All smiles: Registered Dental Assistant Program marks 25 years; graduates enjoy success in high-demand field

MedinaFor Tarrant County College graduate Karen Medina, the need for considerable dental work during her childhood ended up changing the course of her life.
“That gave me a fascination with dentistry,” Medina said. “But I didn’t pursue dental hygiene when I got out of high school because my parents wanted me to get a bachelor’s degree, and I wasn’t confident enough to study pre-dentistry. So I picked another field.”
After college, Medina went to work for the federal government, first as a technical writer and later as a manager with the Census Bureau. However, she never lost her interest in dentistry—so when Medina and her husband retired and moved back to Texas, she decided it was time to turn that interest into a new career. Medina considered going into dental hygiene but felt dental assisting was a better choice for her. Dental hygiene requires a longer education, with hygienists responsible for more advanced and independent procedures. Dental assistants generally work alongside a dentist, prepare equipment and handle administrative work.
“When I investigated dental assistant training options, I learned that TCC has a strong, affordable program and that most graduates are able to find employment quickly,” Medina recalled. “I went to an orientation and was sold. So I immediately began the admissions process and was accepted into the next semester’s class.”
In spring 2013, Medina joined a long line of distinguished graduates from TCC’s Registered Dental Assistant (RDA) Program. Now marking its 25th anniversary, the RDA Program offers two sessions a year at Northeast Campus, with each class at capacity.
It is quite a turnaround. Originally, the Dental Assistant Program (as it was then known) was part of TCC’s college credit offerings. Due to low enrollments, TCC ended the program in 1986. The industry quickly felt the effects.
“Local dental practices were experiencing difficulty in finding trained dental assistants to hire,” explained Laurie Semple, the program coordinator. “The Fort Worth District Dental Society eventually turned to the College to address the issue by reinstating the program.”
TCC quickly responded. In 1990, the College began once again accepting students to the program, restructured to be part of noncredit Community & Industry Education Services. It had the support of area dental practices and professional organizations, and the College increased promotion at TCC and in the community. Six students were in the first class, and enrollment grew steadily from there.
Paula Medford was among the early graduates.
“I started thinking about dental assisting when I was looking at a career change from aviation,” Medford remarked. “I had a friend who was a dental assistant. She loved her job and highly recommended it, so I started researching training programs.”
Medford liked the fact that TCC is an accredited college instead of a trade school. “Plus, it was a fast-paced program. I would be able to graduate sooner and start my career,” she said.
During the intensive, 22-week course of study, students learn about dental anatomy, radiology, sterilization, laboratory procedures, preventive dentistry, nitrous oxide sedation, office management and more. After learning fundamentals in the classroom and lab, students practice their skills in actual work situations through a clinical externship. They also perform community service, including making dental health presentations and assisting dental hygiene students providing care to underserved children.
“TCC gave me the knowledge and hands-on training I needed to be confident working in any dental office,” said Medford. “The faculty helped me with job placement as well.”
Medford graduated from TCC in spring 1992. She worked in general dentistry, pediatric and orthodontic offices as a dental assistant. After several years, she found a new area of interest: dental sales.
“I always liked the sales reps coming into the office and sharing new products,” Medford remembered. “They were always there to help.”
Medford transitioned to a sales position with Becker-Parkin Dental, then spent 14 years with Patterson Dental. Two years ago, Henry Schein Dental recruited her. Medford visits offices across the Metroplex, informing dental professionals about the latest equipment and supplies that will help them care for their patients’ teeth. Among her customers: TCC’s RDA Program.
“I have watched it evolve into one of the best programs around,” reflected Medford, who is a member of the College’s RDA advisory board. “TCC has top-notch faculty and training and no doubt turns out the best dental assistants in North Texas.”
The program—renamed the Registered Dental Assistant Program in 2004 to reflect the registration requirement of the Texas State Board of Dental Examiners—is indeed one of TCC’s pride points. It has produced approximately 1,000 graduates over the past quarter century, meeting the needs of the local industry. The demand for dental assistants will continue; the Texas Workforce Commission projects 29 percent growth in the Tarrant County labor market from 2012 to 2022, outpacing the average for all occupations.
“Our students are very attractive candidates for employment,” said Semple, the program coordinator. “They not only graduate with their Texas State Board of Dental Examiners Registration and Nitrous Oxide Monitoring certificates, but they also have those credentials prior to starting their clinical externship.”
The RDA Program has developed partnerships with more than 60 Tarrant County dental practices for student externships. Dentists trust TCC, according to Dr. Ron Lee, a dentist who practices in Colleyville. A number of students have earned their clinical experience in Lee’s office, and each semester he works with students on campus to evaluate them in chairside and administrative scenarios.
“TCC does a great job of preparing the students,” said Lee. “There is a lot to learn in a short amount of time, and the College runs a rigorous program. As a dentist, you know an assistant from TCC is fully committed. I wouldn’t hesitate to hire a graduate of the program. I can’t say enough about how well run it is. The faculty members are terrific.”
The faculty now includes Karen Medina, the former federal government employee who never lost her passion for dentistry. Medina joined the RDA Program as an instructional assistant after graduation; one semester later, the College hired her as an adjunct instructor.
“My bachelor’s degree was in education, and I’ve always wanted to be an educator. This lets me work in dentistry and teach,” said Medina, who also volunteers as a dental assistant at a community clinic in Fort Worth.
Semple says the success of the RDA Program can be attributed to the fact that its graduates are well rounded and exceed the expectations of the industry.
“TCC’s Registered Dental Assistant Program is a wonderful tribute to what can be developed with educational, professional and community partnerships,” noted Semple. “It’s now time to look toward the next 25 years—and we’re off and running.”
In addition to the general RDA training curriculum, TCC offers professional development courses for practicing dental assistants. Learn more about the RDA Program, including admissions information, on the Community & Industry Education webpage.
View photos from the program’s 25th anniversary celebration on Flickr.
The Registered Dental Assistant feature is the latest in a year-long series celebrating TCC’s 50th anniversary through the lives of its students. Follow the links below to enjoy previous features:
Kevin Henry, Rachelle Wanser, Stephanie Davenport,  Lee Graham, Sammie Sheppard, Sultan Karriem, and Erin Casey.
Medina in sealant professional development class.