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Student Perspective on the First Year Experience in Optometry School

Barbara McGinley, M.A.

Most students find that their first year of optometry school differs greatly from their undergraduate experience and that the transition from undergraduate student to future optometrist contains many unexpected challenges, with one of the largest being the added volume and intensity of coursework.  First year fall semester curriculum at The New England College of Optometry (NECO), consists of 29 credit hours.  Students attend lab sections in the mornings and lectures in the afternoon.  In addition, students participate in vision screenings, which are modified eye exams to find specific undiagnosed problems that require referral for further testing at public schools and Head Start centers.  Students also observe practitioners in a variety of medical settings.  The next two years bring increasing clinical experiences, and the final year consists entirely of four separate clinical rotations.

We asked five students at the College to share their thoughts about their first year with us as a way for Health Professions Advisors to inform their students about that all-important first year.  We talked with two students in their second year and 3 in their third year.  At the time this article was written, school had been in session for less than a month, so we surveyed first year students in group setting for their views, which we include at the end of this article.  We also chose not to interview fourth year students, assuming that their current full-time rotations left them little time to recall first year experiences.  Topics covered were:

  • Each student’s background
  • Why the student chose optometry as a career
  • What were the student’s expectations of NECO academically?
  • What were the student’s expectations of NECO clinically?
  • Looking back to first year, what was the biggest adjustment faced?
Backgrounds

Matt Bauer, or Matt from Minnesota as he calls himself, is currently a second year student who attended St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota.  He received a BA in Health Sciences and Secondary Education in 2003.  He taught high school biology for one year, and says, “It had its moments.”  He explains that even though he taught 6 sections, every day, every class, with the same lesson plan, each day was unpredictable.  Matt’s interest in optometry started in middle school, and grew stronger in high school.  Still he wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted.  After teaching for a year, he knew optometry was his goal, and the next year Matt took classes at a community college to strengthen his background while working as a customer service representative in a bank.

During his first year at NECO, Matt was elected a class rep.  Now in his second year, Matt is Student Council Vice President .  He played a large role in Orientation activities for he class of 2010 and continues to work in the Admissions Office.

Rajvinder Pabla is a second year student who graduated from the University of Toronto.  She pursued a double major in biology and psychology and graduated with distinction.  She was always interested in the health sciences, and had several reasons for choosing optometry. An important influence on Raji’s decision to become an optometrist was her uncle, who sponsored eye clinics in India.  Raji would hear him speak about patients whose lives became functional and full once again after receiving a pair of glasses or after theremoval of cataracts. A guiding principle for Raji is that she wants more than a 9 – 5 job. She wants to take her optometry skills to people in need in developing countries.  During the summer, she accompanied a group of NECO students and doctors to Nicaragua.  Her experience there reinforced her desire to continue to contribute to underserved populations.  She looks forward to developing the skills needed to fulfill her goals

Sivhour Ly is currently a 3rd year student who graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell with a degree in Biology.  She knew she wanted a career in the health field, but was not clear on exactly what sort of practitioner she wanted to be.  In her junior year, she found her answer:  optometry.  During an eye exam, she realized, “I could see myself doing this the rest of my life.”  After thinking about the field for another few months, she applied to NECO.  She wanted to remain in the New England area and applied only to NECO.  She appreciated the kindness of her interviewer, who could see that she was quite nervous, and states that he “made the interview not as terrifying as I imagined it would be.”  Sivhour also give high marks to her undergraduate advisor, who gave her pamphlets about the profession and referred her to a University of Massachusetts at Lowell and NECO graduate who practiced in the area.  Sivhour met with her and talked with her about her practice, how she started it, and what her experience at NECO was like.

Sunni Houston and Veronica Hormilla, both third year students, met each other at an interview day at another school.  Coincidentally, they both attended the same interview day at NECO, and decided to become roommates. Sunni  graduated from Washington College in Chestertown, MD.  At the small liberal arts school, Sunni played lacrosse and field hockey, and was the recipient of an NHS scholarship.  She majored in behavioral neuroscience, which she describes as a combination of biology and psychology, and also minored in business.  Sunni was always interested in medicine.  Her godfather, who was an ophthalmologist, advised her to consider optometry.  Sunni also appreciates the flexibility optometry offers for both family and career.  Veronica attended Florida International University and majored in Biology.  Her reasons for choosing optometry closely mirror those of her roommate  “I wanted a life in which I could have a wonderful and rewarding career and be able to have a family as well. Optometry gave me the ability to do that.”


