Froedtert Scholarship Gives Dental Hygiene Graduate Plenty of Reasons to Smile

Mexico native and mother of three among first Froedtert scholarship recipients to earn associate degree

Mark Feldmann,

March 01, 2024

Ana Cardenas

This scholarship was a huge blessing...I didn’t have to worry about how we were going to handle everything with our finances. It made so much difference.

Ana Paulina Cardenas MATC Dental Hygiene graduate, Froedtert Memorial Hospital Scholar

On a partly cloudy, chilly day in early February, Ana Paulina Cardenas arrived at the Dental Associates office on Miller Park Way, ready to work.

She had been at the West Milwaukee dental practice for more than 20 years, serving first as a receptionist then as a certified dental assistant.

But on this day she was something new: a full-fledged, board-certified, state-licensed dental hygienist ready to treat her first patient.

“I couldn’t believe that I was already doing this,” said Cardenas, who earned an associate degree from Milwaukee Area Technical College in December 2023. “I’m not going to lie; I was a little nervous. But I loved every minute of it. I actually enjoyed it even more than I thought I would.”

ana-cardenas-froedtert-scholar.pngFor Cardenas, who came to the United States from Mexico as a child, her educational journey was challenging and demanding. She attended classes at MATC while she worked, completed assignments at night and on weekends and raised her three children. Paying for tuition, books and equipment fees stretched the household budget.

“It could be quite difficult at times,” she said. “But my husband of 22 years (Fausto Islas) was a huge help and I couldn’t have done it without him. Many nights I did my homework together with my kids. My sisters and my brother were also there when I needed them. They were all part of my support system.”

She also received some much-needed financial assistance from the Froedtert Memorial Hospital Scholarship program, established in June 2021 when Froedtert Health gave $6 million to the MATC Foundation to help students pursuing healthcare careers, such as nursing, dental hygiene, surgical technology, medical assistant and pharmacy technician.

The Froedtert scholarships cover tuition, required books and supplies, and licensure exam fees. They also include a stipend and access to emergency grant funding. 

MATC awarded Froedtert scholarships to 48 students in the fall of 2023. Cardenas was among four students who completed their studies and graduated in December 2023, said Vee Tillotson, an MATC graduate project assistant who works with the Froedtert scholarship recipients.

“This scholarship was a huge blessing,” Cardenas said. “When it came, it was such a relief. There was equipment I needed to get and exams I had to register for. With the scholarship, I didn’t have to worry about how we were going to handle all that with our finances. It made so much difference.”

Learn about the Froedtert Memorial Hospital Scholarship

Cardenas was born in Michoacan, Mexico, and immigrated with her parents to California when she was 5 years old. The family moved to Wisconsin in 1992. She graduated from Wauwatosa West High School in 2001 and started classes at MATC.

“But, as often happens, life got in the way,” she said. 

Cardenas got married, took a job, and eventually had a son (Fernando Islas) and two daughters (Carolina and Jimena Islas). At Dental Associates, she worked in various positions, but thought she could do more. She decided on dental hygiene. 

“The office staff was supportive and always motivated me,” she said. “I felt like I was gaining a lot of knowledge in the field. I wanted to help people, and I feel it’s very rewarding.”

She started taking science courses at MATC and was admitted into the Dental Hygiene program in 2021. She learned how to clean teeth, administer fluoride treatments, process X-rays and provide dental counseling. Her three children helped by serving as patients during her courses.

Program instructor Cynthia Nienhuis, M.Ed., remembered Cardenas was a diligent, attentive student who received high marks from her patients and always assisted her classmates when needed.

“Ana showed up every day eager to learn, focused on doing her best, with a caring attitude and professional demeanor,” Nienhuis said. “The rapport Ana developed with her patients was evident in positive survey responses. As a bilingual speaker, she was called upon to translate for others in the clinic, and she did so without hesitation. As one of her instructors, I am proud to have Ana represent MATC as she enters the dental hygiene profession.”

“I could recognize her passion in not only being an outstanding student, but also her drive to achieve her dream of becoming a professional,” said Tonia Morley, MATC’s Dental Program Chair and a Dental Hygiene instructor. “Ana’s family is extremely important to her. She knew this path would help her family to be more successful. Ana is a team player and provides top-notch care for each of her patients. She has excellent communication skills, empathy and was able to adapt to the variety of situations required as a Dental Hygiene student.”

“My instructors at MATC were amazing,” Cardenas said. “Whenever I had questions or concerns, I reached out and they were there. They showed us it was OK to make mistakes in the classroom so we could learn and not make mistakes on the job. That made me feel better about what I was doing and made my experience so much better.”

Cardenas received the Froedtert scholarship in her final semester, and it helped pay for her board certification and state exams to earn her license. At the beginning of February, she started her new position.

Being a native Spanish speaker, Cardenas is excited to help the Hispanic/Latino/a patients who come to the clinic. 

“I’m very proud of being bilingual and that I can educate and communicate with the people in my community,” she said. “Dental hygiene, proper brushing and flossing is so important and can affect so much in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, especially in patients who might be managing diabetes or high blood pressure.” 

Down the road, Cardenas is thinking about earning a bachelor’s degree and perhaps even a master’s degree. She’s taking a year off from school to relax a little, pay off some debts and settle into her new job.

“It’s all about getting into the flow of seeing patients,” she said. “I’m working to get used to that right now. I don’t know if my first patient knew they were my first patient, but I marked it down in their chart.”

Learn about MATC’s Dental Hygiene program

About MATC: Wisconsin’s largest technical college and one of the most diverse two-year institutions in the Midwest, Milwaukee Area Technical College is a key driver of southeastern Wisconsin’s economy and has provided innovative education in the region since 1912. More than 30,000 students per year attend the college’s four campuses and community-based sites or learn online. MATC offers affordable and accessible education and training opportunities that empower and transform lives in the community. The college offers more than 180 academic programs — many that prepare students for jobs immediately upon completion and others that provide transfer options leading to bachelor’s degrees with more than 40 four-year colleges and universities. Overwhelmingly, MATC graduates build careers and businesses in southeastern Wisconsin. The college is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission.

ABOUT MATC FOUNDATION:  The MATC Foundation is the philanthropic partner of Milwaukee Area Technical College. Since 1979, it has collaborated with civic leaders, employers, regional residents, the college community and alumni to create accessible paths to family-sustaining employment through large-scale, career focused scholarships and other student financial support programs like quick-turnaround emergency grants. The Foundation’s work ultimately promotes economic opportunity for MATC students, their families and the entire region. In addition, the Foundation supports vital college initiatives and is the trusted fiscal steward for Milwaukee PBS, a viewer service of MATC. For more information, visit,