Training Alaska's Best: Dental Assisting Program Delivers

by Jordana Newman  |   

Students and employers alike say UAA's dental assisting program is a key to great job placement rates—and excellent patient care.

Being born and raised in Alaska, dental assisting student Leah Emery knew it was important to stay in state for the higher education she needed to pursue a high-demand career.

“I didn’t want to go out of state for college. I saw this as a learning opportunity to stay in a place I know and love,” said Emery, who was accepted to the dental assisting program in fall 2020 when precautions for COVID-19 were still in place. “Our class was a little different than previous classes due to COVID, so we had to adjust. But luckily, we had more one-on-one time being a smaller group, so we progressed faster.” 

Leah Emery, a UAA dental assisting student.Progressing in the dental field is one of many reasons Emery chose to apply to the UAA dental assisting program. It is the only publicly available accredited dental assisting program in the state and an undergraduate certificate degree can be completed in less than a year. This makes it highly desirable to students who are ready to launch their health care careers in a shorter period of time while accumulating college credits.

“This program provides the basics—and once you have the basics, you can receive more certifications like anesthesia, so you can build onto this program,” Emery said. “There are a lot of opportunities. You can be an orthodontist assistant, you can be a surgical assistant, you can work in general dentistry, you can be a pediatric assistant—there are so many specialties you can go into. A dental assistant has a variety of options.”

With the wide range of options dental assistants can choose from, it’s no surprise there is a large need for trained dental assistants in Alaska. “I have had to train on-the-job for several of my assistants because of the difficulty I have had in finding trained, quality dental assistants,” said Anchorage dentist Dr. Ben Mishler, owner of Peak Health Dentistry. “I definitely prefer hiring assistants that have been formally trained, at least with the program at UAA.”

This high demand means dental assisting students usually have a job lined up once they complete the program. Molly Copple, who completed the UAA dental assisting program in 2017, impressed many dentists with the real-world experience and strong work ethic she gained in the program. Molly Copple, a UAA dental assisting alumna.“After I completed the program, I did partake in an externship with a couple of dental practices and I was offered a job in all offices,” Copple said. “I do believe that everyone who has gone through this program has been offered dental assisting positions and it is well known around Alaska for how successful this program is.”

Although Emery won’t graduate until Summer 2021, she has already been offered jobs thanks to the knowledge she has achieved in the program. She has also found that recent changes to the program have given students more flexibility, such as distance delivery courses and the option for full-time or part-time enrollment. “I like what they’re doing with the online courses right now. I live in the valley so I have to commute—so it’s really nice they’re allowing us to take certain classes online,” she said.

Emery said she isn’t ready for her time in the program to be over after meeting so many wonderful people. “The faculty make the program so fun. They make you want to do more and learn more and they’re just awesome. It makes me sad it’s coming to an end,” she said. But she reminds herself she will always have lifelong relationships from being in the program. “We made good friends and had a really good experience. It’s like a community.”

Learn more about UAA's dental assisting program here.