I thought it was time to finally explain a little bit about how I became an optometry student. I am writing this blog mostly to encourage all those who fall under the umbrella of “Non-traditional Student” and are a little scared to take the plunge. I am here to tell you that it is possible! This blog is quite long, but I felt it was necessary to write the details because I remember all of the insecurities and questions I had as a “non-traditional” student.
No better place to start, I suppose, than at the beginning. I graduated from high school in 2009 thinking I was interested in going into medicine. I loved science and wanted to help people, so it seemed like an obvious choice. I started my first semester at the University of Dayton as a biology major with a course just for biology majors about all the things that can be done with a biology major. Of course, there was much emphasis on the medical field. Through this course, I realized that becoming a physician was not interesting to me.
I was one of those kids that had a fake classroom in my basement where my sister and I would play school all the time. I always thought about being a teacher, and I thought teaching would be just as rewarding as medicine because I could educate the world’s future doctors and scientists. I ended up graduating in 2013 with a dual degree (2 bachelor’s degrees), so I have a B.S. in biology and a B.S.E in adolescent to young adult integrated science education (grades 7-12). Try typing that degree name on OptomCAS….Anyways, I thoroughly enjoyed my education classes, and I enjoyed going to my field placements every semester to a variety of Dayton area schools. Doing a dual degree meant that I had to take 19 credit hours a semester and summer classes to graduate on time with also losing a semester to student teaching. In hindsight, I can say that taking that many credit hours was good preparation for the 23+ hours we take in optometry school.
I always wanted to keep all my options open, so I took as many biology electives as I had time for. I will never forget my senior year at UD. My fall semester I was taking all biology electives and teaching half days at a high school. I was taking a course called “Genetics of Human Disease” by Dr. Kango-Signh, who is a Drosophila researcher. It was her class that made me start to question my decision to teach. During that semester, I went to the optometrist for what I believe to be the first time (gasp!). I remember leaving my optometrist’s office thinking, “What a cool job! I wish I could do that!” Well, I put those thoughts away and decided to stay the course to teach. I had a great time student teaching and graduated with a teaching job for the fall.
My first year as a teacher I taught 2 classes of physical science (freshmen), 2 classes of physics with lab (sophomores through seniors), and 1 class of AP Physics B with lab. I loved the students that I taught, and I generally had really good days. It was the nights/ mornings that made the job rough. I would get home from school around 5:00pm, eat, take a 20-minute nap, and begin lesson-planning. Teaching AP physics was what really wore me out because I had not done physics for 2 years and some of the content in the course was beyond what I had in my coursework as a biology major. I would work on lessons until about 9 or 10pm, get up the next morning at 4am, and finish the lessons I could not finish the night before. I would teach students from 7:35am to 2:30pm and then repeat. I never actually took my lunch hour but twice that whole year because there just wasn’t enough time in the day. I spent my Friday nights sleeping or grading. I would work all weekend and never had time for family or friends. I finished this year believing that teaching could only get easier because that year was incredibly challenging.
I was fortunate enough my second year to teach sophomore biology and design my own courses as electives, so I taught ecology and genetics, as well. I loved teaching concepts that I was more passionate about and felt more comfortable with, but this year came with its own set of challenges. I had about 50 more students than the year before, and I was responsible for preparing all the sophomores for the state test at the time (the OGT). I absolutely love biology, and I loved teaching biology, but it was tough to teach it in a “box.” I did my best to teach the students where they were and at a level they could understand. Teaching to a test does not always allow room for fostering passion and inspiring teenagers. It is also challenging teaching sophomores because they often begin tracking themselves (for better or for worse) at this point, and you feel helpless. I felt like some days my job was to torture kids into caring about their life, which was absolutely not what I ever set out to do.
While my regular biology classes had their ups and downs, my ecology and genetics classes kept my spirit going. While teaching genetics, I found myself staying up late at night reading about all these different genetic diseases that appear in the eye. I would start researching the disease and the anatomy of the eye to better understand the disease, and I could not get enough of it. I was teaching my class with inspiration from Dr. Kango-Singh’s course.
