Harris finds encouragement and preparation for dental hygiene career at WKU
- Mary Bidwell
- Sunday, April 25th, 2021
Ever since attending high school, Haleigh Harris aspired to serve others as a dental hygienist.
"I've always wanted to go into the health field - it's a service-oriented career where I can help people in a tangible way," Harris said.
Harris, a graduating senior from Bremen, Ky., pursued a health sciences career pathway in high school and a job shadowing experience during her senior year cemented her career path. Her best friend's mother, a dental hygienist, gave Harris the opportunity to shadow her at work.
"I really enjoyed the environment and workday. It's very much a job where you can be hands-on, interact with people, and build relationships with others," Harris said.
When considering her college options, Harris explored various institutions but found her home at WKU.
"This campus is just absolutely beautiful and it's the perfect size for me. I felt very much at home here from the beginning," Harris said.
WKU's program also aligned with her career goals, offering a comprehensive experience to prepare her for post-graduate life.
"WKU happens to have one of the best dental programs on this side of the United States, so that was also a big part of my decision," Harris said.
Harris is graduating in just three years with a wealth of pre-professional experience under her belt. During the two-year program, all students must seek admission to the program and pursue a rigorous schedule of career preparation. Harris participated in additional job shadowing throughout the program, allowing her to understand the dynamics of real-life dental practices in surrounding counties. Additionally, she met patients in the on-campus dental clinic each week, gaining practical experience in her chosen field.
As a member of the Class of 2021, Harris also faced additional challenges in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The Dental Hygiene program is already very challenging - it requires a lot of hands-on work and a lot of hours. When the pandemic hit, I was in my first semester of working at the clinic and had just started seeing patients. We had to stop for the rest of the semester," Harris recalled.
Once the clinic resumed, Harris and her cohort adapted to unconventional learning methods and new safety guidelines.
"When we came back this fall, we were a semester behind on clinical work. We had to do things differently in the clinic. Before, all 26 of us could be there together. Now, only half of us can be there on any given day. Certain treatments that we usually offer - such as polishing or anything that would use aerosols - we cannot do that at the clinic. We've had to learn those on mannequins, which is definitely different than doing it on a real patient," Harris said.
Despite these challenges, Harris also reflected on the positives that happened because of this new arrangement.
"Before, there were so many of us that I never really had the time to form close relationships with my classmates because we're always so busy. Now that I'm only in the clinic with 13 individuals, I've definitely made closer friendships with a lot of my classmates. The faculty are also able to spend more time with each of us individually," Harris said.
Harris is thankful for the close connections with the individuals in her program.
"I definitely could not have gotten through this program without my classmates. This has honestly made us stronger as a class, since we've been through so much together," Harris said.
Harris also highlighted the supportive faculty and staff in the dental hygiene program. Program Director and Associate Professor Dr. Joseph Evans was a positive presence for Harris during class.
"I always feel like I learn so much from Dr. Evans - his teaching style is top-notch. He is such an advocate for us as dental hygienists, and he wants to make sure that we can be the best that we can be. He's always very encouraging and can make us laugh if we're having a particularly bad day. He is not only one of my favorite professors, but I do consider him a friend as well," Harris said.
Harris is also thankful for the support from Office Associate Millie Hagood, who helps coordinate the Dental Hygiene Clinic on campus.
"We would fall apart without her. She is always taking on so many responsibilities to help us out with our educational experience. She is always trying to make things easier for us and ensure that we meet all of our requirements. Additionally, she is also just a great person to talk to if we're stressed out. We appreciate her because of all she does for us," Harris said.
In addition to her program, Harris found a larger community of support at WKU. Harris' involvement with Christian Student Fellowship (CSF) further enriched her WKU experience with opportunities to make friendships and be a part of community outreach.
"CSF has definitely been the organization on campus that I have been the most involved with and made most of my friendships through. Being involved in their service opportunities and being able to be a part of community outreach through food drives and other service projects has been a huge part of my college experience," Harris said.
Additionally, Harris joined the Mahurin Honors College and forged some of her first friendships at the annual Honors Freshman Orientation Retreat (H4). Honors curriculum also helped contribute to her future career - especially with an honors course titled Citizen and Self.
"This class was based on a lot of discussion and interaction with each other and our professor. It was able to show me a lot of diversity that I'd never seen before, especially being from a small town," Harris said.
Additionally, Harris took a course in World Religious Literature and another course in Community Dental Health, which encouraged her to think broadly about the world as it relates to her future career and facilitate a better connection with all of her patients.
Combining her desire to give back to the community and gain practical experience with a wide variety of patients, Harris recalled one notable applied learning activity as part of her program.
"Last year, I was able to go to McNeill Elementary and talk about dental hygiene with local children. Those kindergarteners are just the sweetest and it was really fun getting to teach them," Harris said.
After graduation, Harris plans to work in general dentistry and looks forward to interacting with different patients daily. She hopes to stay in Bowling Green, noting that she loves the atmosphere here. Harris also aspires to travel overseas and assist others in need.
"Someday, I would like to take a mission trip abroad and be able to use my dental hygienist skills to be able to offer services to people who need them," Harris said.
As she nears the end of her WKU undergraduate career, Harris fondly recalls one of her favorite things to do - walking around campus with her best friend.
"One thing I love about WKU is that it's small enough that I will always see someone that I know and be able to say hello while walking. I just feel like it's a really nice community here on campus."
For more information about the Dental Hygiene Program at WKU, visit: https://www.wku.edu/dentalhygiene/
#WKUGrad series: As part of our #WKUGrad series, articles on graduating students are shared in the weeks leading up to Commencement. See all of their stories at https://www.wku.edu/news.