Taking a chance, finding her fit in Dental Therapy

Sometimes all it takes are a few encouraging words to alter the trajectory of a young person’s life. For Jackie Callaway-Campbell, it was the words of a manager where she worked as a dental assistant in New Castle, Del.

In addition to treating patients for the school-based preventive dental services organization, Callaway-Campbell recruited volunteer dentists, drove the clinic’s mobile dental unit, presented at schools, navigated the insurance industry, learned about grant writing and volunteered at health awareness events. In a conversation with a manager, she learned about the emerging field of dental therapy, and a unique program 1,200 miles away at the University of Minnesota. 

“I decided I wanted to go further in dentistry,” said Callaway-Campbell, who is now entering her third and final year of the dental hygiene/dental therapy dual degree program at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry. “I was drawn to the public health field and liked different aspects of dental hygiene and dentistry. So when I heard about dental therapy, it sounded like a perfect fit for me.”

She arrived in Minnesota for the first time at age 25, not knowing what to expect. Accustomed to hard work and long hours, she assumed she could work full time while attending school. But juggling work at Target with a rigorous academic and clinical schedule was overwhelming.

“I had to learn that I was a student first, and an employee second,” she said. “I was stubborn at first and didn’t want to admit that I could not do it all. That first semester, I sometimes walked into class not even knowing we had a test that day.”

Callaway-Campbell said her tight knit and supportive group of eight classmates, and a scholarship she received from Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation in her second semester and subsequent semesters, helped her succeed in the program.

“I cherish my classmates,” she said. “They became my support system. Times where I may have fallen or slipped through the cracks they have been there to support me and vice versa. We lean on each other. I have a community here.”  

The scholarship from Delta Dental allowed her to cut down on her work hours to focus on school.

“Once I got the scholarship, I spent much more time working on my skills and studying for tests,” she said. “I got to know my classmates and it made me a better student, which will make me a better provider.”

With the Bachelor of Science in Dental Hygiene and Master of Science in Dental Therapy, Callaway-Campbell will be able to perform all the treatments of a dental hygienist, plus serve patients more broadly with drilling and filling cavities, installing temporary crowns, extracting baby teeth and providing oral health prevention and education under the supervision of a dentist. The dental therapist profession was recognized by the Minnesota State Legislature in 2009 as a means to improve access to oral health care.

Callaway-Campbell said she appreciates the role she will play in reaching underserved communities. Through the program, she gained experience at clinics in Willmar, Hibbing and the Twin Cities. She hopes to find a public health-oriented position in Minnesota after graduation next year, where she can address the oral health needs of people who need it most.

To those who may be considering a career in dental therapy, she offered these encouraging words of her own.

“I know how it looks! I know it looks crazy, packing up to move half-way across the country to someplace that is very cold and different,” she says. “But, see it through because the people you meet and the experiences you get and the career opportunities you gain are so worth it.”

Jackie Callaway-Campbell
Jackie Callaway-Campbell