Bridging the Gap: Diversity in Optometry
Despite increasing diversity in the field of healthcare, there is much work that needs to be done in regard to minority representation. One of my main reasons for wanting to attend school at ICO, outside of its prestigious reputation as an academic institution, is its proximity to one of the largest urban communities in America. The south side of Chicago, in my opinion, offers the best clinical experience and provides me the opportunity to reach those that need it most. After reading the headlines or watching primetime news about many of the issues plaguing Chicago’s youth, I knew ICO was the place for me.
Working with at-risk youth is an issue I’m very passionate about. I’ve worked with children and young adults in a big brother/mentorship role since I was 14. In my short time in Chicago, I’ve learned to take the approach of being a part of the community as opposed to simply being a student. This has allowed me to connect with patients on a personal level. Being able to build a bond with the community and hear them tell you the impact you’re making brings a sense of joy that’s difficult to put into words. …and this is all within the time frame of a three-hour eye exam!
This past summer (my last summer vacation until retirement *deep sigh*), I was invited to return to the classroom of my middle school language arts teacher, Elizabeth Reilly, to share my struggles and triumphs of my adolescent and adult life. Of course, I had to speak of how I came to choose optometry as a career! I enjoyed the experience so much and received great feedback from both students and faculty. During several conversations I had with students who were struggling academically, they thanked me for coming back and being an example. I challenged them to surpass my “accomplishments” and encouraged them to never settle. I was able to look at the faces of the students and tell how much they appreciated having a familiar face from the community they could connect with.
The message being delivered is just as important as who is delivering it. I cannot stress enough the importance of programs that advocate healthcare careers in underrepresented minority communities. The Focus on Your Future program here at ICO is a prime example, as their goal is to inspire the next generation of optometrists from the minority demographic. Having been in a similar program at another optometry school, I can attest to the impact of such initiatives. After interviewing several ICO alumni of the Focus on Your Future program, the consensus was that going through the program was a vital step in solidifying their interest in optometry despite their cultural backgrounds.
2015 ICO alumni Dr. Preston Smith sums it up perfectly as he states, “The Focus on Your Future program and others like it grant minorities an opportunity to be immersed in your dream by providing exposure to the healthcare field. In high school, sports exposure is what allows you to receive a scholarship to the school of your choice. Focus on Your Future is the same way! Now, the school knows who you are and can help equip you as you make that final push during the application process. Even if you don’t end up going to the school, the knowledge and exposure gained both go a long way!”
With certain systemic and ocular diseases being more prevalent in underdeveloped communities, it’s no wonder that so many of today’s youth are interested in health care (Riley, Wayne J. “Health Disparities: Gaps in Access, Quality and Affordability of Medical Care.” Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association 123 (2012): 167–174. Print.). Unfortunately, one of the obstacles that intimidates many minorities early on is the lack of diversity and a familiar presence to serve as a gateway into what seems like uncharted territory. I often use this experience as a motivating factor to not only succeed, but also give back to my community and others like it. I hope sharing this perspective encourages others to bridge the gap and push for cultural inclusivity in their respective fields, and that the next generation of healthcare workers (*hopefully more optometrists! *) will be as equally diverse as the melting pot we live in.
For those looking for more information on the Focus on Your Future program feel free to click this link! https://www.ico.edu/admissions/recruitment-events/