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Grad profile: Jennifer Johnson DDH'21

Posted by Cheryl Bell on March 30, 2022 in News
Photos by Nick Pearce

Jennifer Johnson maintains that repairing excavators and rock trucks and working as a dental hygienist are not as different as one might initially think. She should know: she was a heavy equipment technician apprentice before deciding to study dental hygiene at Dalhousie.

“There are actually a lot of transferrable skills,” she says, “like problem-solving, hands-on working, and operating in tight quarters.” Jennifer admits that heavy equipment maintenance provided her with a good job at Toromont Cat in Dartmouth and it was the beginning of a promising career. But. . .there was a “missing puzzle piece”.

The moment of truth
Originally from New Glasgow, Jennifer went to NSCC Pictou to study for a diploma in heavy duty transport repair. “I wasn’t exactly sure what to do when left high school, but I knew I wanted to do something hands-on and educationally challenging. And there was a lot of problem solving with that career.”

The moment of truth came when Jennifer asked herself what was missing. And the answer was working with people and enjoying relationships with them.

The health professions, and specifically dental hygiene, had appealed to her for some time. “I feel that dental hygiene is a field where there is an opportunity for growth and expansion. I think the career is developing and going through a transformation at this moment.”

With her eye on the goal, Jennifer set about achieving it. “Believe it or not,” she says, “Dalhousie does not take any transfer credits from the technician program I was in previously. Apparently, there is no ‘Fixing big machines 101’ or anything like that offered at Dal.”

Although Jennifer jokes about the position she found herself in when she decided to pursue dental hygiene as a new career, “starting from the bottom again” was not easy. She attended Dal in the 2018-19 academic year to take all the prerequisites she needed to be able to study dental hygiene. She focused on the sciences, adding in two terms of Greek mythology to fulfil the language requirements.

What did I do?
“At the end of my first week at Dal, I was thinking ‘What did I do? I left a very good job. I left a very good career’”. But she quickly realized she had made the right choice.

In the autumn of 2019, Jennifer’s dental hygiene studies began in earnest. First semester gave her the “typical dental hygiene experience of sim lab and looking forward to patient care”. So far, so normal. But in March 2020, however, everything came to a “dead stop”, at least initially. COVID-19 had arrived.

“We all thought the pandemic would affect us for a couple of weeks,” says Jennifer, “but we know how that turned out.” She appreciates how difficult it was for the professors who had to “adapt and pivot so many times” over the past year. And while online learning presented challenges, it had some bonuses as well, she says.

Typically, Jennifer would commute into the Dentistry Building from her home in East Hants each day.  “Normally, we had to be in the building from 8:00 am until around 5:00. So I enjoyed the new flexibility that online learning offered.”

She believes that the new arrangements encouraged students to stay accountable for their own learning. “I found that if I had a question, I had to take the next step of setting up a meeting instead of simply raising my hand in class and getting immediate clarification.”

What is the best part of dental hygiene school for her? “I have to say clinic is my favourite – which is probably a good sign! It’s the whole point of what you’re doing, isn’t it? It’s where you get to interact with patients and apply your knowledge base.”

Even though studying dental hygiene involves a lot of courses – and a comparable number of midterms – Jennifer feels that every course and every lab she did was building a base for her clinical skills.

That doesn’t mean that treating her first patient wasn’t nerve-wracking. “I think that until you have practice doing it, there’s no way you’re not going to feel a little nervous. But I knew that those early appointments were the start of getting good at doing what I do.”

What Jennifer also found gratifying was having patients return in the spring whom she had seen at the beginning of the academic year and having them notice how much faster and better she had become. In addition, there were the clinical changes that Jennifer could see in her patients’ mouths when they tried out the techniques she had suggested to them.

Through the difficult months of COVID-19, Jennifer feels that she had the support of both her classmates and faculty members. No one makes it through dental hygiene school alone, she says.

Faculty members are particularly supportive, Jennifer maintains. “There is a strong culture of continuing development and education that they bring to the table. They lead by example by constantly improving their skills and they are also able to give us a lot of personalized feedback. They also get to know us as people over our two years in the program, which is really, really nice.”

Wider roles for dental hygienists
The feeling that the dental hygiene profession is changing and developing – which attracted Jennifer to it in the first place – continues to guide her next steps. She believes there is a growing awareness that the oral cavity is connected to the rest of the body and that poor oral health has a major impact on overall health.

“Thanks to our professors, we have rotations in schools, hospitals, and outreach clinics,” says Jennifer. “That experience is helping to expand our role as dental hygienists and change the dynamic of simply working for a dentist in a private practice to expanding our role out into the community.”

Jennifer’s next step is working at Dr. Kohli Dental Clinic in Carbonear, Newfoundland, owned by Dr. Kash Kohli (DDS’18).  At some point, she plans to return to Dalhousie to study for a Bachelor of Dental Hygiene (BDH), potentially through the new part-time program.

“Going to work before returning for further studies is important to me. It will give me an opportunity to see a bit more of what’s out there, because we can’t experience every scenario at Dal. But then it would be great to return to do the BDH and explore the wider roles available to us as dental hygienists.”