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Spotlights | News | Health Education and Human Sciences | AlumniMay 13, 2023

Clinical Boards are No Match for UAFS Dental Hygiene Students

Written By: Ian Silvester

Celebrating the graduation of 11 University of Arkansas – Fort Smith dental hygiene students is just a tiny part of what makes this class worthy of recognition.
As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold of the nation and the world, these 11 students were in the middle of prerequisites for a career that put them at risk of contracting the virus. However, they stood firm in their commitment to helping others maintain a healthy smile.
“We’ve endured COVID; [it] was beyond belief to teach someone to do what we do in COVID times,” explained Dr. Virginia Hardgraves, the UAFS dental hygiene program executive director.
Fast forward to the spring of 2023. Before the 11 graduates crossed the stage at the Stubblefield Center, each student had to put their coursework and hands-on training to the test. And each student passed.
Having a pass rate of 100 percent isn’t new to the program, but COVID, a significant change to the testing, and new instructors had both Hardgraves and clinical coordinator Lana Bell “a little bit concerned.”
A clean sweep of passes showed that the program, faculty, and dedication to students paid off in dividends. All 11 students can practice dental hygiene in 47 of 50 states.
“The proof was in the pudding,” laughed Hardgraves.
“I’m proud of them all,” said Bell. “It’s a big deal, a very big deal.”
Melissa Perez and Jon Kevin Villeda are among the 11 who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in dental hygiene.
“It’s very emotional,” said Perez. “I am a first-generation college student, the youngest of five siblings. Being the first in the family to graduate was something nobody saw coming.”
“I’m also a first gen,” laughed Villeda. “I had to be that role model for my little siblings since I’m the oldest. I wanted to set the bar at a good place for them, and I always encourage them to beat that bar and to do their best.”
As the two graduates reflected on their time at UAFS and in the dental hygiene program, they finished each other’s thoughts about the program.
“This program has very good educators, and they will teach you so much, they care about you, and they’ll…” said Villeda. “… Find time to teach you; they’ll find time to answer your questions,” Perez continued.
Perez, originally from Los Angeles, plans to return to California to help an underserved population.
“I learned so many things here, and I want to keep doing that, but in a different way,” Melissa explained. “For me, working with people that you wouldn’t really expect for a hygienist to work with, like inmates, or working with people in rehabilitation centers, or even volunteering at community dental clinics, had much more of an impact. It just has more meaning to what I want to do.”
Villeda plans to return to De Queen, Arkansas, to help serve his hometown community, but he said Fort Smith is also an option, thanks to all the connections he has made. However, his time at UAFS made such an impact that he hopes to one day return the favor to future dental students.
He said he would eventually like to return to school to pursue a master’s degree and become an instructor. “I’ve always been that type of person that likes to help others,” Jon said with a grin. “Teaching and making sure that everyone’s fine is just a big part of me.”
The 2023 dental hygiene seniors leave UAFS with a level of education Hardgraves believes to be unmatched in Arkansas. The students had access to state-of-the-art equipment, including 15 new dental hygiene operatory chairs and equipment like X-ray machines supported by generous gifts from the Blue and You Foundation of Arkansas, the Delta Dental of Arkansas Foundation, the Garlinghouse Foundation and family, and the Arkansas State Dental Hygiene Association.

Melissa Perez was a recipient of the 2022-23 ASDHA Dental Hygiene Scholarship & Other Generic Dental Hygiene Award. She also received the 2021-22 Lauri Pendergraft Mason Scholarship.

Jon Kevin Villeda was a recipient of the 2022-23 ASDHA Dental Hygiene Scholarship & Other Generic Dental Hygiene Award. He also received the 2021-22 Mary Finnigan Grace Scholarship.