Dental hygiene graduate receives 2012 Alumna of the Year award

Taline D. Infante, M.S., RDH and Diana Cudeii

Taline D. Infante, M.S., RDH (right), interim chair of the Department of Dental Hygiene, present Diana Cudeii with the department’s 2012 Alumna of the Year Award.

Receiving the 2012 Alumna of the Year award from the Department of Dental Hygiene is not only a major professional achievement, but one that brings special pride to Diana Cudeii, an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation.

Having grown up on a reservation in Shiprock, N.M., known as the “Four Corners” of the Southwest, Cudeii experienced firsthand the economic and educational challenges faced by many Native Americans. But she possessed a strong interest in science, the desire to receive an education and a responsibility to her people.

After earning a dental assisting certificate from the University of New Mexico in 1984, she entered private practice. Three years later, she moved to San Antonio and decided to continue her education at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. In the university’s School of Health Professions, Cudeii found a positive, supportive environment. “They challenged me in every way to expand my knowledge and to go one step beyond my own expectations,” she said. In 1992, Cudeii received a dental hygiene certificate with honors.

Cudeii worked as a dental hygienist in private practices but found working with federal, state, county, city and tribal organizations to be more rewarding. She and her husband, who is a dentist in public health service and a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, settled in Flagstaff, Ariz., where Cudeii established her own dental consulting business. She later completed an early childhood education program at Coconino Community College, earned her bachelor’s degree with honors in liberal studies and psychology and a master’s with distinction in applied communications from Northern Arizona University (NAU) while working part time as a clinical instructor in NAU’s dental hygiene program.

Cudeii said, “The American Indian populations are still struggling to reduce the health disparities within their communities. The dynamic interplay of culture, economic, education, and social factors need to be considered if the health of people is to be improved.”

Today Cudeii is the study coordinator and tribal liaison for a community-based oral health project that is studying two different intervention models utilizing trained community members to provide dental education and services to prevent early childhood caries. The National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research funds the seven-year program, based at the University of Colorado-Denver’s Centers for American Indian and Alaska Native Health.

“As a native person, woman, daughter, sister, aunt and grandmother, Diana has shown strength, commitment, activism, confidence and optimism while critically observing and expressing the urgent need for ways to improve overall health of all Native American nations,” said Maxine Janis, RDH, M.P.H., who nominated her for the alumna award. Janis, a member of the Lakota Nation, is assistant professor of dental hygiene at NAU.

Cudeii said, “For the contemporary Native American women, it is often a negotiation between several western and indigenous social institutions. Education and effective tribal leadership are critical aspects in sustaining traditional philosophy and cultural identity to ensure tribal survival. Traditional tribal teaching says that life’s journey should have meaning and purpose.”

She added, “My overall experience at the UT Health Science Center was exceptional in its academics and influential in my embracing a stronger commitment to succeed and contribute. The dental hygiene program helped me become an effective advocate in my chosen work, and to stay true and strong to the principles of dental hygiene which include social responsibility, professionalism, compassion and ethics — and most importantly, to challenge the way things have always been done.”

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