Stepping out of my comfort zone and becoming a part-time optician during college opened my eyes to the vision needs of those living in my home state of Wisconsin and the many opportunities available in the field.
Like every other excited student, I left the only home I had ever known and moved to Waukesha, Wisconsin to begin my undergraduate career at Carroll University. I thought I had my entire college career planned out. I was going to become a nurse and work in a hospital. After the first semester of college, I realized my passions were leading me elsewhere. I walked into our academic advising center feeling lost and defeated. However, after leaving that office, I felt excited and renewed. I changed my major from nursing, to a double major in psychology and public health. I took my first public health class that spring, and I was hooked! It was exactly what I had been looking for. I wanted to serve my community, and though not sure in what way, I was going to find out. I started seeking out opportunities and asking questions of my professors and others about how I could explore careers in the public health field.
Fast forward to December of my sophomore year, I was searching for a job that would allow me to continue my journey in finding what I was passionate about. I stumbled upon a post online about the opportunity to be an optician for a local vision company. Given that I have been wearing glasses and contacts since I was in elementary school, I thought it would be a great opportunity. I called that day and talked to an employee who I now work with and admire very much. I interviewed and learned more about the position, and later accepted an optician position with the company (though I was very nervous). I would be working closely with our optometrists to provide patients at our office with proper care, including assistance in selecting glasses, teaching patients about contacts and proper contact care, conducting medical billing, helping with referrals for cataract evaluations, and assisting with Optos, which takes images of the eye to help optometrists to conduct a better assessment of the health of the eye.
I thought I knew a decent amount about vision, and boy was I wrong! It was very tough when I first started. I felt overwhelmed and worried that I would not be able to fulfill the requirements of the job while still a full-time student. With the support and patience of my coworkers, I dove in and spent hours reviewing the medical terminology, learning about eyeglass lens materials, and learning our computer system for medical billing and coding to insurance. I was completely out of my comfort zone, and yet, still loving every minute of it! I caught myself using what I was learning in my public health classes at work. I was constantly asking questions about vision problems and how they impacted my community. I would sit in our optometrist’s office asking question after question about different eye diseases and discussing articles I found in journals about vision.
As junior year rolled around, it was time to find a site to complete my field experience for my public health major. I wanted to use my company as a field site, but as it turned out, I would not be able to complete the requirements with them. My manager showed me the website for Prevent Blindness Wisconsin and I immediately felt a positive connection of wanting to be there. I contacted my professor running the field experience course, Dr. Laila Azam, and asked for her help in contacting Prevent Blindness Wisconsin to discuss forming a new partnership. We called them and put the phone on speaker. Shelby, one of Prevent Blindness Wisconsin’s community health managers, answered the phone and I asked her if she could help with my field experience placement. We talked and I interviewed over the phone with her about why I was interested in working with them.
I learned that Prevent Blindness Wisconsin is a nonprofit organization with associates in several states who focus on the vision health needs of children and adults. One of their biggest programs, and what ended up being the main focus of my semester, was on preschool vision screenings. Ensuring children receive vision screenings when they enter school allows for the prevention of vision loss due to undetected vision problems such as amblyopia or hyperopia, among other things. If vision problems are not caught early in children it can lead to behavioral problems, trouble learning, and other lasting issues. Later that day, I received an email learning that they were very excited to have me join them for the semester to fulfill my field experience requirements.
I spent my semester with Shelby, as my preceptor, learning about the vision needs of Wisconsin residents through various projects. One of the largest projects I had that semester included organizing data from preschool vision screenings from the last four years and mapping those screenings to see where they were being conducted and where they were not. As a result, a mailing list was created to send a postcard (which I designed) to childcare centers to promote vision screenings in those centers. Additionally, I had the opportunity to work with the other amazing women running Prevent Blindness Wisconsin and personally connect with each of them.
Through this opportunity, I had finally found my passion. I learned that there are so many needs in my community concerning vision screenings and affordable glasses. A particular community experience I had incorporated setting up a vision screening program performed at a local elementary school. Through this, I was not only able to see how a vision screening is conducted, but I was also able to see all of the children in those adorable vision screening glasses and work with my Prevent Blindness Wisconsin staff and volunteers. That was the day I realized that I truly belonged in the public health field and that I had found a passion within this expanding field. I am so thankful to my preceptor, Shelby, and the amazing staff at Prevent Blindness Wisconsin for allowing me into their offices and lives, and sharing so much about themselves with me.
Since my field experience opportunity, I have accepted an internship with Prevent Blindness Wisconsin and through this opportunity, have continued working with this passion. I took what I learned and presented at the 2018 Annual Wisconsin Public Health Association Conference to share my experience and further educate conference members on vision needs in our communities.
Furthermore, at a university level I accepted the position of president with Carroll University’s Public Health Club. With Dr. Azam as faculty advisor, my hope is to further educate our Carroll University community on what Public Health is all about and its importance. We are also working together with Shelby and Prevent Blindness Wisconsin to create a lasting relationship to give future students the opportunity to discover their passion for vision and to further educate themselves on the vision needs of those within our communities. I am very thankful for the support I have received from Dr. Azam and Carroll University which has allowed me to grow and develop, while receiving my education. As a result, I am able to expand my education beyond the walls of Carroll University and discover my passions through connections with organizations such as Prevent Blindness Wisconsin.
If someone had walked up to me four years ago and said that I would be pursuing a career in public health, working as an optician, beginning a leadership role through Carroll, and discovering a passion for vision needs, I probably would have laughed. These past few years have been crazy and amazing. I will not lie, it is not easy. But, if there is one thing I can tell current and future college students, it is to get out of your comfort zone and give every opportunity a chance. Sometimes public health can seem overwhelming because it is such a vast career path that continues to expand every day, but that is also its strength. If we look outside of ourselves, there are so many opportunities out there. Discovering my passion for vision needs has allowed me to gain a better understanding of what public health and my role in it is, how to better care for my patients, how to become an advocate for the needs of others, and to further my leadership skills. I am very thankful for the support I have received from Shelby and Prevent Blindness Wisconsin, Dr. Azam, Dr. Beck, Dr. Pinahs-Schultz, and Dr. Kasimatis, among other staff, who have all been advisors within the psychology and public health majors, Carroll University, and my friends and family. They have all inspired me and pushed me to become the best public health worker that I can be. I am excited to continue this work and see where this amazing career path will take me.