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VSAC adult education funding helps adult learner Lucie Hobbs-Johnson go to dental hygiene school at Vermont State University-Williston

Written by
VSAC Staff

June 12, 2024


Lucie Hobbs-Johnson standing near giant tooth

“I’m a late bloomer,” says Lucie Hobbs-Johnson with a broad smile.

At the age of 49, she’s just finished her first year of dental hygiene school at Vermont State University-Williston (VTSU). Going back to school and becoming a hygienist represents the fulfillment of a longtime dream for Lucie, who wants to make her family proud. It’s also an opportunity to serve as a mother figure and a caregiver for her community, after an unthinkable tragedy cut short her own experience of parenthood.  

“I’m a bit of a unicorn, and I’m okay with that.”

Lucie acknowledges her path is unusual. But, she says, that’s fine with her.

“The other students here are so much younger. I’m like their mom, helping them fix their collars and straighten their masks,” she laughs. “But I like living in the dorms and being around young energy. It’s a nice atmosphere, and it keeps me going.”

Planting seeds and growing roots

Originally from Erie, Pennsylvania, Lucie went to culinary school in North Miami and started her professional life in Boston, where she worked in the catering department at Harvard Business School. While she enjoyed the job, a conversation with her hygienist at a dental appointment planted the seed for a future life change.

“I chatted with her, and I asked her questions about her job. It sounded interesting, and I liked the fact that they can set their own schedules and have the freedom to move around to different practices. It sounded like something I could do,” she recalls.

After getting married in 2015, she moved to Vermont in the fall of 2017 and stayed in the food industry, working at Vermont Creamery for a couple of years. But when the pandemic happened, Lucie says, it felt like a wake-up call. “I remember thinking, ‘What are you doing?’ It felt like I was just going through the motions. I wanted to do something different.”

The pandemic also ushered in an opportunity for aspiring students like Lucie, when many states, including Vermont, made more funds available for education, especially in high-demand fields—including health care and dentistry. “So I thought, ‘let’s take some classes and see what it’s like,’” Lucie says. “I wanted to help people, and this is something I could really help my community with.”

Honoring family and pushing through tragedy

For Lucie, going back to school also felt like an opportunity to honor her family.

My parents worked hard to send me to private school when I was younger, but I never finished college, which was a dream they had for me. I wanted that for myself, too. I also want my daughter Liza Avery to have two parents who have degrees and took chances.

While that’s a sentiment shared by many parents, Lucie’s experience of parenthood is far more tragic than most. Lucie and her former wife lost their daughter at the age of six months. Born prematurely, Liza caught a staph infection in the hospital, and while she fought hard, she never made it home.

“The short time we had with Liza was life-changing,” says Lucie. While she had never envisioned herself as a parent earlier in her life, she says seeing her daughter’s birth made her want to be a mom. “Now, I want to be as strong as she was. I want to keep fighting, and I want to make her proud.”

Hearing Lucie talk about pushing through that tragedy—and then pushing through numerous setbacks to her dream of continuing her education—it’s hard to imagine someone stronger.

Pulling magic to support students

Ran Wang is an outreach counselor with VSAC’s Educational Opportunity Center, or EOC, which counsels adults who wish to continue their education in pursuit of career change or advancement. She’s worked with Lucie for two and a half years, matching her up with educational grants and emergency funding to help her with unexpected financial challenges. “Lucie is determined to become a dental hygienist. For many reasons, she couldn’t just go for it, but the dream has never gone away, and she’s worked incredibly hard.”

Before Lucie could apply to the dental hygiene program, she went back to school for two years to complete the prerequisite courses. Then, when she enrolled at VTSU, it was in an accelerated program, which wasn’t the best fit for a student with a learning disability. “I had never worked in a dental office before,” says Lucie, who has ADHD.

But I got into the program, I gave it my best go, and I missed the mark by three points. There were five or six of us who didn’t make it to the second semester. It definitely hurt, getting that letter. But then my stubborn side came out, and I thought: ‘You’re not going to tell me I can’t do this.’

Lucie reapplied the following year and was initially put on a waiting list. But then, two weeks into the term, the registrar called and left her a message at work.

When they called me, I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I had just started working full-time as Dr. Pamela Martin’s dental assistant at Northern Counties Dental Center in Hardwick, and I had just signed a new lease ... But I went home and I slept on it, and I made a deal with myself. I decided that if I didn’t meet any resistance, I’d go for it.

Lucie’s landlord cancelled her lease with no questions asked. The dental office changed her work schedule to part-time, per diem. And VSAC, with Ran’s help, secured the funding Lucie needed to cover her tuition, as well as several unexpected expenses.

“There’s no way I could have done this without VSAC,” Lucie says.

When I needed a new computer, they found funds for me. When I had an emergency with my vehicle, they helped me out. Ran has come through each and every time. I’m so glad to have her on my side. I go to her and I’m all frantic, and she says, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ She pulls magic out. I’m just awestruck how she’s helped me along and encouraged me.

Community comes through

This time, Lucie is in the regular three-year dental hygiene program, not the accelerated track, and it’s a much better fit. “While the material is the same, the teaching style is different—and I got straight A’s the first semester,” Lucie says proudly. “That made me think, ‘I’m not going to just pass—I’m going to do well! I love being back.”

Lucie says the most challenging aspect of her classes has been the science. “I wasn’t a science person in school. But I didn’t want to say what I said in the past: ‘I can’t do math,’ or ‘I can’t do chemistry.’ What do you mean, ‘can’t?’” she says.

When I hear that voice, I ask myself, ‘Well, why can’t you?’ I’ve come this far. I can do it. I may take a little extra time, because my brain works differently, but I think that’s an asset. I like what I bring to it. And I can still fall in line with everyone else.

This past semester, Lucie started seeing patients for the first time, and she’s been amazed at how many of her friends and neighbors from central Vermont have gone out of their way to support her—even her former (almost) landlord, who voided her lease with no penalties so she could re-enroll in school. “People have offered to drive all the way from central Vermont—from Brookfield, Graniteville and Hardwick—to spend a couple of hours in the dentist chair with me. They want to help me out and support me. It’s impressive. It feels like so many hands lifting me up.”

“My community is coming through for me,” says Lucie, who is particularly grateful to her former wife and to her VTSU dental professors, Leslie Hills and Heather Blair. “My wife always encouraged me, and she continues to support me in this journey, even though we’re no longer together. And I just really look up to Professor Hills and Professor Blair. When I start to doubt myself, they don’t let me.”  

There's always a way

“I’m a people person,” says Lucie. “You hear lots of different stories from people in the dental chair. It’s a close, almost intimate relationship, and it involves a lot of trust. I also didn’t realize so many people were afraid to go to the dentist. To have someone come in, scared and shaking, and then have them leave and make a second appointment, makes me feel good.

“I also like seeing the difference good dental care can make for people, especially for restorations. It’s beautiful to see someone who was shy about smiling, finally be able to smile and relax. It’s a big deal. It opens doors. It helps people live their full potential.”

If anyone should know about that, it’s Lucie.

“For years, I’ve been a naysayer. Now I’m here and I’m doing it. I’m living proof: there is a way.”