Promoting success beyond the classroom

The Assistant Dean, Learner Experience (Dentistry) is a newly established role at the School, aiming to infuse a dentistry-specific perspective into the ongoing work of the Learner Experience Office, which supports learners in their personal well-being, promotes their academic success and encourages professional development.

Dr. Maria Jacinta Santos is stepping into the role. Since joining the faculty in 2009, Dr. Santos says she has been eager to seek out new opportunities to engage with students beyond the classroom and support their academic success.

Currently, she is an Associate Professor in Restorative Dentistry, as well as the Chair of Operative Dentistry, the Chair of Endodontics and the Chair of the Internationally Trained Dentists (ITD) Program Committee. She says her intimate understanding of these areas, as well as her experience teaching Dentistry students across all years, in the classroom and in the clinic, has well prepared her to develop meaningful connections with students and represent their needs within her new portfolio. 

Dr. Santos

What have you learned from your past leadership experience at the School?

I have learned to listen to the students. I’ve also learned that students need someone on the Program level to listen and represent them. I have become even more committed to supporting learners, because I believe their success  goes far beyond just academic success.

What does your role as Assistant Dean entail?

My goal is to support learners beyond just a formal delivery of content or skills development. I want to establish meaningful, supportive relationships with students. This is a challenging time for them, the program is challenging, and I believe positive student-faculty interactions can contribute greatly to the undergraduate experience, and their personal and professional development.

If students have any needs for accommodation, or any difficulties going on in their lives, they can reach out to me or the Learner Experience Office, and we will work together to facilitate their needs. We can support students beyond just academic needs and help with their mindset, their professionalism and their wellness. There are facilities at Western that help us to achieve this.

The advantage of having a role specific to Dentistry is that it can address some of the nuances specific to dental students. I can provide more context student needs to the rest of the Learner Experience leadership team including things like how to provide academic requirements so that the student can still complete their pre-clinical and clinical requirements. Through my role as Assistant Dean, I also sit on the student issues committee, and hear from the students directly as well.

What are your priorities for the portfolio?

Because it is a new position, I am evaluating all the services and resources provided by the Learner Experience Office to see if there are areas where we can provide more Dentistry-specific support. I also want to evolve some of the learner support programs that have been working well in Medicine for Dentistry, such as the peer support program.

Why should Dentistry learners take advantage of the resources and opportunities provided by the Learner Experience Office?

It’s important students recognize that they have this resource available to them and there is support for all kinds of things, from developing organization skills to accessing mental health counselling.

What practices or routines do you like to do to promote your own wellness?

When you are feeling overwhelmed, one good piece of advice is to walk away and spend time outside. You shouldn’t pressure yourself to continue what you’re doing until exhaustion. You can walk, look at nature; if you give it time, you will start to relax. It’s important to give time for those feelings to settle.

There are also many wonderful resources online for mindfulness, that offer sessions where you can just listen. There’s usually some good advice, nice background music and some exercises; I find it very helpful for sure. Spending time with family and friends is also a wonderful way to find balance and enjoy yourself.