All while I was teaching, there was a part of me that always felt off. I had this desire to learn more than what I could teach myself. I knew my work gave my life tremendous meaning, but it was also leaving me feeling like I was aging in dog years and watching life pass me by. As the saying goes among teachers, “the highs are high and the lows are low.” You have really amazing experiences and you have ones that still literally give you nightmares. I realized that I was ready to go back to school again.
I started researching Dr. Kango-Singh’s research and decided to meet up with a friend of mine who got a master’s degree with this professor and is now in medical school. We met for dinner, and I told her all the things that I loved about teaching and the topics over the years that I found most interesting. She said, “Amy, why are you not going to school to be an optometrist? You would be perfect at that!” That night I went home and began researching optometry, contacted a friend of mine who just graduated from OSU’s optometry school, and set up a time to shadow my optometrist immediately. I was immediately hooked! I fell in love with every aspect of optometry and could not get enough of it.
I will never forget scurrying out the door after work one day to shadow my optometrist. I watched him give a couple of eye exams, and I was absolutely fascinated. The thing that appealed to me most was, his ability fix each person’s problem in only a few minutes. As a teacher, many of my students’ problems were beyond anything I could fix. I loved how he could improve each person’s quality of life in an instant!
Shortly after shadowing, I signed up to go to an admission’s day at OSU. I remember feeling so out of place because most of the prospective students were still in undergrad and came with their parents, whereas I had been out on my own for two years and came with my husband. The whole experience felt weird until the end. I asked a question during the question and answer session, “My favorite part of teaching is getting to see my students every day and ask how they are doing. Will I still have the same relationships with patients?” Dr. Earley answered with some variation of, “Your practice lives and dies with your ability to teach and form relationships with patients.” He brought tears to my eyes, and I knew I had to give my all to become an optometrist.
I had decided I was going to go to optometry school, but I had not decided when. My husband was in the middle of a chemistry degree at Wright State (he was a police officer), and we had bought our house within the last year. I was thinking I would wait for my husband to finish school before I started optometry, but I truly believe God had a different plan. Sunday after Sunday I would go to Mass (I am Catholic), and the readings would be about Jesus healing a blind man. I am convinced every reference to blindness in the Bible came up during this time. I decided to take a leap of faith and begin my application on July 1, 2015 (the day it opened).
I knew I had to take the OAT before I started teaching that fall, so I scheduled it for the day before my first day of school. I studied literally all day every day for about six weeks using the Kaplan book supplemented with my old textbooks. I finished up my application by about September, and then the waiting game began. I interviewed in December and got accepted that day. I still remember my interview day because I remember feeling just as out of place as I did at the admissions day. I had to take the day off work, I drove to OSU, and I walked into a room full of parents. There were about five of us interviewing that day and four parents in the room. Between events for the day, the other students were all talking about the other schools they applied to and interviewed at and I did not even know the names of the other schools. I knew that with my husband being in college, OSU was my only option, so I put all my eggs in one basket. Thankfully it worked out! I was accepted on the condition that I took physiology and biochemistry before starting school. Thankfully, I took hybrid classes at Columbus State last summer. The lecture component was online, but the labs were on campus. I am grateful for those two classes because it helped me to transition back from teacher mode to student mode.
I am commonly asked if I regret taking the non-traditional path I took, but I am truthfully glad things worked out as they did. Many of my classmates were battling burn out. They took rigorous course loads all through undergrad and went straight into an even more rigorous course load. I had the benefit of working for a few years, and I am grateful every single day to be the student rather than the teacher. I developed a lot of stamina and discipline as a teacher that made it not as hard for me to spend my entire weekend studying. While I wake up at 5am to commute to school, it is still better than 4am to write lesson plans. I am fortunate to have a perspective that really helped me get through the tough times this past year, and I hope will continue to get me through the tough times.
If you are worried about being a non-traditional student, do not worry. I am 26, married, and live over an hour away from school, yet I have plenty of friends and love every bit of it. A handful of students in my class have children (some born this year, some are expecting now). Whatever your circumstances are, you will fit in at OSU’s optometry program, and you will love it!