As a child, Rhonda Schwalbe was fascinated by mouths.

“When she was little, she was always feeling around in our mouths, pulling on our lips, sticking her fingers in there,” said her mother, Jean Schwalbe. “She had a little toy nurse’s kit, and she would climb up with the stethoscope and tell us to open our mouth.”

Schwalbe was poking around in her mother’s mouth again the other day, but this time she was getting college credit for it. Her mother and father, Jon, both drove hours from Manitowoc, Wis., to Normandale Community College in Bloomington, where Rhonda is a second-year student in the dental hygiene program. Along with more than a dozen other patients, the Schwalbes were getting an exam and a cleaning in the Normandale dental hygiene clinic.

Normandale is one of only six Minnesota community colleges with a dental hygiene program. The college recently won a $1.6 million federal grant to lead an effort to improve hygienist training and increase access to dental care in underserved areas of Minnesota.

Minnesota has a shortage of hygienists in rural areas of the state. In addition, waves of baby boomer dentists are expected to be retiring in the coming years.

The solution? Step up training for licensed dental therapists and advanced dental therapists. These are hygienists who can also perform simple dental procedures like fillings and extractions under a dentist’s supervision. The concept is similar to physician assistants and certified nurse practitioners, who now handle many simple medical treatments that once required an M.D.

“Dentists are retiring. Who’s going to replace them?” said Colleen Brickle, dean of health sciences at Normandale. Brickle, who began her own career as a dental hygienist, is stressing to students the opportunities available to those who continue for advanced training beyond their associate degree.

The college has a dual enrollment program with Metro State University that allows students to work on their bachelor’s and associate’s degrees simultaneously, and seamlessly transition to a master’s program. Under the grant, that program will be expanded to other community colleges and universities within the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

And although the college can’t require its students to head for the hinterlands of Minnesota upon graduation, the school works to build a sense of public service, said Debra Sidd, a dental hygiene faculty member.

“We encourage them to think of the impact they could have in an area of need,” Sidd said. “We try to instill the passion, knowledge and skill to help those in need.” In addition, dental therapists and advanced dental therapists are eligible for student loan forgiveness if they work in underserved areas.

The Normandale clinic schedule varies based on the students’ academic demands, but anywhere from five to eight clinical sessions a week during the school year is typical. Patients pay $50 for an initial exam with X-rays; fillings range from $25 to $45 per tooth, with extractions about $30.

The desire to serve is what motivates Masrudin Aliy, a second-year student. Aliy grew up in Ethiopia, where there are few dental clinics, especially in rural areas.

“It is very common for people to lose their teeth,” said Aliy, 27, who came to the United States at age 16. He was cleaning the teeth of Willy Brown, a north Minneapolis resident who hadn’t had a cleaning in more than five years.

“I want to help people,” Aliy said. “I believe I can make a difference.”