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For the last year, I have had one of the most genuine pleasures of my life with being a student ambassador at the Southern College of Optometry. It has allowed me to see the school in a new perspective, gain access to some areas of the campus slightly earlier than most students and learn a bit more about the history of the school and optometry in general. It’s given me the opportunity to talk to people in the SCO community that I would probably not have otherwise, but most importantly, it gives me the opportunity to talk to those still outside of SCO that are considering becoming a part of it.
Every time I give a tour, or have a student reach out with questions as they consider accepting their offer, I am reminded that I was once just as clueless about Memphis, school, optometry, financial aid, everything that comes along with another four-year academic program. I strive during these conversations to establish credibility by offering my most honest presentation of what life is like here in Memphis and at SCO. Here are my top three things I wish I would have known about optometry school prior to my arrival in Memphis.
Andrew & fellow SCO Student Ambassadors
1. Optometry school is very hard. “Oh wow, what earth-shattering news, Andrew! What a revelation you have made.” Hear me out. I was one of those students that pretty effortlessly earned straight As in high school, and I don’t recall studying in college more than a handful of times. I was not under the assumption that optometry school would be a walk in the park, but I don’t think I ever considered that I would unlock entirely new levels of academic stress. There was no “syllabus week,” almost zero extra credit opportunities, most classes didn’t have quizzes or assignments (I hope you’re a good test taker), and these lab instructors have the audacity to make me prepare before lab??
One memory that has unfortunately stuck with me vividly is the first Monday of class, struggling to get my OneNote to upload the slides that were shared the night before. Before I had even taken a single note, I was doubting my place here. Maybe I’m encroaching on middle age a little earlier than most, or perhaps in retrospect, OneNote was just being a diva that day, but imagine trying to go interview for your first job and you can’t tie your shoelaces. This feeling will ebb and flow. Crush a practical? I’m going to treat myself to ice cream. Oh no, there was a quiz today… I’m going to quell the sadness with the rest of that ice cream. I have recently described this semester as trying to hike a mountain that grows taller twice as fast as you can climb. Every question you answer for yourself only reveals two more questions. The good news is that people graduate every year! This program does not exist to “weed out” anybody. SCO has refined the art of applying and interviewing, and they genuinely want all 136 individuals that start each fall to receive their diploma four years later. You will work harder and stress more than ever before, and then you will be a physician.
2. Optometry is a much more interesting career than anyone outside of it could ever know. I was just as guilty as the average person of thinking that optometry was about glasses and contact lenses. Shockingly little of my education so far has pertained to prescribing lenses to correct vision. The visual system stands alongside the brain and immune system as not only some of the most complicated systems in the human body, but the most amazing phenomena in the known universe. Optometrists have a breadth and depth of knowledge beyond what is obvious during your 30-minute eye exam once a year.
I had never considered the simple fact that nowhere else in the human body, except the eye, can you observe blood vessels without cutting flesh. The power of this cannot be overstated. The eyes are intimately connected to your body in so many ways. So often I hear of people with “perfect vision” that haven’t had an eye exam since someone told them they read 20/20 in third grade (aside: have you ever wondered why 20/20 is as good as we can do? Why can’t our eyes zoom like telescopes or microscopes to see distant planets, or minute bacteria? Come to optometry school to learn far more than you ever wanted to know on that subject). Substituting 20/20 visual acuity for “perfectly healthy eyes” is a bit like having a normal reflex when your primary care physician hammers your knee and concluding that there couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with your body. In addition to providing a window to the soul, eyes provide a literal window inside of your body, in a way gastroenterologists can only dream of (Google “colonoscopy” for more information).
I joined this profession thinking that optometry was a niche profession, for people with poor eyesight. I have since grown to understand that optometry is just as crucial in your yearly round-up as having your routine bloodwork done at your primary care doc’s office, or having those teeth cleaned. As the population in the US ages, optometrists will have a crucial role in primary healthcare, and we need more brilliant students to come learn how to evaluate systemic health using the magic of optics. Also, a friendly reminder to book your annual eye exam!
Amazed by the power of optics
3. Optometry school—like every other decision you make in life—comes with tradeoffs. I suspect everyone has heard some form of the “in college there are friends, good grades, and sleep. You can choose two.” The reality is there are about 45 things to choose from and you don’t really get to choose any of them. You will stumble around exhausted and feeling like you haven’t studied or been to class or seen a friend off-campus in a month. Seriously, what happened to the last two weeks? The good news is that academic success is not about your GPA. Optometry school is humbling (see point 1).
There is so much that goes into being a physician that is learned through experience rather than an academic understanding. There is no textbook that teaches you how to break bad news to a patient, or leave a good feeling in your patients’ minds that will keep them coming back for years. The person who gets the highest grades on every test may struggle to perform the technical procedures in lab, or have a hard time building rapport. The point of this program is not to produce 136 identical robot physicians each year, and the world will rely on us having diverse strengths and weaknesses. There is not enough time in a day or even a lifetime for an optometrist to master every single aspect of this trade. Another thing that is occasionally hard to believe is that being a student does not absolve you of being a human being with weird, often irrational needs. You still must think about your health—physical and mental—your family, your friends from home, what you’re going to eat for dinner when your checking account is in the double or single digits... Everyone here has had to take a test while they can’t get their mind off their sick grandparent, or a breakup, or an accident that totaled their car. For better or worse, the show must go on, and it can feel impossible to make time to decompress and just live a human life. Optometry school is a juggling act. Moreso than the clinical knowledge you will gain from the classroom, labs, and clinic, you will learn about yourself, how you react to stress, how you can overcome challenges, how to manage a strict budget, and so much more that can’t reasonably be considered optometry. You will learn the art of making trade-offs.
Optometry school will be a very difficult and very beautiful time in your life. I am speaking primarily to myself when I say that it is of utmost importance to start giving yourself a little grace. You’re not perfect, and despite what you may feel some days, nobody expects you to be. Some days, you will be the one that scores 15% below the class average. Just as often, it will be one of your colleagues who is going through it, internally feeling that they are not up to snuff, not aware of how much you admire their work ethic and positivity. It isn’t cool to walk around school crying openly, but if it was, I suspect virtually all of us would have done it at one time or another. All of this to say that you should expect failure. There are five years or curriculum stuffed into four years, you’re in soul crushing debt, and almost every day will push you to the edge of your academic abilities. But you can also expect to emerge on the other side with a massive and important set of skills. You will change people’s lives for the better, including your own. It is ok to let that 4.0 slide a little, or a lot. Your test scores will not define you, only your willingness to learn. The main thing I wish I knew before arriving in Memphis in August 2020 is that no matter how impossible it feels sometimes, I can do this, and you can too.
By Andrew Murphy