Alumni introduce dental hygiene students to career options

Carol Dahlke, School of Dentistry Dental Hygiene Class of 2007 and 2010, speaks with students after class.

When a student matriculates through the Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene program, there is an obvious career path: become a licensed dental hygienist and practice clinically, full time. Though that is a popular and successful path, it’s not the only option—and our alumni have shown that with their varied and engaging career decisions. 

Last Monday, a group of alumni of the School of Dentistry’s Hygiene program headlined a panel hosted by the School of Dentistry Alumni Society, sharing about their non-traditional paths and how their educational foundation brought them where they are today. Born out of conversations sparked in the school’s Dental Hygiene mentorship program, the panel sought to introduce students and alumni to careers and passions they might not otherwise realize are a possibility. 

Panelists included Trisha O’Hehir, DH ’67, president of O’Hehir University and international speaker; Julia Wacloff, BSDH ’83, RDH, MSPH,chief of the Office of Oral Health in the Arizona Department of Health; Kelly Rogers, BSDH ’12, MSDH ’20, clinical assistant professor of dental hygiene at the University of Minnesota; Carol Dahlke, BSDH ’07, MSDH ’10, dental practice consultant; and Alexi Wenzel, BSDH ’14, member of the DDS class of 2022. 

The five panelists responded to questions from student board members Emerson Gonyea, DDS ’23, and Jenna Gardner, MDT ’22. Below are a sampling of their reflections shared during the event.

Tell us about your role, and how you transitioned from clinical dentistry. 

Wenzel: “I’m still a licensed dental hygienist, planning to renew my license even as I get my dental license this year. My journey is a wraparound one. I’ve always wanted to be a dentist, and went to college to work toward that goal before deciding to take an atypical route and apply for a dental hygiene program as another thing to put on my application for dental school. I ended up loving dental hygiene and worked as a hygienist for four years.” 

Rogers: “I was always interested in education, but needed that encouragement from friends and family to take that leap. I applied for the master’s program, which opened me quickly to teaching part-time as an adjunct. Now that I have my master’s, I am more focused on education.” 

Wacloff: “It’s a long story, but my transition started when I graduated from the University of Minnesota. I took a job in a small rural community, and it opened my eyes to the level of disease you see in rural and underserved populations. I got a degree in education, but also studied public health—I had a great mentor who took me under her wing. I completed a master’s in public health and a certificate in epidemiology, which led me to the CDC, where I worked in the Division of Oral Health implementing programs  from a national and state perspective. Now, I oversee policy development, oral health programming and disease surveillance for the state of Arizona.”

Did you know you were interested in other avenues besides clinical dental hygiene when you enrolled?

Dahlke: “I thought I’d practice clinically forever. I loved it. For me, it wasn’t until I got my master’s that I considered the change. I love clinical work, but I love educating adults more.” 

Wacloff: “I fell into it too, through a school project. I wanted to practice clinically—but I got the opportunity to present at a national oral health conference. That opened my eyes to another world of oral health, from an administrative perspective. Having that clinical background is so important to what I do now.” 

How did your dental hygiene degree prepare you for your current role? 

Wenzel: “Much of what I do now is patient care. I can’t even count the number of faculty who have told me that it helped that I was a hygienist first. I was comfortable seeing patients from day one.” 

O’Hehir: “Dental hygiene is so prevention-focused. I’ve always found prevention really interesting; I wanted to just keep working on getting my patients healthy enough that they wouldn’t have to deal with disease. Coaching and teaching others from the prevention perspective has been really important, and I know I have that focus because of my studies.” 

Dahlke: “The clinical background brings credibility to my consulting. I know what the team needs, and I can bond with the dental hygienists in a practice. That changes the dynamic.” 

What advice would you give someone considering an alternate career path?

O’Hehir: “Follow your passion. Study that, and become an expert in it. The career path will follow.” 

Wacloff: “Reach out to your faculty. If they can’t mentor you, they will direct you to someone who can. And volunteer for internships, attend national oral health conferences, anything where you can connect with people who might have the same interests as you.” 

Dahlke: “You have to network. It’s huge in my world. Get to know dentists and hygienists. I’m also a member of the president’s club at the School of Dentistry: that means I can get together with people who have a lot of influence and make sure they know who I am.” 

Rogers: “Take a moment to self reflect. Evaluate where you are and where you want to go. Try to identify what might be holding you back, too. I always found a reason to wait—you can always find those reasons, but you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone.” 

Wenzel: “Once you figure out your long term goal, keep on it. Keep pursuing it, don’t let other things deter you. And stay connected to your network from the U—they want you to succeed, and they’ll help you get to that place.” 


Concluding the evening, Erin Elliot, director of alumni relations, shared her gratitude for the panelists and the School of Dentistry alumni community. “I’m always so impressed by our alumni community,” she said. “Thank you for supporting our students and opening their minds to new possibilities.” 

Learn more about the School of Dentistry Alumni Society and how to get involved in future events like this one.