Dental Therapy Attracts Aspiring Professionals

Amber Irby arrived in Minnesota from her hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia, two years ago to enter the unique dental therapy program at the University of Minnesota. Today, she plans to stay.

After completing a Bachelor of Science degree in biology at Virginia Union University, Irby worked for several years as an office administrator. “I was 25, I had a job and I was living on my own. One day I realized it was time for me to utilize my bachelor's degree, and continue my education,” said Irby, who considered a wide range of graduate programs before settling on the University of Minnesota.

The dental therapy program at the U of M School of Dentistry is one of only three such programs in the country and the only dual degree (dental hygiene/dental therapy) program in the US. Minnesota law recognizes the new profession and the vital role it can play in expanding access to preventative and restorative oral health care across the state.

Irby is already serving patients in Minnesota. Because the first two years of her three-year dental hygiene/dental therapy dual degree program equipped her to become licensed as a dental hygienist, she is working part time while completing her final year of the program. Once she completes the program, she will be able to more broadly meet her patient's basic restorative needs, including addressing cavities, fabricating and cementing temporary crowns, extracting primary teeth and providing oral health prevention and education under the supervision of a dentist.

"As a first-generation college student, I did not have a guide," says Irby, who trained as a dental assistant in high school. "My parents knew that education was important and good grades were mandatory. But we did not have a road map, so my route was less direct than for some students."

Irby says returning to school after being in the workforce for several years was hard at first. "It was an adjustment and a new environment. But the faculty and staff is very supportive,” she says. "It's clear they want you to succeed. They are going to give you everything you need to be successful. Once you get admitted into the program, they work extremely hard not to leave anybody behind."

"Minnesota feels a lot like home, minus the weather," says Irby, "I plan to stay and practice here after I graduate next spring."

She says she and her classmates have no concerns about finding jobs next year. Nearly all students in the program secure jobs before graduation.

"I never in a million years thought that I would be here, about to earn a master's degree in a highly-respected and well-paying profession," she says. "And yet, here I am!"

Amber Irby
Amber Irby