TRAVERSE CITY — As a college freshman Dr. Jessica Rickert attended a dental careers open house where she saw a student cast a gold crown. She was fascinated and knew dentistry was the job for her.

She graduated from dental school in 1975 and opened a private practice in Traverse City, becoming the first female Native American dentist in the United States. She is also the only Native American dentist in Michigan.

Rickert was the impetus behind a partnership between Northwestern Michigan College and Bay Mills Community College that will have students at the tribal college transferring to NMC’s dental assistant program after completing their first year.

The articulation agreement signed in February with Bay Mills, located in Brimley in the Upper Peninsula, aims to fill a dire need for dental assistants serving northern Michigan and Native Americans in particular.

“It’s a good opportunity for both colleges, for young people, and for most patients in the U.P. who have to wait to get an appointment,” Rickert said.

Students from Bay Mills can take their general education courses there before transferring to NMC, where they can complete the dental assistant program.

“There is a huge need for all dental positions, but especially for dental assistants,” said Beckie Wooters, director of NMC’s dental assisting program. “I’m getting weekly phone calls asking if we have students available.”

The program is two semesters long, followed by a 12-week externship at a dental office or clinic in the community. Graduates must also pass a state licensure exam before becoming a registered dental assistant, or RDA. Since 2019 NMC has had a pass rate of at least 96 percent.

Wooters said that most students have job offers before they even start their externships.

The need is even greater in the U.P., which is why the partnership is so important, Wooters said. She plans to visit Bay Mills in April in an effort to recruit students.

Rickert grew up in Wyoming, Mich., where as a young student she excelled in math and science. By the time she was in middle school she knew she wanted to work in the healthcare field, but had yet to narrow it down.

Now retired, Rickert does consulting work for insurer Delta Dental of Michigan and leads Anishinaabe Dental Outreach, with the goal to improve dental health in Native communities. She said she was very surprised that the U.P. did not have a dental assisting program.

“With a registered dental assistant, a dentist can see about 60 percent more patients,” Rickert said. “They can do more clinical procedures under the dentist’s supervision.”

Bay Mills has about 600 students, of which about 62 percent are Native American. Of the more than 315,000 dental assistants nationwide, less than 1 percent are Native American or Alaska Native.

As part of her consulting work, Rickert identifies Native Americans who have health insurance and are not using it.

“A big problem that kept coming up was the inability to get timely dental care,” she said, with people needing treatment waiting up to nine months.

There is also a mistrust among Native Americans of health care delivered by non-Natives, including dentistry, she said, adding that not too long ago dental care was not even available to them.

Dental care is not a high priority in Native families, she said, and education is needed because of a lack of awareness of how poor dental health affects physical health, Rickert said. Native Americans also have a higher rate of diabetes, she said.

“Their overall health is not as robust as the general population,” Rickert said.

Bay Mills is more than three hours from NMC and students will be placed in the dormitories, if needed, or they can stay with family members, Wooters said. All classes and labs take place Tuesday through Thursday, so students are able to return home during the rest of the week.

The NMC program is the furthest north among six accredited dental assistant programs in the state. The college recently invested $52,000 in new equipment for the program. It has six patient rooms and some of the latest technology, including an intraoral scanner.

The agreement with Bay Mills is also seen as a way to boost enrollment in the program that currently has 13 students, though it can accommodate 24.

Dental assistants in northern Michigan are paid about $17 to $20 per hour, Wooters said. Some students have used the program as a stepping stone to other careers in dentistry, she said.

Rickert said she has had a fabulous career that has allowed her to travel and really opened up the world to her. Dentistry can be practiced anywhere, she said. She’d like to take that message to students at Bay Mills.

“When you’re 16 or 17 you don’t know that,” she said.

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