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Bonita & Estero Magazine

Brightening Smiles - Aspiring Students Find Their Paths To Successful Dental Careers at Florida SouthWestern State

The education energy crackles at a specialty medical program at Florida SouthWestern State College’s Fort Myers campus. Here students not only learn how to become dental hygienists in an intense two-year program, but they learn the importance of sharing what they know about dental health with people of all ages in the community. Students are taught to become teachers, following in the footsteps of full-fledged doctors.

Led by the example of the dental program’s founders and current staff, the students start giving back to the community early by going into elementary schools with free toothbrushes and talking about on the importance of brushing, flossing and eating healthy foods. They also visit skilled nursing centers to teach residents and staff about good dental and diet habits, as well as help with major public health fairs such as Give Kids A Smile Day. At the fully equipped clinic on campus, you can find the students three days a week providing exams, cleanings and other basics for public patients.

Thus the education goes full circle, as preached as well as practiced by Dr. Bill Truax, a retired Fort Myers dentist who helped found the FSW program—leading to an associate of science degree and perhaps advanced courses of professional study—in 1994 when the closest classes were in Miami and St. Petersburg. He now runs and works at a free dental clinic, aptly named Project Dentists Care, in Fort Myers at 2051 MacGregor Blvd.

Truax, who volunteered at a dental fair serving nearly 2,000 people at Harbourside Convention Center in March, is proud of the “make a difference” tradition and the fact that FSW dental grads can earn up to $60,000 a year straight out of school.

That payoff helps show why the degree completion rate is so high—92 percent—and why around 100 FSW students, after passing courses in basic sciences, compete for the 18 slots that come open each year, says program director Karen Molumby, a trained hygienist who heads a staff of three dentists and six others from her specialty. Her own career started with an associate degree from a technical college in Milwaukee.

The sense of mission among staff is evidenced by Dr. Marcia Timson: “Our students are all smart people. They are all going to be really successful. If we can help them get somewhere, that’s great.”

For those who may be wondering about the staffers at their own dentist’s office, the men and women who painstakingly clean and polish your teeth are required by law to be dental hygienists—and to earn that certification they need the kind of training that the FSW team provides.

The FSW students offer a wide variety of reasons for choosing their field. Some are guided by a basic desire to help people get and stay healthy, and ease or prevent pain. Others enjoy working in medicine, but are not cut out for the rigors of a four-year degree plus medical school, and life-and-death treatment pressures.

For some, the road to the dental program started years ago but was interrupted by life; for another, inspiration came from a brother who chose another traditionally woman-dominated field, nursing.

Students hone their skills in FSW’s own clinic, which offers public appointments on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday for fees of $30 for children and $40 for adults, which includes cleanings, X-rays and pictures, and fluoride and sealing to prevent decay and cavities.

Students, always supervised by staff, start by working on one patient per day and work their way up to eight to simulate real-world work, which for them is just around the corner. They work in 16 treatment rooms or operatories that look and are equipped like those in any modern dental office.

The Annual Give Kids A Smile Day event; FSW dental hygiene students work on patients attending the event.

Some patients are family members. On a single afternoon in March, one sophomore was working on her grandfather while another worked on her dad. Yet another student worked on a patient who had been coming to the clinic for 14 years. Mark Cangelosi says he has gum disease that requires thorough dental cleanings that would otherwise pose an astronomical expense. “I always get good care,” he says. “I have never come across a bad student.”

Molumby says clinic students also dispense advice. They caution against high-sugar sports drinks popular with construction workers to stay hydrated; they remind patients that smoking is bad for teeth and gums; and they suggest sugarless candies to ward off dry mouth from high blood pressure prescriptions.

Per year, the clinic treats nearly 3,000 adults and 300 youngsters from across Southwest Florida, Molumby points out. To handle that demand, students are required to log 945 hours in the clinic and 180 in laboratories en route to earning the 88 credits—54 of which are dental-related—to graduate.

Many people may not know about FSW’s role in our region’s health care industry, which is a leader in workforce demand. The dental program is just one of many such specialized programs.

Students can look to FSW for degrees or certification to become: frontline emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics, cardiovascular technicians, nurses, physical therapy assistants, radiology technicians, respiratory aides, medical billing staff and many more professions. 

The word “community” may be gone from the name of the college once known as Edison Community College. But the community, on and off campus, comes together in very educational and sustainable ways through FSW’s dental hygiene program—with smiles all around.

Jeff Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host from the Naples Daily News. He now lives in Bonita Springs.