner. “I have seen how much I can do beyond my limitations,” she said. “It’s been super hard but I have passed through to graduate with honors.”

Being in the dental hygiene program also exposed Nguyen to community service and she discovered how much she enjoys being a volunteer, especially working with children and older adults. It is something she sees herself doing for the rest of her life.

Initially trained as a dental assistant, Nguyen already has lined up her first job as a registered dental hygienist. She’ll start as soon as she completes the licensing process after graduation.