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Inside Dental Assisting
Jan/Feb 2010
Volume 6, Issue 2

2009 Dental Assistant of the Year

When educator Mary Ellen Vaughn, Cda, Rda, considers retiring, she doesn’t daydream about sandy beaches. Instead, she laughs, “I can’t imagine not being involved in dentistry. In fact, I might just go back and work in a practice so i get to use all the new equipment!”

Vaughn’s passion for dentistry started when she was very young. “I used to play dentist with two of my friends. We’d use my father’s recliner, and shine lights in each other’s mouth, smear toothpaste, and pretend that the electric toothbrush was a drill. We thought that was so much fun.” Years later, her friends’ mother remembered their antics and suggested to Vaughn that she look into the new dental assisting program. “She was right—I immediately fell in love with it,” Vaughn says.

Almost 40 years later, Vaughn is still enthusiastic about all aspects of dentistry. Because of her highly-regarded commitment to the profession, she has been named Dental Assistant of the Year, an award sponsored by Colgate Oral Pharmaceuticals. “Ms. Vaughn has been an effective leader and is greatly respected among her colleagues,” says Karen Raposa, senior manager of professional relations at Colgate Oral Pharmaceuticals, Inc. “We are very pleased to offer her a new opportunity to represent and inspire dental assistants.”

Currently, Vaughn is Program Director and an Instructor at the Tennessee Technology Center’s Accredited Dental Assisting Program in Knoxville. She also acts as the coordinator of the Tennessee Board Approved Certificate Programs. She considers herself fortunate that her career has allowed her to meld her two great interests: dentistry and teaching.

Vaughn began her career in 1972 working for a general dentist. “It was a wonderful first job—we made our own gold crowns,” she remembers. “I just loved working with my hands, and I was able to get a bigger knowledge base from the very beginning.” A few years later, she was asked to teach in the dental assisting program at the Knoxville City Schools Adult Health Occupations Program (which was later taken over by the Tennessee Technology Center). Vaughn—who in the meantime had obtained her bachelor of science degree in organizational management—now manages the program with one other full-time staff member.

In the last three decades, Vaughn has witnessed many technological advances in both dentistry and education. “I love using the new technology,” she says. “We now have such wonderful visuals and access to the internet in the classroom. I just think it’s cool—my students and I learn a lot together.”

In her spare time, Vaughn oversees some courses for an online education program. “I’m a huge fan of online education: it’s definitely here to stay. In fact, I expect we’ll soon be texting the coursework to our students’ phones.”

Vaughn estimates that she has taught more than 700 students throughout the years. She often sees her former students at certificate programs. “I encourage my students to be certified as well as registered,” she says. “You want to show your knowledge base and competencies.”

When asked for her advice to today’s students, Vaughn doesn’t hesitate. “Get ready. We’re in the 21st century, and there are new dental technologies coming up fast. In the classroom you’ll get all the basics, but there will be plenty you’ll need to learn once you get into an office.”

Vaughn is a great believer in networking and participation in professional organizations and committees. “Throughout the years, I have attended the state board of dentistry meetings, along with other educators and colleagues, just to be a presence. Over time we established a rapport with board members, and now we have a real voice and a full voting member on the board. I’m thrilled that now we’re always included on committees: they solicit our input and are very receptive to our ideas.

“Sometimes at national meetings, people ask me how we got so much done in Tennessee. I tell them you just have to go to those board meetings, you have to communicate. It’s all about showing that you care.”

Part of this important networking includes coordinating the monthly local ADAA meetings. She is constantly thinking about how to improve her efforts. Change is our challenge is Vaughn’s motto, but she admits it takes time and effort. “We’re all so busy, and people sometimes tend to stay in a rut,” Vaughn says. “But we have to change with the times and shake up the meetings, make them the place to be for new dental assistants. It’s about new attitudes, different agendas.”

Vaughn says she is excited for the new generation. “My dream is to advance the careers of dental assistants through education, legislation, and credentialing. I hope to achieve more recognition for dental assistants—a lot of people aren’t aware of how much we do. I’m proud of my profession, and I truly hope that I’ve been able to motivate and inspire my students.”

“Colgate is very pleased to sponsor this award recognizing the dedication and professionalism of today’s dental assistants,” says Karen Raposa, senior manager of professional relations at Colgate Oral Pharmaceuticals, Inc.

Nominations flowed in from around the country for the second Dental Assistant of the Year contest. Colleagues, friends, and employers were encouraged to recommend exceptional dental assistants. These narrative recommendations—which were sometimes quite lengthy—extolled the generosity, educational commitment, teamwork, and enthusiasm of the nominees.

Mary Ellen Vaughn’s many years of service to education, as well as her leadership abilities and impact on the profession, brought her to the attention of the selection committee. Vaughn will receive $2,500, a Dental Assistant of the Year award, and a tour of Colgate’s facilities.

“Ms. Vaughn has obviously been such a positive influence on her students and colleagues,” Raposa says. “In addition, she’s been a vocal advocate for the profession and has donated much of her time to organizing meetings and educational events.”

According to Raposa, it’s important for dental assistants to have opportunities to connect with and encourage each other. “We really want to acknowledge those dental assistants who go the extra mile to help their colleagues. Time after time, they ‘show up,’ roll up their sleeves, and pitch in for everybody’s benefit. Based on the nominations that we received, they should be very proud of their achievements, and know that many people are aware of and greatly appreciate what they do.”

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