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FOCUS ON YOUR FUTURE: WORKING TO DIVERSIFY OPTOMETRY
Pawtucket is the fourth largest city in the small state of Rhode Island, with a population hovering around 70K, but underserved in its options for eye health clinics. It is also the location of Tatiana Giraldo, OD ’17. She saw a need in her hometown and did something to address it. Dr. Giraldo is a proud alumnus of not only the Illinois College of Optometry, but also Focus on Your Future (FoYF), a weeklong summer intensive program that introduces minority undergraduates to the field of optometry, Chicago, and ICO.
Started in 2008, the recruitment program was developed and has been administered ever since by ICO’s Senior Director of Admissions, Teisha Johnson. To date, FoYF has had a total of 212 participants, 29 of whom have gone on to matriculate at ICO– a healthy breakdown of roughly 13.5%. “When we started, our focus was on reaching out to African American students, Latinx, Native Americans. There has not been enough success nationally in reaching out and inviting them into the field of optometry. FoYF is a path to do that,” says Johnson.
Dr. Giraldo was an undergraduate with an interest in science when she found FoYF during an online search of health care professions. Attending the summer program was, for her, a “critical” factor in both attending ICO and choosing the field of optometry. She states, “Going to the program allowed me to see myself in the field and build the connections I needed. I saw ICO put forth more effort than any other program I researched.”
Mark Marquez, OD ’15, feels similarly. Dr. Marquez, was raised in Kansas, where many of his childhood experiences were segregated. He saw people of different races not blending or working together. Finding the FoYF program was revelatory for him when he researched optometry programs as a senior in high school.
Dr. Marquez recalls, “ICO was on my list of places to interview, but after working with Teisha and having an interview, I cancelled all my other interviews. I was both nervous and excited coming out of FoYF, and I knew that this was the place for me.” Dr. Marquez found his experiences at ICO would serve him well in his post graduate career path.
One of his rotations while at ICO was at the Cleveland VA Medical Center, where his patient base was diverse with a wide spectrum of demographics represented. Having a positive experience there cemented his wish to remain in a VA setting and, post-graduation, Dr. Marquez has been employed at the VA Medical Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. “I love working at the VA. Veterans are colorful and outspoken. There is a whole potluck of people who have served their country. As an optometrist of color, it is good to see diversity. I am a Black and Mexican health care provider, which helps my diverse patients feel comfortable and connected. Visibility is important and the image of what a doctor looks like is changing – we come in all shapes and sizes.”
Teisha Johnson feels this deeply. The creation of the Focus on Your Future program was intended to meet a need not only in Chicago, but nationally, to increase the number of minorities within the program and the larger field of optometry. One of her goals is to utilize resources within the ICO community to highlight optometry as a viable career choice for students of color. One way she achieves this is by leveraging the experiences and opportunities of ICO’s greatest resource – its alumni. “Everybody has a unique story about how their path led to optometry. There is a story that an optometrist can tell that I can’t, not being an OD, but it makes you feel good to encourage young students by planting the seed and helping to share a career.”
Fatima Ibrahim, OD ’16, is one of those students who benefited from FoYF and the mentorship of Ms. Johnson. A self-professed “science and math nerd,” Dr. Ibrahim knew from childhood, having worn glasses and contacts to correct nearsightedness, that optometry was a potential career path she wanted to explore. She is currently working at a private practice in Dallas after a recent move.
After completing a class project on eyecare in high school and becoming more interested in optometry, Dr. Ibrahim learned about the FoYF program via an online search. She connected with Teisha Johnson early on and maintained an email relationship for several years as her education progressed into and through college. “The exposure to optometry was very helpful. I got a real feel for the field during the FoYF program. It is a great program for students who want to explore the field.”
Undergraduate students from an underrepresented minority population who are accepted into the program make their way to the ICO campus for a weeklong stay in the summer. The program is kept small. Sessions are capped at a maximum of 20 participants, though enrollment is usually closer to 12-15 people. Participants can meet and engage with a variety of ICO students, including those who have previously participated in the program. Other opportunities include meeting ICO staff, faculty, and alumni, sitting in sample lectures from ICO courses, trainings in career and leadership development, clinical exposure to the field of optometry, getting a clear overview of ICO’s admissions process, and spending time learning about Chicago and one another.
For Dr. Ibrahim, the mentorship she developed with Teisha Johnson proved to be invaluable. After their first email contact, she and Ms. Johnson continued to touch base both before being accepted into the FoYF program, and afterwards, creating a thread from that first email through acceptance to ICO and even now as an alumnus. “My class at ICO felt inclusive. I was one of two Black students, but there was still a fair amount of diversity among my classmates. This diversity and the kind nature of my classmates helped foster a feeling of inclusion. My experience at ICO was a positive one.”
That is music to Teisha Johnson’s ears. “I can’t believe how far the program has come. It’s always nice when people thank you and you learn their experiences [at FoYF] have changed their lives.” She sees herself as a mentor and a touchstone to help the undergraduates who enroll in the program get what they need and help them identify their strengths and weaknesses. “I would love the enrollment numbers at ICO to be reflective of the U.S. population. We are not there yet, but we will continue to strive for increasing the number of minorities in the profession.”
Ms. Johnson is a firm believer that every alumnus can contribute to a more diverse student enrollment at ICO. She sees every ICO graduate as a potential ambassador that can engage their patients and communities in identifying students of color that would make ideal candidates for FoYF, optometry, and ICO.
Back in Rhode Island, Dr. Giraldo lives this call to action. She sees herself as a role model and speaks at local high schools to help kids get excited about science. Employed by the Vision Care Network in Lincoln, Rhode Island, Dr. Giraldo lobbied her boss to consider opening an office in her nearby hometown of Pawtucket. Having known Dr. Giraldo since an earlier ICO clinical rotation, and later, saw her double her production numbers in two years, her boss took a chance on the proposal. Dr. Giraldo ran with it; the new location has been a great success.
The daughter of immigrant parents, a truck driver and seamstress, Dr. Giraldo remembers her time in the ICO summer recruitment program fondly. “Focus on Your Future was the bridge that connected my desire to be a doctor with my wanting to open my own practice. I did it in three years. Now, moms bring their kids in to see me– a minority woman in a white coat. ‘You can do this,’ they tell their children.” And they can, and they do.