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Darlene Saccuzzo, a professor of Dental Education at South Florida State College, sat in her office on the first day of classes while her new students toured classrooms and lab spaces.
Unannounced and unexpected, in walked Yamilet Pena, an adjunct instructor, who is herself a graduate of the SFSC Dental Education program. “Oh, Professor Saccuzzo, can you give me hug, please,” Pena asked.
Saccuzzo rose gingerly from her chair to embrace her former student and now colleague. “Oh, of course, dear,” Saccuzzo told Pena.
“I’m a hugger,” said Saccuzzo, settling back into her chair.
Now entering her 12th year teaching SFSC students dental instrumentation, pre-clinical dental skills, and infection control, Saccuzzo’s love for teaching and her students is itself infectious.
“Coming to work here gives me the feeling as if I walked into another family,” Saccuzzo said. “For me, it’s important for people to understand what a privilege and joy it is for me to work at SFSC.”
The Baltimore native said the eagerness of her students’ desire to learn and the esprit de corps among the Dental Education staff makes her job “too easy.”
“Simply by her presence, Professor Saccuzzo brings a warmth to our program that endears the students and staff to her,” said Dr. Deborah Milliken, the director of the Dental Education program. “What’s especially touching is how that warmth translates into student engagement with their studies, their motivation to succeed, and the camaraderie among us all.”
One sign of that student success: SFSC’s 2016 class of dental hygiene graduates came out on top on their national board examinations, with a 100 percent pass rate.
Saccuzzo came to SFSC in 2005 at the urging of Rebecca Sroda, then an instructor in SFSC’s dental program. It was Sroda who taught Saccuzzo dental hygiene at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College in North Carolina.
“When I finished my studies, Becky [Sroda] told me she wanted me to work with her teaching students,” Saccuzzo said. “Becky moved to SFSC that year and talked me into following her.”
First, as a part-time instructor, teaching only two days a week, then moving to four days a week, Saccuzzo scored a full-time position in 2006.
“I loved it then, and I love it even more now,” Saccuzzo said of her role teaching students the basic of dental assisting and hygiene.
When Saccuzzo started her dental training at A-B Tech—the moniker by which her school is known—she was no stranger to dental assisting. She had worked in dental offices for 20 years, assisting dentists in caring for their patients.
Saccuzzo, who has a daughter and two adult grandchildren, had lived in central Florida with her husband for much of their marriage. But they dreamed of owning a log cabin in the mountains of North Carolina.
“We did build that log cabin,” Saccuzzo said. “We found a perfect spot in Maggie Valley, outside of Ashville, that offers the most amazing views.”
Saccuzzo lost her husband to cancer. But she continued to call their mountain cabin home.
“I started my dental studies at Valencia College in Florida before my husband got sick, but I stopped to care for him,” Saccuzzo said. “A-B Tech was a short commute from the cabin, so I finished up my two-year dental hygiene degree there.”
For Saccuzzo, returning to school when she was well into her 40s presented no difficulties. “I guess you can say I was a late bloomer,” she said.
“I grew up in a typical big-city, working-class family where my father was a cop and my mother was a homemaker,” Saccuzzo said. “Even though I finished school late, I had always worked.”
In 2015, Saccuzzo’s dedication to her students’ earned her an endowed teaching chair from the SFSC Foundation, an honor that came with a financial award she used to enhance her instruction.
She used the award to acquire a video camera and monitors that has transformed the way she teaches.
“Imagine 12 students crowded around me at a dental chair to watch me demonstrate a procedure and return to their individual patient units to replicate what I just did,” Saccuzzo said. “It’s not the optimal teaching method.”
Now, Saccuzzo trains the camera on a model of a patient’s mouth while performing the procedure. Her movements and techniques appear on a video monitor at each of the 12 students’ patient units, where they can replicate her manner while watching her in real time.
“This new modality has transformed the way we teach at SFSC,” Saccuzzo said. “It has improved student performance and dramatically cut our remediation rate.”
“Our IT staff couldn’t find any other colleges doing this,” Saccuzzo noted. “We’re on the cutting edge here at SFSC.”
The new academic year brought a fresh crop of students into the SFSC dental hygiene and dental assisting programs who will learn that Saccuzzo is a hugger. Joining them are returning second year dental hygiene students honing their skills on patients who visit the SFSC Dental Clinic for examinations, X-rays, and cleanings.
“We’re all here for student success,” Saccuzzo said. “We have a great teaching team, and we have great students. That’s what makes it so easy. That’s why it’s a great job.”
Darlene Saccuzzo (right) with an SFSC dental hygiene student reviewing X-rays in the SFSC Dental Education clinic.