I am one of the thousands of dental hygiene graduates of 2020. Since the world turned upside-down in mid-March, graduates have faced many unexpected challenges including cancelled board exams, multiple reschedulings of those board exams, delayed graduation dates, online classes, seemingly endless delays as state dental boards and legislatures adjust licensure requirements, and back-logging of licensure paperwork.
Now, as the first wave of 2020 dental hygiene grads approach future employers, many are feeling uneasy. The dramatic image that comes to mind for me is one where I’m screaming, “Incoming!” while strapped into a rocket as it plummets out of the sky. I feel as if I am careening out of control, hoping that my landing into the workforce won’t be too messy, and that the people around me will be kind and loving as I stumble my way into the operatory and get to work.
My hope is that this article will help current dental professionals understand some of the concerns and insecurities that many 2020 graduates are facing. I also expect that this article will help build a sense of solidarity among recent graduates. The emotions that I’ll share here are my own, but they’re common among my classmates. The details of events are also specific to me, but are likely similar to the experiences of hundreds of others as we await the day when we will be able to work as hygienists.
The timing of when we will receive our license is out of our hands. I have completed all initial paperwork, paid all fees, and even drove five hours round-trip to be fingerprinted for my background check. However due to delays at the licensing agency in my state, my paperwork has not been processed yet and the agency is awaiting official paperwork from the state board of dentistry for updates on specific adjustments they are making this year due to the pandemic. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult to answer employers when they ask, “When will you have your license?” Employers need to know this information to schedule employees and patients, so it creates a difficult situation for everyone. Lack of an accurate timeline can definitely be a sore spot for both parties, so it’s important for everyone to strive for open, honest communication.
Several states have agreed to change the requirements for which board exams need to be taken and what the format should be. Many graduates are fearful that experienced hygienists and dentists are going to ridicule them for not having to take a certain board exam. When the discussion about waiving clinical board exams for the class of 2020 began in the spring, many students were surprised by how passionately many established hygienists felt about the necessity of the exam. Overall, students have been forced to wait while discussions have taken place between legislators, state dentistry board members, professors, and accrediting bodies. Ultimately, the decision to waive or change certain examinations was not up to students, but was mandated by those with authority over the matter. Contempt toward recent graduates in this regard will only cause contention.
“It’s been a while.”
It’s hard to admit, but it has been a while since I sat in the swivel chair with my mirror and instruments. Our clinic came to a screeching halt in mid-March, and my cohort thankfully had enough hours to graduate without having to come back for another semester. Some recent graduates feel sheepish when asked how long it has been since they have treated a patient. Whatever the motivation behind the question, it leaves the interviewee feeling uneasy. Recent graduates should prepare an answer for that question and respond with confidence in their education, training, and muscle memory.
In addition to the concerns outlined above, there are also the usual nerves associated with starting a new job. These include insecurities about fitting in with coworkers, learning unfamiliar software, keeping up with the rigor of shorter appointments, and "flying solo" without professors to double-check work. Fortunately, I have a position lined up at an office where I know several of my coworkers. They are kind and patient. This gives me courage as I prepare to start as a hygienist. I trust that they will be encouraging when I have hard days and lovingly teach me when I make mistakes.
While there are reasons to be concerned and feel insecure while awaiting licensure and first-ever hygiene jobs, members of the dental hygiene class of 2020 have reason to keep their chins up. They endured finishing school during a pandemic; have patiently (and sometimes impatiently) awaited delayed exams, graduations, and licensures; and are full of enthusiasm. As a 2020 graduate, I can hardly wait to get back to what I love doing. I am excited to learn from experienced coworkers, to help patients understand their role in keeping their mouths and bodies healthy, and to start making money! I’m sure that many of the 2020 graduating class would agree that although we are nervous, we are thrilled to soon be back at it.
Watch out, dental hygiene world! The class of 2020 is “Incoming!”