Rochester Community and Technical College students Ashley Carter and Paige Overgaard met each other for the first time at orientation. That day, they decided to become roommates and soon became best friends.

Now, the friends are making history at RCTC by becoming the first students to graduate simultaneously from both RCTC and Metropolitan State University through the school’s Dual Enrollment Dental Hygiene Program.

The dual-track program was created two years ago and is the only one of its kind at the college. It allows RCTC students working to become dental hygienists to take classes from two colleges at the same time — thus avoiding the hassle of transferring.

Now, both Carter and Overgaard are poised to receive both their associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, one from RCTC, the other from Metro, within weeks of each other.

“We were lucky to have each other,” Overgaard said. “I don’t know if it would have been the same way doing it alone. It was a lot of work.”

RCTC will hold its Commencement Ceremony at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Regional Sports Center, where an estimated 840 students will graduate.

The dental hygiene program shows how community colleges such as RCTC are aligning more of their programming to workforce needs, officials say.

Dental hygiene is one example where the need is great. During the last several years, RCTC has developed transfer pathways designed to address needs in other high-demand fields — from biology and business to criminal justice and mass communications — so that a two-year degree at RCTC feeds into a career, often through a four-year university.

“It really comes down to creating those opportunities to fill the needs in the workforce,” said Nate Stoltman, executive director of communications, marketing and external relations.

What made the dental hygiene program different is that instead of transferring from RCTC to a university and doing their work consecutively, Ashely and Overgaard did it concurrently.

Though the program was designed to be finished in two years, the students found themselves putting in hours that made it feel like a full-time job — one with lots of overtime.

“The unique thing about Paige and Ashley is both of them did the program exactly as it was laid out,” said Anne High, an RCTC dental hygiene teacher. “You might look at it and go, ‘Wow, how could anybody do that in two years?’ I know I did.”

The two took two or three extra classes each semester and a full load of classes in the summer. After a full day at RCTC, they would return home at night, set the timer on their phones and work for another hour on their Metro classes. All but one of their Metro classes was an online course.

They had one-day-a-week, part-time jobs to earn some spending money, but so tightly was their day compressed that if the job had been more than that, they would have been overwhelmed, Overgaard said.

They developed a fierce task-oriented mentality.

“It helped to have some else push you along,” Carter said. “We were able to be like, ‘OK we have this due. Let’s go do it. Let’s go to Caribou. Let’s get it done.’”

Neither Carter nor Overgaard started off wanting to be dental hygienists. Overgaard started out wanting to be an elementary school teacher, Carter a sign language interpreter. When both made the switch to dental hygiene, they had the bulk of general education requirements taken care of.

It helped that the programs from the two schools complemented each other. While the RCTC program focused on the training needed to be a hygienist, the Metro program explored ways of serving underserved populations and bringing care to them though community clinics and mobile units.

Getting a four-year degree puts them in a better position to advance their careers than a two-year degree would, both said. Both plan to start work after graduation where salaries for new hygienists can range from $62,000 to $80,000. Eventually Carter is interested in becoming a clinic instructor, and Overgaard intends to get her master’s degree.

“It wasn’t necessarily easy, but it was definitely worth it,” Carter said.

What's your reaction?