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  • Nathaniel Briggs

Starting Over at ICO

I’m two months into my summer break, and it still has yet to hit me: I actually finished my first year of optometry school. At times, it seemed so quixotic and unattainable to get to this point. Now that I have, it doesn’t feel real. There have been *a few* educational hiccups along the way, but by far the most devastating was when I originally failed my first year at ICO. Before we dive into that, though, I’d like to share some background on my story. Perhaps you’ll see why I once thought this moment was so out of reach.


I didn’t know it at the time, but AP Chem my junior year of high school was the start of something big for me. I was slowly realizing that my path would be one of great resistance. While I knew in my heart that I wanted to be an optometrist, my brain didn't seem naturally wired to comprehend the type of material I was studying. From that juncture onward, succeeding in school became less about honing my strengths and more about overcoming my weaknesses. The theme persisted throughout the rest of high school and undergrad. Yet, no matter what obstacles I faced, I always responded with action.


All of my hard work was rewarded when I got into ICO a year after not initially being accepted. Finally earning the opportunity to move to Chicago and study the profession I dreamed about was exciting. Throughout my first year, there were many great moments that came with making new friends in an awesome city. Ultimately, though, the year didn’t go how I wanted. At the conclusion of winter quarter, I was dismissed from the program with the option to return in the fall due to my sub-par academic performance. I was no stranger to failure, but for the first time in my life, I didn’t know how I was going to respond to it. I felt so lost.


The 8-hour trek from Chicago back to Pittsburgh was the most depressing car ride of my life. I’ve failed tests before, I’ve failed classes before, but failing a year of school? How in the heck was I supposed to bounce back? For what seemed like forever, I didn’t have an answer.


Luckily, I had a lot of good people encouraging me. “Don’t worry,” they assured me. “You’ll be back in the fall as good as new.” For the next couple months, though, I couldn’t find the strength to do anything. It was lost somewhere in the gloominess of a Western PA winter, buried in disappointment and utter exhaustion. It was like I'd made it to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals only to lose in OT. I had rebounded so many times before, but I didn’t know if I could ever see myself rallying back from this one.


Like with all wounds, time began to heal mine. Once I was reoriented, I had to formulate a game plan over my “extended” summer break. I understood that everyone has varying styles of learning; there's no one-size-fits-all solution. However, the one thing I knew to be universal was that if you're consistently not getting the results you want, you have to change something. This is where having honest conversations with my friends, family, professors, and most importantly, myself, came in clutch.


Through these conversations, the biggest revelation I had was that these alterations don't have to all directly relate to school. Sure, my studying techniques needed to be adjusted, but some of the things that made the biggest difference didn't have to do with studying, at all. For example, I started exercising regularly and eating healthier meals. I cleaned up my sleep schedule and forced myself to make more time to relax. Now, I did make many changes to my studying habits, but those were all supplemented by the lifestyle modifications I made.


I know that sounds like a lot of work. It is, but it wasn't quite as daunting as I'd assumed. Going to the gym, for example? Even if I could spend just 10 minutes on the treadmill, that made a world of difference for me. The changes you make don't have to necessarily be drastic, but you have to shake things up a little bit.

When I returned in the fall, those adjustments were all put the test. I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't still nervous throughout the year, but eventually, all the work I put in was showing up on the report card. It was showing up in other places, too. That version of me from the prior year became a thing of the past; I was able to finally finish my first year of optometry school. All in all, I had a pretty good time on my second go.

And with friends like these, how could I not?


If there’s one thing you take away from my experience, let it be this: never sell yourself short. With enough drive, you can overcome any of your weaknesses. Anyone can learn information for a class if they put aside the time and use study methods that work for them. Now, as for having the passion to want to develop and implement those methods? That’s not something you can learn from a classroom; it has to come from within. Believe me, I know how hard that is, but don't think you have to go it alone! I needed plenty of assistance, and I want to thank everyone so, so, so much for helping me through this insane journey thus far. You all know who you are. I know I’ll still hit snags in second year and beyond, but at least I now have the confidence and support to deal with them.


I know I’m not the first student to face setbacks. I certainly won’t be the last. I’ve met some pretty inspiring people at ICO, and witnessing them battle through their own issues gives me the strength I need to take on mine. If you’re going through a rough time, perhaps my story can do the same for you. I’ll say it again: never sell yourself short. Always keep that fire burning, no matter how hard it rains. If you don’t, you’ll never see how bright it can get.