The smooth operation of a dentist’s office requires well-trained dental assistants, and many of them come from Trinidad State. “I think it’s great,” said Dentist Dr. Lon Thurman, “because starting people from scratch takes a lot of time.  This really cuts the gap.” 

Dental Assistant imageThe dynamic and positive Crystal Benavidez leads the program.  She replaced Canada native, Sherry Dufoe-Pratzman, who opened the program in 2017 and recommended Benavidez for the job.

“You have to get hands-on experience and they’re able to hit the ground running pretty fast coming out of the dental assisting program,” said Thurman. Three of his assistants have come out of the Trinidad State program, “and all three have worked out great.”

Other dentists in the San Luis Valley have offered help. Ten dental chairs have already been donated. One came from Dr. Thurman. Retired dentist, Dr. Rick Santi, donated six.  His daughter, Carly Santi Lozoya, who has her master’s in dental hygiene, comes to the class once a semester to review and assess the student’s radiology performance and to certify them for that part of their degree.  When Dr. Richard Williams retired, he donated three chairs with manuals, some instruments and a panoramic X-ray machine.  Many of the donations will be incorporated into a new lab at the college this summer. 

Students are excited about the program.  Ahlisia Gallegos, confessed, “I wanted to do the dental program because I was that weird kid who liked to go to the dentist. Since I was little, I wanted to work with teeth. I love it.  It’s so fun and working in a dental office now is like actually doing it.  It’s just a great time.”

Dental Assistant imageGallegos is one of three students currently working in dental offices, all located in Alamosa.  They all started assisting in December after taking a semester of training.  “I think we were too afraid to work in a dental office at first,” said Gallegos.  “Crystal made us feel more comfortable with the idea. It gave us the confidence we needed to go out and get a job.”  Two of the three are working with dental assistants whom Benavidez trained her first year.

Benavidez’ interest in dental work began when she and her partner moved to Pagosa Springs from the Valley.  She responded to an ad for an office assistant in a dental office.  She had worked in an office setting at Valley Wide in Alamosa for years.  The dentist who hired her noticed her science background and asked if she would be interested in being a dental assistant. Benavidez had earned her bachelor’s in interdisciplinary studies and geology and environmental science at Adams State.

 “At the time I had no clue that teeth have numbers,” said Benavidez.  “I knew we had to brush and floss our teeth and that was the extent of my knowledge of dentistry!” Benavidez was instantly introduced to high tech dental procedures rather than routine dentistry such as fillings. The first day of work the dentist said, “We’re going to extract some bone chips and then we’re going to work with the CO2 laser that helps remove soft tissue and this afternoon we’re going to do an implant.  “That really got my interest,” she said.  “The blood and gore don’t bother me at all, so I said, ‘Sign me up!’”  Her training was tough, requiring research, reading and testing in addition to hands-on work. She learned the trade well. 

After she and her partner moved back to the Valley with their son, Benavidez worked with Public Health as a dental assistant for eight years.  After she left that position, within a few months she was missing the work she had grown to love.  She applied at Dr. Thurman’s dental office where she has worked since.  Meanwhile Trinidad State approached her about replacing instructor Sherry Dufoe-Pratzman who was returning to Canada.  Empowered, by the chance to teach, Benavidez readily accepted the position with Trinidad State. “It has definitely put the spark back in the dental life for me,” she said.

Because classes are Tuesday and Thursday evenings and every other Saturday, Benavidez continues her full-time work with Dr. Thurman, who has generously allowed her to use one of his workstations to train students until her new classroom is ready.  

“We’re definitely like the quarterback of the office,” said Benavidez.  There’s a lot more to assisting than people realize.” Her predecessor said, “They (dental assistants) become a second set of hands for the dentist.  They learn what is wanted before they are even asked.”  Training includes medical emergencies in the dental setting, terminology, dental procedures, dental history, radiology, infection control, how to be a professional and more.

“I think everyone should start off as a dental assistant because it introduces you to everything,” said Benavidez. “From there you can go to oral surgery, or endodontics (treatment of pulp inside a tooth), implants (artificial tooth root for attaching a tooth or bridge), orthodontics (correcting tooth misalignment), or periodontics (gum disease), surgical assistant, office manager, program coordinator, teacher – lots of opportunity.” 

“It’s one thing when a teacher can teach the curriculum but it’s another thing when they have the real-life experience to help you succeed in the field.  She has the ability to form relationships with every one of her students, so it just makes you feel more engaged,” said Gallegos. 

Fifty hours of internship is required for the program – either with a dentist in a dental setting or working directly with Benavidez.  Dianne Gardner is doing her internship with Benavidez.  “I know a little bit about everything,” said Gardner who has studied sociology, psychology, criminal justice, cyber security, programming, coding and more – “but this one stuck.” She was recently hired as a dental assistant in the same office where she has received training.

Molly Cavett, one of the students now working in a dental office, said “When I saw that ad for the program, I decided I’m going to try it.  Crystal’s great.  The program’s great.”

Dental Assistant imageDeedra Gray, an ambitious student who likes variety in her life is a three-time Trinidad State graduate holding an Accounting Clerk certificate, and both Associate of Science and Associate of Arts degrees. “I had always been interested in the dental field and I wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to take on,” she said. “I love it. This is one of my favorite things I’m doing.” Gray now works full-time in a dental office and part-time in the radiology department at the hospital assisting the technicians and scheduling. 

All of the students want to continue in the dental field. ”I want to go to dental school,” said Gallegos.  “I’m doing the assisting program to test the waters. It’s a good place to start and now that I’m doing this and working in it, I love it.  And it’s something I definitely want to do.  I wanted to before, but it gave me the little boost I needed to actually pursue it.  We have a good time, and we learn a lot.” 

Benavidez said in the state of Colorado a person can train directly with a dentist to become certified as a dental assistant or can take a one-year (two semester) course which Trinidad State offers.  The graduate also certifies in the required radiology and in CPR.  The average wage in the Valley runs from $15 to $25 per hour - not bad for two semesters of study.

Benavidez is proud of her students whose average grade on a recent emergency medical exam was 90. 

To learn more, contact LoriRaeHamilton at or 719-846-5524.