Academics

Matt had several worries:  difficulty of lectures, more advanced material, taking notes, getting to know professors, and exams.  He found that the lecture format is doable, and explained that students can follow along, and that reviewing material before lectures is extremely helpful in getting the most out of lectures.  Having the appropriate undergraduate background leads to familiarity with the materials and provides a good foundation which students can then build upon, making the more advanced level of materials understandable.  In most classes at the College, a student will take notes for those in the class to purchase.  With those notes, plus professor’s notes, plus previous years’ notes on reserve in the library, Matt found he could add side notes or drawings to further emphasize important points.  He was pleased to find professors accessible and willing to answer questions.  For Matt, exams at the College were a big adjustment.  Most exams at NECO are multiple choice, with some short fill-in questions.  The exams that Matt took as an undergraduate were mostly essay and short answers.  Although still not quite used to multiple choice exams, Matt knows that as long as he keeps on top of the material and studies effectively he will do well.

Raji states that coursework at the University of Toronto, a research-based university, was challenging. In her first year, her Biology 150 class had 2000 students.  The class met in a huge convocation hall.  By her final year, most of her biology classes had 20 students.  A similar decrease was noted in her psychology classes, with a starting base of 2000 that dwindled to 11 by her final year.  In order to remain competitive, students realized that they needed to learn their courses in depth.  When Raji came to NECO, she was comfortable with the depth of knowledge she would continue to need to know.  She anticipated more work but admitted the extra volume required some adjustment.

Sivhour expected coursework at NECO to be harder than undergraduate classes since it would lead to an OD degree.  She felt first year was a transition phase.  As an undergrad, Sivhour lived at home with her family, just 15 minutes away from the University.  Her first year at NECO she also lived at home, resulting in a 2 part commute:  50 minutes on the commuter rail followed by 25 on the subway for a total of 1 hour and 15 minutes each way.  She also worked on Saturdays as an office assistant at a local park and for a few hours each week in the school library.  The transition also included adjusting to a new school in a big city.  Second year, Sivhour moved into an apartment in Boston, saving herself commuting headaches.  She also gave up her Saturday job.  She found the second year workload much harder than the first, although first year, even though she carried the same amount of classes as she did as an undergraduate, the material was at a much advanced level.

Sunni’s schedule of sports and coursework, plus her own desire to excel academically, led to work hard as an undergraduate.  She expected to work just as hard at NECO, and knew, that even without the addition of sports, performing well would require a great deal of study time.  She felt some pressure to comprehend the material quickly, because, she says, “this is the final step to my career, and I knew if I didn’t get it now” her skills could be compromised.  Sunni says, “I’ve never been able not to be a hard worker” and found that attitude helpful in dealing with the larger volume of material at NECO.  She listed less exams at the College, usually just a midterm and a final as a way of determining most course grades along with greater amounts of material “thrown at you all at once” as stressors.  She found that professors explained concepts well in class, and she left class feeling confident, but upon review on her own, often found the difficulty level overwhelming.  Her study strategy was to develop the willpower to be patient, to break down the material and go at her own speed.  In order to stay on top of the material, she never waited until the last minute.

Veronica expected “an intense course load with professors that truly cared about their students. I found that the professors want you to succeed and have a firm grasp of the material.”


Clinic

During his admission interview Matt was delighted to learn about the first year program of screenings and observations.  He realized that the opportunity to be in clinical settings under supervision would increase both this competence and confidence, and with this knowledge, NECO became his top choice school.  He had no real expectations of lab other than those in his undergraduate experience:  follow procedures, get an outcome or result, and write a lab report.   At NECO, of course, many labs consist of students practicing techniques on each other as a means of learning skills which they can then use on screenings and in other patient care settings.  He spoke highly of an observation in a pediatrician’s office.  “He treated me like a young doctor, like a colleague.  He asked the patient if I could be involved in his care.  It was hands-on experience for me.”  Matt believes he gained an “extraordinary” amount of knowledge during his first year.  He knows he can competently perform a screening, and also knows his own limitations, knowing when he needs to refer his patient for further examination.

