College of Dentistry creates new training program

The University of Illinois Chicago College of Dentistry has created a new training program, the Dental Assistant Pathway Program, with not only the goal of alleviating the national dental assistant shortage, but also being an employment pathway for those who may never have considered a career in dentistry — including those who did not go to college and the underemployed — into the profession at no cost.

The college had previously required dental assistants it hired to have some dental assisting experience, gained either through a junior college or work in a dental office, “which made it a lot more difficult to find people,” said Dr. Susan Rowan, interim dean of the college.

Rowan and Letty Sanchez, director of human resources operations at the college, worked with the university “to create a situation where an individual who had a high school diploma or an equivalency, even without any dental training at all, would have the potential to be hired at the college,” as a Dental Assistant I, Rowan said.

They tapped the expertise of Dr. Robert Bara, clinical assistant professor, and a number of College of Dentistry dental assistants, to create a training program for new hires with no prior dental assisting experience, and Rowan named Bara director of auxiliary programs.

The college also was successful in obtaining a grant for three years from the Otho S.A. Sprague Memorial institute to train 12 new dental assistants each year. The nonprofit, established by Chicago business leader Otho S.A. Sprague in 1911, is mandated to pursue “the investigation of the cause of disease and the prevention and relief of human suffering in the City of Chicago, County of Cook, State of Illinois.”

The Sprague-funded Dental Assistant Pathway Program goes beyond training dental assistants to work at the college.

“It will give opportunities to folks in the community to learn about health care in general, and what we do so well at UI Health in particular,” Bara said. “It is a pathway for progress, a pathway for potential, and a pathway for people — a pathway to self-advancement in health care. It is an opportunity for folks who may not be sure what they want to do with their lives or who have no idea about careers in dental care and health care to get a foothold on a path to really advance.”

Bara and a committee “developed a 14-week program for individuals as a work-study program, so they are working at the college while they are having educational sessions to be able to learn the hands-on part of dental assisting,” Rowan said. “They are given reading materials and a computer to do online modules.”

“Dental assistant training program tuition ranges from $3,000 to $18,000, but thanks to the Sprague grant, the participants get their tuition free,” Sanchez said. “On top of that, they will be paid $17.04 per hour to work here as dental assistants. All they need is a high school diploma or General Equivalency Degree to apply.”

Rowan agreed, noting “Dental assisting programs can be costly, so individuals often have to work and take them part time. We are offering people the opportunity to be employed day one, earning money without paying tuition.”

The college pays for the participants’ books, gives them time during the workday for lessons, and pays all exam fees.

After completion of the 14-week course, participants can seek a National Entry Level Dental Assisting Certificate, and the college through the Sprague grant will pay all related fees.

“Some people aren’t ready to enter college after high school but are ready to enter the workforce,” Sanchez explained. “Some people like hands-on learning better than classroom learning. This program is for them.”

There are many career opportunities within the college, Sanchez noted.

“If they start as a dental assistant and they love it, they can continue on and progress,” she said. “Or they might be interested in learning the business side, such as billing, or the academic side of dentistry, or student support services. So this program gives them an opportunity for career progression. They might have had this natural aptitude for working in health care but they never otherwise would have had the opportunity to explore it. By exposing individuals to higher education, it gives them the opportunity to know that more is possible for themselves or their families. We’re helping create progress in communities through the Pathway Program.

“The potential is unlimited,” Sanchez continued. “Participants decide how far they want to go, and we give them the tools and remove the barriers. Some graduates will go on to work within various underrepresented and underserved communities, breaking down barriers to members of those communities receiving dental care.”

“We’re literally seeking out individuals searching for a career,” Rowan noted. “We are working with Chicago Public Schools programs to provide information to individuals graduating from high school, but not quite sure what direction they want to go, that they might see this as an opportunity. We are working with other local community partners to identify individuals who could be served by this program. The Sprague Institute recognized what a valuable contribution this could be to employment opportunities.”

Sanchez noted that she and Bara have met with the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services about the program, and that department will share news of the program with its own community partners.

“Through a commitment to diversity and inclusivity, we’re providing an opportunity for everybody,” Bara said.

The Pathway Program, therefore, is “going to give opportunity for people who are unemployed or underemployed to have a career in dentistry — and will have a snowball effect, too,” Rowan said. “Somebody may enjoy dental assisting so much that they may want to go further to dental hygiene or even considering a dental degree.”

“The Pathway Program gives us the opportunity to develop people who are committed to the college’s mission, which is Better Oral Health Through Transformative Innovation,” Bara said. “We developed this program for nothing less than the transformation of lives.”

To apply for the program, interested individuals should go to and apply for Dental Assistant Pathway Program.

More information on the Sprague Institute.

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