Alexandra Lucken, dental hygenist
ALEXANDRA LUCKEN: “Having something in common with my patients helps them feel a little bit more confident.”

Smiles All Around

A scholarship program from Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation aims to diversify the dental profession in Central Minnesota.

By Elizabeth Foy Larsen | Photography by John Linn

In 2017, Alexandra Lucken graduated from Minnesota State University, Mankato, and was set to embark on a career in marketing. Then, her father got sick and she moved back home to Pierz. She was able to find a job in her field, but the work was mostly done via computer, which didn’t play to her strengths as a people person.

So, it was a welcome opportunity when Lucken learned about the Dental Assistant Diploma at Central Lakes College (CLC) in Brainerd. A one-year course that prepares students to become dental assistants, the diploma is the ticket to a career that includes teaching patients about oral hygiene, taking and developing X-rays and assisting dentists during treatment procedures. Graduates can also go on to become dental hygienists, dental sales representatives and dental therapists, which are licensed practitioners who work with a dentist and provide basic dental treatments such as fillings.

Lucken had received her associate’s degree at CLC, so she was already familiar with the campus and the community. To make sure she could see a future for herself in this potential career, she shadowed a dental assistant and discovered that the direct interaction with patients appealed to her.

Lucken was 22-years-old when she entered the CLC program, which meant she was an adult, with real-life expenses and bills to pay. To make ends meet, she worked daily from 5 to 8 a.m. before long days of classes that started at 9 a.m. Exhausted and looking for some options, she confided in LeAnn Schoenle, a CLC dental instructor.

Schoenle suggested that Lucken, who is of Sioux heritage, apply for a Diversity in the Dental Workforce in Central Minnesota scholarship. Sponsored by the Initiative Foundation through a $200,000 grant from the Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation, the Diversity in the Dental Workforce program was created in 2014 to increase the gender, racial and cultural diversity of a field that is almost entirely white and English-speaking—two qualities that don’t fully match the changing demographics of the region.

“The Foundation’s purpose is to improve the oral health of Minnesotans, and this funding is encouraging the workforce that is needed to be successful,” said Joseph Lally, the executive director of Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation. Since 2010, Delta Dental of Minnesota Foundation has funded projects around the state to improve oral health through dental workforce innovation, increased access to care and prevention efforts.

During the years it was offered—this school year marks the end of the program—the scholarship helped 20 students from diverse backgrounds at both CLC and St. Cloud Technical & Community College (SCTCC) complete the program.

The scholarship helps push the dentistry field to better meet the needs of its patients. “Disadvantaged populations, including new Americans, often experience greater oral health issues due to economic constraints as well as cultural and language barriers,” said Annesa Cheek, SCTCC’s president.

“Providing educational grant opportunities to recruit and retain a more inclusive and representative student population into dental health programs has introduced students, who would not otherwise have explored a career in the dental health field, to these programs. These students have graduated from dental assistance programs, entered the workforce earning sustainable wages, and become ambassadors to reach under-represented populations who may not have knowledge of or access to preventative and restorative oral health care.”

Beyond Good Intentions

The idea for the diversity scholarship was born in 2013, when the Initiative Foundation was launching other programs to improve the dental health of the region’s young children. “We quickly discovered that our intentions were good, but our cultural agility was not as polished as one would like,” said Don Hickman, the Foundation’s vice president for community and workforce development. Case in point: In an effort to serve children from the region’s East African community, a one-time free clinic in a St. Cloud church basement wasn’t staffed with anyone who spoke the Somali language. Furthermore, the male dentist received his patients alone in a private room, which is not a scenario that is comfortable or appropriate for some devout Muslim women.

“Everyone had good intentions and gave each other grace,” said Hickman. “But we realized that if we really want to reach people who are struggling to access care, we have to be smarter about what their needs are.”

These lessons in sensitivity can start in the classroom. “A more diverse setting within the medical assistant program helped all of our students learn a lot more about each other,” said Mary Sam, CLC’s director of diversity and a former member of the Initiative Foundation’s Board of Trustees. “And I think that experience is going to make each one of those students, as they go out into their professional careers, a little bit more culturally competent—more empathetic, more compassionate, and to be able to serve people better as a result of their relationships that they established here at Central Lakes College.”

The hope is that this initiative will ultimately improve dental care throughout the region. “We want our kids, our elders, our families to see people that look and feel like them in the places where they receive pretty intimate care,” said Sam. “If people feel safe in the surroundings, I think they are more apt to go back, ask tough questions about their health and invest more in their care.”

New Opportunities

That sense of personal empowerment is important to SCTCC grad Dominique Kotzer. Kotzer, who is Latina, moved from her hometown of Fargo to St. Cloud in 2015 and heard about the dental assistance program from friends who were already employed in the field. She entered the program in 2017. To support herself, she worked the 2 to 10 p.m. shift at a nursing home in Howard Lake. After breaking up with a live-in partner, she moved out of her apartment and kept her clothes in her car while she couch surfed at friends’ homes. The scholarship allowed her to work fewer hours and stabilize her housing. She landed a fulltime job as a dental assistant at Crow Wing Dental in Delano after graduation.

“I love it,” she says of the close-knit work atmosphere. She believes that diversity in the field of dentistry is important. “Everyone comes from a different background, especially different cultures,” she said. “I think it just broadens your horizons on how you see the world, especially in the dental field.” She believes that diversity in the field of dentistry is important. “Everyone comes from a different background, especially different cultures,” she said. “I think it just broadens your horizons on how you see the world, especially in the dental field.”

The broadening of horizons that was initiated by the dental diversity program even made its way to the offices of the Initiative Foundation. “It was our first program that intentionally sought to serve people of color and new Americans,” said Hickman. “We learned so much about how one humbly approaches and learns how to engage with diversity, equity and inclusion. Thanks to this project we have become a far more diverse staff and have changed many of our practices.”

For Alexandra Lucken, the scholarship turned out to be the pathway to a rewarding career. “I love the patient contact,” she said. “You are caring for a person, helping them out.”

Lucken feels that her background is an asset to her workplace. ”I think diversity is hugely important,” she said. “Having something in common with my patients helps them feel a little bit more confident.”

Dominique Kotzer Dental
DOMINIQUE KOTZER: “Everyone comes from a different background, especially different cultures.”

How can the Initiative Foundation help you advance diversity, equity and inclusion in all its forms in your sector?

Contact Don Hickman at or (320) 631-2043.