Terri Tilliss, RDH, MS, MA, PhD, is celebrating her first year of retirement after 43 years with the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine (CU SDM). Hundreds of oral health professionals around the world have been impacted by Tilliss’s teaching. And she’s not done yet.
You’ve been an integral part of this school for 43 years. Take us through your time here and what roles you held.
I started part-time when I was 27 years old in the Dental Hygiene department and became a full-time faculty member when a position opened three years later. Then when the program director retired, I became co-director with Donna Stach, RDH, MEd. We were co-directors until the program closed in 2009.
I was invited to join the Graduate Orthodontics Program by then-Chair Larry Oesterle, DDS, MS, to work with the patients and residents on oral health and preventive/behavior change concepts. He also asked me to be part of the research component of that department, working with residents on their research proposals and projects. Orthodontics was a little foreign to me at first, but I really started to enjoy it. Working with residents was somewhat similar to what I had done for so many years in the Dental Hygiene department; it was another cohesive class of students. It felt like home to me, just in a different arena.
At the same time, when the first class of the Advanced Standing International Student Program (ISP) joined the dental school, I started teaching a communications and behavior change course to help them better understand how to interact with American dental patients, which in some cases is quite different than what they were used to. I taught that course continuously from the first ISP class in 2005 to the time I left in 2022.
In 43 years, I never once woke up and said, “Oh, do I have to go to work today?” Not once. And I think that’s a really neat thing to say about what you do. I was grateful for every opportunity and hopefully I contributed in important ways.
Are there any specific moments that stand out as being especially memorable?
It was really exciting when we moved into the new building on the new campus. When we were at the old building on 9th Avenue and Colorado Boulevard, we would talk about how each health profession was in its own silo and there wasn’t much interaction between the students in different programs, but the vision for the CU Anschutz Medical Campus was to be interdisciplinary. They introduced an Interprofessional Healthcare Ethics course for all health professional students with facilitators from each school, and I was a facilitator from the dental school. That was a nice opportunity to work with students and faculty from programs across campus.
I was also involved in a course at the School of Medicine called Foundations of Doctoring which was all about patient communication skills where actors served as patients. I was able to incorporate some of that curricular content into the communications and behavior change coursework I taught at the dental school for our ISP students.
It was a lot of fun to work with not only dental hygiene students, but also dental students, orthodontic residents and medical students too. I miss interacting with the students and residents quite a lot.
What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments?
I earned my PhD in Health and Behavioral Sciences from CU Denver when I was 50 years old, and that opened a lot of doors for me. I’m really glad I did it. It’s always a good thing to get more education.
One award that stands out was the American Dental Hygienists' Association (ADHA) Warner Lambert Award for Excellence in Dental Hygiene. There were usually four to six people around the country each year who were selected, so it was a big honor. My family, including my children and my parents, all traveled to Washington, D.C., when I received the award, so that was pretty special.
How are you spending your time in retirement?
I’m still involved in a lot of things I was doing before I retired, and I’m still contributing in various ways. I’ve written for publications like the Metro Denver Dental Society (MDDS) The Articulator, the Dimensions of Dental Hygiene journal, the Colorado Dental Hygienists’ Assocation The Explorer, among others. I am also editor of two local monthly publications, and I am vice chair of the Parker Scientific and Cultural Commission in Parker, Colorado, where I live now. I was so afraid of being bored that I may have gotten over-involved!
Retirement has been an adjustment, because teaching really was my life. My kids tell me, “Mom, it’s the only job you ever had!” But I’ve realized that no matter whether I’m there [at the school] or not, I’m always reading and learning and writing and teaching – it's who I am.
Faculty, staff, students and residents gathered to celebrate Dr. Tilliss at a surprise retirement party this fall.