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Bay Mills Community College, a tribal college in Brimley, Mich., has partnered with Northwestern Michigan College (NMC), located in Traverse City, Mich., in an effort to increase the number of dental assistants serving northern Michigan, and Native American patients in particular.

The formal partnership was announced on Friday, March 10, 2023 in a press release. The agreement will allow Bay Mills students to transfer to NMC’s dental assistant program after their first year. NMC’s yearlong dental assistant curriculum allows them to sit for the state exam to become a registered dental assistant (RDA).

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“Our communities need more dental professionals of any kind. This seems like a really good fit,” said Diana McKenzie, dean of science and allied health at Bay Mills, which enrolls about 600 students. About 62 percent are Native American. 

The announcement came towards the end of Dental Assistants Recognition Week (also known as DARW) which is held the first full week in March every year. The American Dental Assistants Association says the week is the perfect time to acknowledge and recognize the versatile, multi-talented member of a dental team.

NMC’s program is the farthest north among six accredited dental assistant programs in the state of Michigan. 

“With a registered dental assistant, a dentist can see about 60 percent more patients. They can do more clinical procedures under the dentist’s supervision,” said Dr. Jessica Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation), a now-retired Traverse City area dentist who hired NMC graduates in her practice.

Dr. Rickert is also the first female Native American dentist in the United States, and remains the only one in Michigan. She now consults with insurer Delta Dental of Michigan and leads Anishinaabe Dental Outreach,whose goal is to improve dental health in Native communities. She saw an opportunity to connect NMC and Bay Mills to better serve the Upper Peninsula, where the shortage of dental professionals is especially acute.

Among more than 315,000 dental assistants nationwide, Dr. Rickert said only 0.7% are American Indian or Alaska Native.

“The scarcity of timely dental care is causing serious hardship,” Dr. Rickert said of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. They have a wonderful program at NMC. Dental assisting is such a great career, and it’s really fulfilling and it’s necessary. Let’s make this happen.”

Dr, Rickert said the Michigan Dental Association, the American Dental Association and other sources offer scholarships to students of color.

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