Brace yourself for a tale of a true community partnership.
It’s summer in Anchorage—the sun is up, the trails are green, and baby moose are finding their footing in the forests. But if you work in the dental business, summer is ushered in each year by the arrival of something else—recent UAA graduates.
Yes, it’s that time of year again—externship season. The externship is a special six-week session tacked onto the end of UAA’s dental assisting program, providing recent graduates with on-the-job experience and local businesses with ready-to-learn staff. Coombs Orthodontics, located in Anchorage, has been hosting UAA externs every summer since 2010. The relationship has proven so beneficial that a majority of the staff holds UAA degrees and the company now exclusively hires from the externship program.
For most students, the six-week externship is their first time outside the classroom and inside a dental practice. They arrive fresh off finals week, ready to transition from a year spent strictly studying.
“The dental assistant program is very intense,” said Cindy Armstrong, a term instructor also responsible for coordinating externships throughout the state. “The hours students have to be here are full-time. It’s rare they work anywhere outside of class just because of the intensity of the program.”
With so much time in the classroom, the required externship is a valuable addendum to the one-year program. “It’s kind of like an added six-week semester at the end of the year. You’re placed in an office through the school but you’re still technically in school,” explained Sheree Wilson, a Coombs employee who graduated from UAA last year. “The externship is meant to hopefully get you that job, depending on whether the office is hiring, but it gives you the experience too.”
Full-time employment isn’t a guarantee, but overall, the program has an exceptionally high placement rate. “I’d say 70 percent of students placed in an externship roll into employment,” Cindy estimated. “Routinely every year there are two or three students who rotate through Coombs Orthodontics, and they often stay,” she said.
The business of braces
Coombs Orthodontics, located at New Seward Highway and 36th Avenue in Anchorage, has been providing dental care for the city since 2008, when Dr. Coombs—a second-generation orthodontist—bought the practice that’s been operating in the same building since 1976. Despite its location off a major cross-town thoroughfare, the office feels both cozy and remote thanks to its recent renovations. Four patient chairs face a full wall of windows, framing a thicket of pine trees and bird feeders. Inside, slate and dark wood feature heavily, replacing the typical linoleum and white walls many have come to expect from any medical facility.
The practice has established a strong connection with UAA, hosting multiple externs at the end of each school year. This year, Coombs Orthodontics is hosting two externs from a graduating class of 18 dental assistants—although, in this case, the term dental assisting is a bit of a misnomer, as staff at Coombs do far more than simply assist.
“Orthodontics is a very different animal than dentistry,” explained Paul Raines, a treatment coordinator and lab specialist at Coombs. “The orthodontist just comes by the chair and says ‘do this.’ You take the wires out, put new wires in, take impressions, and do all this really hands-on stuff with the patient.”
“In [general] dentistry, the doctors pretty much doing everything while you’re handing him instruments. That’s not this,” he added. “It’s a high-pressure environment with four chairs going at a time and patients back-to-back… It requires a strong commitment and the ability to keep calm.”
Paul has been around the orthodontics office since he was a patient in braces himself. He helped around the office while still in high school, later completed an apprenticeship through UAA in 2007 and returned for a B.S. in biological sciences while working full time at Coombs. He has since moved up from assisting to management, and is now studying for dental school exams. It’s clear he’s one of the most passionate folks about his job (or any job, for that matter).
“Orthodontics is really fun,” he said. “People don’t come in because their teeth hurt, they come so you can give them a new smile. They’re happy to come to you. It’s a very rewarding field to work in.”
He’s also a major advocate for the dental assisting program at UAA, although he admits it doesn’t have the immediate appeal of other more recognizable programs like dental hygiene or nursing. “I didn’t hear a lot of people say they were going to do the dental assisting program,” he said. “People don’t realize it pays really well for a one-year program.
“I don’t know many degree programs at UAA where you can do a 1-year certificate and come out making $35,000 or $40,000 a year right off the bat. I think that program’s pretty good.”
A strong partnership
The externship program is a true reciprocal relationship—one that benefits both the companies and the students involved. “When you hire out of the dental assisting program at UAA, you get people that went to college and made it through a 1-year program that’s kind of rigorous,” Paul said. “When they come out of the program, they’re ready to learn and they’re in that learning mode; they’re very easy to teach, they know the basics, and so it’s so much easier to train them.”
The staff at Coombs gets to know the UAA students personally, as well as professionally. With six weeks of training, the staff can explain their corporate values, witness the extern’s work ethic and decide who would make a great fit. In many ways, the externs at Coombs Orthodontics are signing on for a weeks-long interview process.
Rather than having to hire qualified employees away from other practices, Coombs receives an annual crew of qualified externs ready to apply their recently-certified skills. “It works out a lot nicer than hiring from another office,” Paul said. “That’s why we’re strong believers in the externship.”
“I think it’s a very good program at UAA,” Paul said. “That’s why we only hire from that externship program.”
Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement