‘You can do it, too’

July 9, 2016

In 1973 at JCCC, with four kids under age 10, Nancie Chenoweth began her inspiring educational journey

It was going to be a tough sell. Nancie Chenoweth-Dejmal knew that. Johnson County Community College had just opened its dental hygiene program, and she wanted in. The college needed candidates that would successfully complete the program and go out into the community as shining achievements of what this young college could do.


Except Chenoweth-Dejmal already had four sons, the oldest at 10 years old, the youngest at 2. It was 1973, only a decade after Donna Reed supposedly said, “The phrase ‘working mother’ is redundant.” Women compromised only 30 percent of the labor force (it’s 46 percent in 2016), and despite her good grades, Chenoweth-Dejmal wasn’t sure she’d make the cut.

“I can’t believe I did this: I camped out overnight with a girlfriend in front of the door…We brought sleeping bags, spiced hot tea and a deck of cards,” she said. In those days, she said, if students met the criteria, admission was first-come, first-accepted. (The selection process has changed since then.)

“We slept on the floor ‘til morning,” she said. “That’s how badly I wanted into that program.”

That overnight campout at JCCC was the beginning of a journey that would lead to a master’s degree and a doctorate degree. “If I had not been allowed to attend Johnson County (Community College), I don’t know what I would have done. I used it as a springboard for bigger things.”

Where it started

Chenoweth-Dejmal was at a party, early ‘70s, when a guest began polling the party-goers about what they’d studied in college.

When he turned to Chenoweth-Dejmal, she said, “Well, I don’t have a degree.”

“Oh, that’s all right,” he said. “College isn’t for everyone.”

“Bing, bing – a red flag went off in my head,” she said. That comment for years spurred her forward to degrees and career success.


Becoming a dental hygienist wasn’t going to be easy. JCCC had a tough program, Chenoweth-Dejmal said, confirmed later on in life when she met hygienists educated elsewhere. “My family was a great support system.”  

Chenoweth-Dejmal would rise at 4 a.m. and study until 6. Then she’d make breakfast for the family, collect eggs from her 40 Rhode Island Reds, and then get her children off at school. Her sister took care of the 2-year-old.

“We lived out in the country, in Olathe, so I sold eggs all the way to school. I sold them to other students, to the faculty. They loved my beautiful, big, brown eggs. I paid for my lunches and a few books that way.”

On to more education, more kids

Chenoweth-Dejmal received her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Pittsburg State University. She also adopted a 4-year-old girl. 

A year later, a judge called the family, saying, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but your daughter has two brothers. Can you possibly take them?”  She did.

“All I could think about was, ‘How I could raise seven children and finish my education?’” 

Ultimately, she did, using her PhD to develop a written policy and procedure manual to standardize procedures in any dental practice.

“It’s still used in practices,” she said.   

Setting the example

In her 35-year career, Chenoweth-Dejmal worked as a dental hygienist and an educator of dental hygiene students. One day, a student came to see her, crying. Her baby wasn’t sleeping through the night, the student explained, and the curriculum was just so hard, and …

Chenoweth-Dejmal slowly turned a framed photo her family – picturing all seven children – so the student could see it. “She knew right then she wasn’t going to get off the hook,” Chenoweth-Dejmal said, laughing.

She used the remaining time with the student to share a bit of her own story. I told her, ‘If I can do it, you can do it, too.’ Sometimes all a student needs is someone to listen to them and tell them it’s going to be all right – that you can do it. You have to work hard, but you can do it.”