Professor wins excellence award

Passion for teaching — and teeth — is recognized

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Spend an hour with Prof. Maureen Tsorkis, chairman of the Dental Hygiene department at Farmingdale State College, and it’s easy to understand why she was one of this year’s winners of the State University of New York Excellence in Faculty Service award. Passionate about the school, her department and her subject, the Seaford resident has served the department she helped build since starting as an adjunct faculty member in 1986, and she clearly loves her work.

Tsorkis is one of 10 Farmingdale faculty members to win the state university system’s top award this year — a remarkable achievement for the school, which generally garners one or two winners per year, according to Media Relations Manager Peter Cresenti. The school also won seven awards for outstanding undergraduates, he said.

Until 2017, Tsorkis’s department offered only two degrees — an associate’s degree in dental hygiene and a bachelor’s-completion program for students who had already received their A.S. degrees. Two years ago, the school began offering a full four-year bachelor’s degree in dental hygiene.

Tsorkis has seen a marked increase in the quality of students entering the program in recent years. She acknowledged that cost might be a factor in some cases, especially when students are coming right out of high school. But Farmingdale’s program is rated one of the top 10 in the country, “so it’s really the quality of the program that draws them,” she added.

Many of the program’s older students already have degrees, are already working in the field and have families, Tsorkis said. For them the programs offer a number of advantages, particularly the online learning component. “They can come home, grab a bite to eat, change into their pajamas and turn on the computer,” she said, clearly amused by the image.

“Our graduates can earn as much as $30 to $50 an hour,” she said, “and they’re qualified to work in several specialties of dental hygiene. They can do clinical practice for a few days a week, with maybe a day or two each of pediatric or periodontal work. And they can earn as much working three or four days a week as they could working full-time in other fields.” For families with young children, that is a very attractive option, she said.

And “our students are very motivated,” she added emphatically. “They really want to be here.”

Farmingdale students can also gain firsthand experience at a dental clinic operated by SUNY Stony Brook, Tsorkis said. “It’s a win-win: the patients get great care at reasonable rates, and the students get hands-on experience in a lot of different situations.”

She said her students also assisted in a volunteer clinic several years ago in rural Virginia. “They were some of the worst teeth I ever saw,” she recalled, describing a landscape of oral devastation. The children had never seen a dentist at all.” As she spoke, it was clear that being able to give those children the gift of a smile was a high point in her career.

Such problems aren’t unusual in rural areas, she said, especially since lack of dental insurance is common in all parts of the country, and dentistry hasn’t developed programs similar to physician’s-assistant programs. In some remote areas, dental hygienists are now permitted to do common procedures like extractions, Tsorkis said.

Her favorite part of the job is the students, she said. “I love those ‘aha’ moments, when you can see them really getting it.” Her least favorite part? “The paperwork,” she said. With a student-to-faculty ratio of just three to one, Farmingdale faculty may have more paperwork than most, although she was philosophical about it — it’s just part of the job, she said.

Tsorkis earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Joseph College, a master’s from Long Island University and her doctorate from Dowling College. Doctoral programs in dental hygiene don’t yet exist, she said, so, as is the case with many of her colleagues, her doctorate is in educational leadership.

Like all SUNY schools, Farmingdale requires full-time faculty to have master’s degrees, at a minimum. Adjunct faculty members are sometimes hired with the proviso that they complete their master’s within a specified time frame.

In her free time, Tsorkis loves to read — “anything,” she said, but she especially loves mystery novels. When not reading, she takes walks with her husband, Steve, who was once one of her patients.