But the Ministry of Health’s strategy to send dental workers to run clinics in the Pa Enua is not new – Vaeau’s classmates will be following a proud tradition.
Vaeau won the top academic award, and said she was grateful to have made it through her two years of studying.
She has started work at the Dental Clinic in Tupapa and said her first day was nothing new, because it was exactly what they were trained to do during their practical.
“All my family members are maternity nurses, nurses, health inspectors, et cetera, so I wanted to be something different I guess.
“I thought ‘Hey, we have no dentist in the family, so why not be the first?’.”
Former dental nurse Teremoana Napa knows better than anyone what the younger dental workers will face on the job in the Pa Enua – as a young woman she would go from island to island with her motorbike, her pedal-powered dental drill and her baby daughter.
In her day, Napa said they were supervised by senior staff for around three years, until they were confident that they could do the work on their own.
When she returned from New Zealand in 1969 after graduating as a dental nurse, she had a supervisor for a whole year she learned more practical work.
But when she first went on to Mangaia, she had to leave all her book learning behind.
“I was told to stop thinking text book, get out of the training school mode,” she said.
In her days, she was sent out to the outer islands including Mangaia and Aitutaki, where she spent 13-months treating dental cavities and giving advice for children.
She was glad the new graduates were heading out to the outer islands as the service and staff were needed there.
Secretary for Health Dr Josephine Aumea Herman said: “They are going to lead our services in the Pa Enua and focus in the prevention of tooth decay so that we achieve our goals to ensure excellent oral health services in the Cook Islands.”
The diploma in dental therapy programme was of strategic importance to the health ministry in addressing issues of human resource needs or the shortage of services especially in the Pa Enua.
She said the programme was developed and has allowed them to recruit and train staff in the workforce that will in turn allow them to place the oral health staff in the outer islands.
She said with many of the graduates flying out to the outer islands soon, just having trained people for the Pa Enua, would mean people in the Pa Enua will access oral health services properly.
She said the ministry recognises the importance of having skilled and competent workforce and the training has provided the ministry the opportunity to upskill some staff through the programme.
She added that they are being mindful that the field of dentistry is rapidly evolving and it is important that the staff remain abreast of these changes and relevant in their practise.