DA Instructor Teaches Students to Remember Their Humble Beginnings

Kathleen (Kathy) Gonzales is the kind of instructor any student would want to have in their dental assistant program. She is experienced, passionate, and always remembers her humble beginnings.

Kathy’s journey in the dental field started almost 30 years ago. At the time, she was a single mom working a job she didn’t have much interest in. She knew she wanted to get a career going, but she also knew she didn’t have years to spend in school waiting for that to happen. It seemed like everything clicked when she saw an ad for dental assisting.

“I always wanted to be a doctor, but it never panned out that way,” she said. “I saw an ad for a dental assistant school and I thought it was pretty cool. I had an interest in mouths anyway. I always stare at people’s teeth.”

Kathy recalled a few trips to the dentist that really stood out to her. At one, she noticed the rapport between the dentist and his assistant, and she felt like she would enjoy that professional environment. At another visit, the dentist was by himself and took the time to explain what he was doing, and she was interested in every part. She had grown up with a smile she was insecure about, but she knew how easily something like that could be altered and the difference it makes.

“If you like dental, you have some type of artistic skill,” Kathy said. “Dental is 3D art. I like lots of crafts, baking, dancing … everything. It’s artistic, like crafting the perfect smile.”


Even as a dental student, Kathy said her instructor always told her she should teach someday. She had a passion for what she was learning and was eager to pick up more skills.

After graduation, she did just that. She asked to be trained in every skill a dental assistant could do, and over the years, she has done it all and worked in just about every specialty.

“I want to be wanted in the office and needed,” she said. “I got myself cross-trained and did everything I could do. I always tell my students: The more you know, the more valuable you will be and the longer you will stay in an office. Who will they keep? The person who knows more or the person who can only do one thing? I just loved it.”

All that experience, and frustration of working with dental assistants who were not as professional as herself, led Kathy to becoming a Dental Assistant instructor at UEI College in Riverside.

“When I had the opportunity to start teaching, I took it, because I wanted to make the difference,” she said. “I wanted externs to come out knowing how to do their job.”

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What makes Kathy an effective teacher is not only her experience but the way she shares it with her students. She’s passionate about the subject but she is also passionate about each student’s success.

“Here, there are so many students who this is their second chance or even third or fourth chance,” she said. “I tell them I am not here to judge. Right now, this is what we are working on, and this is going to be your career. We’re going to get you going. This is for you. We just try to inspire every single student.”

Sometimes inspiring students means acting as their alarm clock to make sure they get to class. Sometimes it’s taking their calls late at night as they are worried about an assignment. Kathy is down for it all. 

“You want to push. You want them to feel like they can open up to you. You want them to know you are there for them,” she said. “I’ve told students that I guarantee you someone on the campus is going through or has gone through what you are going through. You’re not alone. We are all here for each other. Everybody deserves a second chance. They are trying for a better life.”

“She is always positive,” said Stephanie Navarro, director of education at Riverside. “She’s very positive and open with her students. She encourages them. They know they can go to her for just about anything. She just has a good rapport with the dental students and her fellow dental instructors. There is nothing negative to say about her. She’s good.”

It may be that the reason Kathy is such a positive support for her students is because she lives the lessons she teaches them. She always reminds them to never forget their humble beginnings.

“I always tell them: Don’t forget you were there once and don’t forget your patience,” she said. “My students tell me, ‘You’re so patient with us and so nice.’ I think it’s because I never forget my humble beginnings. When you become a manager or doctor, remember you were an extern too at one time and you didn’t know how to do things. It’s important to treat everyone with patience and kindness.”

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