Pamela Overman, EdD, RDH, is associate dean for academic affairs at University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Dentistry, where she is dedicated to helping manage the training of future oral health professionals. In 2001, Overman earned a doctoral degree in education policy and leadership at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Active in the American Dental Education Association, she has served as chair of the organization’s Council of National Dental Hygiene Directors, Council of Allied Dental Program Directors, and Section on Academic Affairs. Overman is also a member of Dimensions of Dental Hygiene’s Editorial Advisory Board.
How did you get started in academia?
I was a clinical practitioner in Joplin, Mo, working in three offices. Out of the blue, I received a phone call from the dean of technology at Missouri Southern State College (MSSC). He was looking for dental hygienists with baccalaureate degrees to teach in a new dental hygiene program opening at MSSC. This is one of the reasons I encourage all dental hygienists with associate degrees to enter degree completion programs. Furthering your education ensures that you will have plenty of options over the span of your career. I accepted the position and helped start the dental hygiene program from scratch. I fell in love with the students, teaching, and everything about academia.
What do you love about your job?
I love “light bulb moments!” Watching students gain a new understanding or master a new skill is amazing. It is these moments that make my day. My job has changed a lot from when I first entered academia. As associate dean, I spend most days involved in administrative duties, but I still maintain teaching responsibilities. Teaching keeps me grounded and focused on our main goal as a school—to teach future oral health care professionals.
I also love the variety of my academic position. Yesterday I served as a standardized patient who was experiencing a medical emergency during a pilot OSCE (objectively structured clinical examination). OSCEs measure students’ abilities to perform clinical tasks. We then use the results to improve the curriculum, as well as ensure that each student has the knowledge and skills he or she needs before graduating. Today, I am working on a post-tenure review. With the expectation that faculty will be involved in teaching, research, and service, no day is ever the same.
What do you like the least about your job in academic administration?
It is frustrating when students struggle and we can’t find a way to help them get back on track. In the dental hygiene school, we are fortunate to work with students who want to be successful and have gone through a selective admissions process to gain entry into our programs. All of our faculty members hope that every student who enters our program will graduate to become a professional in some aspect of dental hygiene. So, it is really sad when things go awry. There are many reasons why students have difficulty with their studies, including: health problems, lack of study skills, learning disabilities, personal problems, and substance abuse. In my position, I spend a fair amount of time working on these types of issues. We have many successes, but the times we fail continue to haunt me.
In your opinion, what is the status of dental hygiene education today?
Dental hygiene education is changing significantly, and not always in ways we can anticipate. Because decisions to establish or close programs are made at a local, not national level, it is hard to mount a broad-scale rational strategic planning process for dental hygiene education. During the 1990s, I was a member of the Dental Hygiene Review Committee for the Commission on Dental Accreditation. We watched some very fine dental hygiene programs close. A variety of factors contributed to these closures, but the net result was that the total number of dental hygiene programs in the United States fell to around 197. Fast forward to now, and the number of dental hygiene programs in the US tops 300. And, what is amazing about the growth in dental hygiene programs over the past 20 years is the variety of models that are in use. There are 2-year, 3-year, and 4-year programs. Some are delivered face to face, while others occur via distance technology.
Technology has served as a disruptive innovation over the past 20 years, and no doubt it will play a role in changing dental hygiene education. As state support continues to decline, finances are another challenge that all higher education programs, including dental hygiene, face. Often, declining state funding means higher tuition and an increase in student loan debt. We need to make sure dental hygiene education remains affordable. Finally, the mid-level provider concept provides great opportunity and challenges for dental hygiene education. Change will definitely be part of our future, so we must learn to manage the challenge of change.