Susan Lynn Tolle, BSDH, MS

Susan Lynn Tolle, BSDH, MS

As a full-time professor in the Hirschfeld School of Dental Hygiene at Old Dominion University (ODU) in Norfolk, Virginia, Susan Lynn Tolle, BSDH, MS, spends her time teaching, mentoring, writing, and conducting clinical research. Her efforts in teaching were recognized in 2009 when she received the University Professor Award for Outstanding Teaching and in 2010 when she received the A. Rufus Tonelson Faculty Award given by the ODU Alumni Association. Tolle is also a recipient of the American Dental Hygienists’ Association (ADHA) Educator of the Year Award, as well as its Award for Excellence. Dimensions of Dental Hygiene has greatly benefited from her expertise. Tolle is a member of the journal’s Editorial Advisory Board and frequent contributor.


Did you know you wanted a career in academia when you started dental hygiene school at the University of Kentucky?

I always knew I wanted to become a teacher. I pursued the field of dental hygiene because I wanted a meaningful career in health care, but education was always the ultimate goal. Even as a student at the University of Kentucky, I remember keenly observing faculty members and analyzing their teaching methods because I knew I wanted academia to be my career path. After working in private practice for 4 years, I was fortunate to receive a Kellogg fellowship. This enabled me to pursue a master’s degree in dental hygiene education from the University of Kentucky, which had an excellent allied health teacher preparation program.

What do you love about working in academia? What do you find most challenging?

My vision is to make a positive impact on the lives of my students through my teaching, scholarly activities, and mentoring. I love to actively engage students in the processes of creating, applying, assimilating, and transferring useful knowledge. I love working to facilitate their understanding of how the theories, concepts, and strategies from the classroom can be partially or fully applied to clinical settings and future work environments. I really enjoy being able to use cooperative and active learning activities to facilitate understanding and build lifelong learning motivation in my students. I am energized by the connections between teaching, scholarly activities, and service, and how bringing these into the classroom and clinic enriches the learning experiences of both the students and myself. It’s a bonus to be able to learn something new from and with students almost every day. I am fortunate to have mentored dental hygiene students who have achieved noteworthy careers in dentistry, research, clinical practice, industry, and dental hygiene education.

Helping my students excel in their classes, clinics, and careers is my passion. However, it comes with demands. Customizing course content to meet the challenges of today’s learner is both exciting and challenging. Devoting extra time to coach students who face difficulties is important to me but can be time consuming. Going that extra mile with many students over my 36 years of teaching has made me feel that I am making a contribution and fuels my love of education. Another challenge is balancing the demands of teaching with the service and scholarly activity expectations of a university.

Has a mentor played a role in your professional life? If so, in what ways?

Throughout my career I have actively sought out mentors and their advice. Linda Staley, RDH, MS, the past program director and dean, now retired from Rhodes State College in Lima, Ohio, was an important mentor in my first teaching position. She taught me a great deal about being a fair and caring instructor while also maintaining high standards. Through her role modeling, I learned a lot about being an effective educator and administrator. Most important, Staley stressed the importance of professional association involvement and was instrumental in getting me involved in leadership positions at both the local and state levels of ADHA.

The late Michele Darby, RDH, MS, past chair and graduate program director of the Hirschfeld School of Dental Hygiene at ODU, was certainly an influential mentor. I worked with her for 30 years, and she inspired me every day. An empowering leader and educator, a visionary mentor, and outstanding researcher, Darby truly lived, led by example, and was dedicated to ensuring the success of others. She gave me invaluable advice and insight into achieving a successful career in academia. One of the most important lessons she taught me was the importance of maintaining high standards and assisting students in reaching those same high standards. Darby’s values were exemplified in how she mentored myself and countless others. She encouraged me to fulfill leadership roles in the university, community, and the profession as a way to advance both students and the profession.

How did you become involved in starting a dental hygiene school in Nicaragua?

Because health care is a worldwide human need, the Hirschfeld School of Dental Hygiene at ODU promotes quality education around the globe that will increase access to sustained, cost-effective dental hygiene care to prevent and control dental disease. To that end, the school partnered with Physicians for Peace (PFP) to establish the first dental hygiene program in Central America, which is located in Leon, Nicaragua. PFP is a nonprofit global humanitarian organization whose mission is, “Send one. Train many. Heal the world.” Spearheaded by ODU Professor Gayle McCombs, RDH, MS, the Hirschfeld School of Dental Hygiene and PFP developed a close relationship with the dental college at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Nicaragua (UNAN) in Leon. This laid the foundation for the first formal education program in dental hygiene. Professor McCombs asked me to assist with formulating the clinical component of the program. We worked with the faculty and graduate students at UNAN to develop the 3-year dental hygiene curriculum within the dental school’s existing infrastructure. Our hope is that the program will improve oral health in Leon and enhance career opportunities in Nicaragua. It was truly an honor to work on this project in Nicaragua, in addition to the other community outreach activities in which the Hirschfeld School of Dental Hygiene is involved. These experiences have enriched my life, and we are hopeful this sustainable partnership will improve the lives of many.

Which of your accomplishments are you most proud of?

Receiving the 2010 ADHA Educator of the Year Award is my most meaningful achievement. Receiving recognition from your peers on a national level is extremely gratifying. I also have very exciting memories of publishing my first journal article in 1984. It was a significant milestone with particular importance for a successful academic career.

What advice would you give to new dental hygiene graduates who are interested in teaching?

I strongly encourage dental hygienists interested in academic careers to obtain a master’s degree in the discipline of dental hygiene as a critical first step. Graduate education provides a core set of skills and competencies related to dental hygiene that lays the foundation for a successful career in academia. A Master of Science degree in dental hygiene assists with moving the profession’s research agenda forward. Private practice experience is also extremely helpful to season and cultivate what is learned in school prior to teaching. Seek out mentors for advice and counseling; do not wait for them to find you. Lastly, continually self-assess and become involved in self-directed learning activities that can optimize and foster opportunities for a successful career in academia.