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Student Spotlight: Victoria Thomas, Former Dental Hygienist, Finds New Path in Health Care Leadership

  By Gianluca D'Elia
  Friday, March 8, 2024

Headshot of Victoria Thomas wearing a blue floral blouse.

For nearly two decades, the School of Nursing’s Leadership in Health Care Systems (LHCS) program has prepared students from various backgrounds to take on roles as executives, managers, program coordinators and other key leadership positions.

The broad, interdisciplinary focus of the master’s program attracts both nurses and non-nurse health care professionals alike. Victoria Thomas, RDH, BS, is among those who joined from outside the nursing profession.

Looking for a change after two decades as a dental hygienist, she earned a bachelor’s in Allied Health nearby at SUNY Empire that opened her up to new possibilities and started to consider what to do next.

Thomas, who works down the street from Helen Wood Hall as a research coordinator at the Eastman Institute for Oral Health (EIOH), utilized University employee tuition benefits and the School of Nursing tuition grant to take the next step in her career.

Can you tell us about your career background?

I live in Parma, New York, on the south shore of beautiful Lake Ontario. Looking back, it appears as if stumbled into health care, but my passion for helping people has always shaped my career and continues to do so. My first exposure to working in health care entailed completing front office work for my father, a now retired general dentist, and then as an orthodontic assistant for my brother, who also recently retired.

During my career as an orthodontic assistant, the State of New York enacted a licensure regulation for dental assistants which required 2 years of schooling. At that point in time, I already held an Associate degree in Applied Science and was faced with the choices of pursuing further education or leaving the dental world. It was an anxiety-filled choice, but I opted for furthering my education, with a slight twist: instead of pursuing a degree in Dental Assisting, I chose to pursue a degree and career in Dental Hygiene.

That choice provided me the invaluable opportunity to spend 20 years connecting with my patients and helping them improve their oral and overall health. Every day, I felt I made a difference in someone’s life, and I didn’t realize how much I would miss that, until I recently transitioned out of direct patient care.

Repetitive motions can be hard on our musculoskeletal systems. After 20 years, it was so hard to walk away from a career that afforded me the privilege to make someone’s day, week, and even life better, but my body and mind needed a change.

How did you find UR Nursing’s Leadership program?

Alongside the choice to change careers, came the decision to again further my education. I was confident that additional schooling would provide more opportunities for my future, so back to school I went, again!

I have always been in awe of individuals that had a vision of their career path, as that clarity had always eluded me. I try to focus on the positive and see the upside to not having a specific path as a world full of possibilities. Focusing on earning a degree that would accommodate that world full of possibilities equated to me to graduating from SUNY Empire with my bachelor of science in Allied Health. Before I had completed that degree, a friend, in a non-nursing career, told me about her journey through the University of Rochester School of Nursing’s Leadership in Health Care Systems program. I was fortunate to be introduced to my friend’s advisor, Linda Migliore, who is now my advisor for the program.

What was it like to join the LHCS program from a non-nursing career background?

While the Leadership in Health Care Systems program is housed in the School of Nursing and the majority of the students in this program are nurses, the knowledge, tools, and skills I have gained through this coursework, my peers, and my professors is applicable to any field or role, including my current role as a human subject research coordinator for EIOH.

This program also incorporates a mentorship opportunity, in which students choose from a list of possible University or Community mentors. Through previous schooling, I became very familiar with Common Ground Health, a Rochester organization focused on helping underserved populations. I was beyond excited to see Melissa Wendland, Director of Strategic Initiatives at Common Ground Heath, as a mentor choice, and I am fortunate to now call her a mentor and friend. She is an inspiration personally and professionally and continues to support me in so many ways.

Melissa shared with me something so simple, yet so profound and it has the ability to impact every part of my life, if I stay focused. She said, “you lead from the seat you are in.” Everyone is a leader, in every role, in the workplace, outside of work, everywhere. We just have to stay focused and know we can all make a difference, big or small, every day.

What support has been helpful to you throughout the program?

I have grown personally and professionally through this program, and I would not have had this opportunity without the School of Nursing Tuition Grant, which covered any tuition not waived for University of Rochester employees. I am so grateful to have been accepted into this program and I encourage others to pursue furthering their education too.

The faculty at UR Nursing have real world knowledge, expertise in their fields, and are unbelievably supportive and accommodating. I am excited to share I will walk at the graduation ceremony this Spring and complete my final class this Summer.

Can you share any wisdom for others who are thinking about returning to school?

For anyone thinking about going back to school, take one class, and do your best, no matter what that looks like. Be patient with yourself, celebrate even the tiniest of accomplishments, and don’t lose focus of your life, work, school balance. Moments are not infinite. And remember, lead from the seat you are in.

Learn more about the Leadership in Health Care Systems program.

Categories: Nursing Leadership

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