Deborah Cartee, RDH, MS, an assistant professor and junior clinical coordinator in the dental hygiene program at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry (UMSOD), is living proof of the role a great mentor can play.
She was a young high school student considering her career options when she realized two things: She didn’t aspire to the administrative role she’d seen her own mother, who rose from from an administrative assistant post with the State of Maryland to administrator in Health Benefits, fulfill. But she nonetheless, was drawn to the idea of health care. “I like taking care of people” was as far as her imagination ventured.
But Cartee’s guidance counselor asked if she’d considered the field of dental hygiene, and the rest, as they say, is history. Not only did that comment spur Cartee to think more broadly, but her counselor also helped her land a part-time job where the teen could get a bird’s eye view. The experience was reaffirming and life-changing.
“I worked evenings and Saturdays—it was on-the-job-training—in high school,” Cartee remembers. “It was also very exciting: the idea that this is what I want to be. A dental hygienist is professional, it requires a higher level of education, you work independently, and it’s very hands on.”
After Cartee earned her associate’s degree from Baltimore City Community College, another mentor made a suggestion. “I was a very good student, and she said, ‘You’d be a good educator.’ She actually gave me a job teaching radiology to dental assistants. And, well, you know the trajectory from there,” Cartee recalls.
The Millersville resident now has more than 35 years of clinical experience with the last 14-plus spent teaching fulltime and advocating for her chosen field. She estimates that more than 500 students have studied in her classroom—a realization that is both exciting and humbling.
“I would never have guessed in a million years that I’d be at the University of Maryland teaching,” she says, laughing. “Even now, sometimes, I have to pinch myself.”
She’s also excelled at advancing the field – as five-time recipient of UMSOD’s Teacher of the Junior Year award, past president and legislative chair of the Maryland Dental Hygienists’ Association, 2012 recipient of MDHA’s Symbol of Excellence award, and current Maryland State Educator’s Network Representative for the American Dental Hygienists’ Association.
Cartee takes particular pride in being able to advocate for women’s health and education.
Helping others identify dental hygiene as their avocation and receive they training they need to become successful professionals has become a passion. “When I was at a student at Baltimore City Community College, there were many women who were struggling parents looking for careers where they could better care for their families and know their children would have better lives,” and I have enjoyed helping them do exactly that.
In many ways, this gifted student, educator and advocate’s career has come full circle. Cartee often gets thank you notes from students who say she’s inspired them.
As one student wrote, Cartee’s professionalism made her stand out. “She was and is someone I admire as a clinician and a teacher because it means more to her to produce a quality practitioner for society than to be ‘the cool teacher’. And, to me that makes her the coolest."