Although Raji knew about the screening program for first year students, she really didn’t know what to expect.  She found she loved screenings, loved working with children, admired the pediatric faculty, and will probably become a pediatric optometrist.  She is also considering doing an optional residency program in pediatrics, and is thinking about becoming a faculty member after her residency.

“I never thought I would be seeing patients first year,” said Sivhour.  College tours are part of the interview day, and she learned about the screening and observation programs at that time. “The first day of screenings was tough,” she recalled, “because it is hard to get and keep attention of 3 and 4 year-olds.  We would keep talking to them, show them hand puppets, and hold up books. ‘What color is Dora’s hair?’ we would ask, as a way to keep them involved in the process.  Second semester we worked with older children, 8, 9 or 10 year-olds, and it was easier because they are more compliant.”

Sivhour observed an optometrist and was extremely impressed with the way he took case history, by the way he knew what to ask and when to ask.  Sivhour was surprised to hear him ask a patient, “Have you been out of the country?”  The optometrist explained that he had seen something in the patient’s eyes that made him suspect a certain type of infection. Sivhour notes that students learn about case history through observations, classes, and clinical practice.  She found some labs coincided well with lectures and made the material more easily understood.

Sunni found screenings nerve-racking.  Despite being prepared, “You never know what to expect.”  The children’s ages range from preschool through high school, and their willingness and ability to comply vary greatly. Sunni felt there was a great emphasis on basic science, and wishes that even more clinical experiences could be fit into an already crowded curriculum.  As are most third years, Sunni is thinking ahead to her next year of four full-time clinical rotations, and hoping for the time when “all the different facts in my head click” so she can treat each patient appropriately.

Veronica states:  “Word of mouth is that our school has an excellent clinical program.  They speak the truth.  I expected the program to provide a diverse patient population, from adults to children, and a chance to encounter patients with ocular disease or binocular vision problems.”


Adjustment

Reliving first year, Matt’s view is that time management skills and the volume of work are the biggest adjustment students face.

Raji lived at home as an undergraduate. She had a brief 20 minute commute to campus in her own car.  All that changed when she came to NECO.  She now lives off campus and takes public transportation or walks everywhere.  Her biggest adjustment: cooking for herself.  Raji knew how to cook, but at home, enjoyed her mom’s cooking.  The time management skills involved in shopping, preparing, and cleaning up, mixed in with an already heavy schedule of classes and homework involves creative and efficient use of time.  When asked what piece of advice Raji would give to students considering a career in optometry, Raji states, “Be passionate about optometry as your career.”  Those final words tell us how Raji, herself, views her career choice.  Another piece of advice from Raji: “Be prepared to work hard, face new challenges each day, and especially be prepared to become a life-long learner.”

The biggest adjustment for Sivhour was commuting.  Life definitely became easier once she moved into Boston.  She recommends that students live as close to school as possible, especially during second year when the workload increases and studying for National Board Licensure exams begins.

Sunni found the biggest adjustment was making time for herself.  As an undergraduate, her commitment to sports provided a break from studying, and in her first  year at NECO she spent her free time in study and gave up her gym time.  She realized how important it is to put exercise back into her life and has become a regular at her local gym.

Veronica says, “The biggest adjustment was the work load. Its hard to juggle so much at once. The important thing to remember is that one must definitely dedicate time to yourself and enjoying the city you live in. If I had to go back, I would have relaxed more. In the end, you will learn it.”

In our group meetings with first year students, we asked them to tell us some of the differences they found between undergraduate school and first year optometry school.  Here are their replies:

            Classes that don’t end until 5:00 or 6:00

            Waking up early

            Being at school all day and still planning time to study

            Sitting in lecture 4 – 5 hours at a time

            Coming to school on weekends to practice lab techniques

            Dealing with public transportation systems


We hope that the thoughtful responses our students gave will be helpful to incoming students.  The first year of optometry school does provide challenges that differ not only from freshman year at undergraduate school but all years of undergraduate education, including the final year.  Developing skills in time management, independent living, and beginning the process of learning to think like an optometrist are lifelong practices for a successful career.