Best In Class 2015: ODs Reach Great Heights

For many students, graduation comes with the uncertainty of what the future might hold, as well as what next steps one should take to reach a career goal. For the 2015 graduating class of ODs, they continue to rise to the challenge, setting the standard and proving to be the up-and-comers to watch out for in the field of optometry.

Whether they’ve always had a keen interest in optometry or found this passion along the way, this batch of ODs are invested in making an impact on the world of visual needs, one examination at a time.

The eight amazing graduates from across the nation that VM had the pleasure of interviewing are letting little get in the way of this shared goal. Many are pursuing residencies, already employed or are planning their next outreach opportunity.

This Special Report presents a snapshot of these future movers and shakers within the optometric profession. The drive, passion and determination of these students leaves little question as to why they are 2015’s Best in Class.

Kathleen Abarr, OD

SUNY College of Optometry
New York, N.Y.

While studying Neuroscience as an undergraduate, Kathleen Abarr, OD, first became interested in the visual system when she began to see how the eyes act as direct extensions of the brain.

Abarr completed a Master’s thesis which explored the neurological planning and initiation of saccades. Also while at SUNY, she presented her findings on a retrospective study on ocular pathologies in a poster at the American Academy of Optometry’s Annual Meeting in Denver in 2014. In addition to this, Abarr was a recipient of the SUNY Optometry’s Chancellor’s Award for Academic Excellence.

Next year, she plans to pursue a residency in ocular disease and primary care within the Boston VA health care system.

HER SCHOOL SAYS… “Kathleen has served as vice president and fellow of the student chapter of the American Academy of Optometry. She was the first author on a poster presentation at the organization’s annual meeting in 2014 and is a member of the International Optometric Honor Society, Beta Sigma Kappa.”

Ryan Beck, OD

Nova Southeastern University College of Optometry
Fort Lauderdale, Fla

Ryan Beck, OD, originally graduated with a degree in business from the University of Central Florida in Orlando and tried to stay away from optometry as his father, sister and two of his uncles are ODs. However, he went to work for his father and uncle as a technician during the recession, and “I saw what it meant to be an optometrist first hand and returned to school to pursue the degree.”

One of the most gratifying things he’s done in the program was to serve as the national trustee to the American Optometric Student Association (AOSA) where he was able to shape policies that governed optometry students across the nation.

“Under my direction, 16 of 22 optometry schools had 100 percent student enrollment in AOSA while overall enrollment was 90 percent,” Beck said.

Beck said that his passion is small business, so although he’s currently going to be working part time in private practice environments, he would either like to partner with a private location or start his own.

HIS SCHOOL SAYS… “Ryan Beck, OD is truly a leader in his class. He served as the president of the Student Government Association (SGA) at the College of Optometry and as trustee for the American Optometric Students Association (AOSA). This is the first time that a student has filled both of these important roles.”

Brad Collins, OD

University of Missouri-St. Louis College of Optometry St. Louis, Mo.

Becoming a teaching assistant for the Neuroanatomy class and Anatomy & Physiology of the Eye class with Aaron Franzel, OD, and getting to mentor and teach the class below him was something that impacted Brad Collins, OD greatly while in the program. “Not only was it great to help students succeed in class, but it also allowed me to grow as a leader.”

Growing up, Collins always noticed how thick his mother’s glasses were, and prior to wearing contact lenses himself, he remained fascinated with the hard lenses his mother would have to put into her eyes. Along with this, Collins attributes his motivation for going into optometry to his grandfather, Hugo Hunsander, MD who went against the grain by going into medicine when he came from a family of farmers. This gave Collins the “inspiration and motivation to strive toward my optometric career.”

After graduation, Collins plans to work for Gundersen Health System at the regional clinic in Prairie Du Chien, Wis.

HIS SCHOOL SAYS… “Brad Collins was an exceptional student at the UMSL College of Optometry. He was well respected by our faculty and our students. He was an outstanding clinician who, at the graduation ceremony, was presented with awards for his expertise in pediatric optometry and contact lenses. He was an excellent teaching assistant and tutor to our students and was a part-time employee for one of the most prestigious contact lens practices in the country, Vision Care Consultants.”

Whitney Cox, OD

Northeastern State University Oklahoma College of Optometry
Tahlequah, Okla.

Leading the SVOSH chapter as president was a unique and rewarding way for Whitney Cox, OD, to give back through missions. Traveling to Roatan, Honduras twice, Cox was able to be a part of a trip that was able to provide eyecare to over 1,000 people each trip.

Cox always had a passion for working with people and knew she wanted to enter into the medical field but wasn’t sure what to initially pursue. After shadowing different medical professions she took an interest in optometry.

“What greater way to change lives than taking care of people’s eyes and giving them the gift of sight,” she said. Cox, who recently moved to Edmond, Okla., will be joining a new practice, Optique Vision Center Nichols Hills and hopes to continue her involvement in optometric missions as well as in her community.

HER SCHOOL SAYS… “Whitney was a shining star while at the school. Her gracious outlook will be missed. She will do well in her endeavors.”

Daniel Deligio, OD

Midwestern University - Arizona College of Optometry
Glendale, Ariz.

Daniel Deligio, OD, knew he wanted to go into the medical profession, but wasn’t sure what specialty. It wasn’t until a family friend lost an eye in an accident and “I saw the changes he went through, and I realized how much I took vision for granted and wanted to be someone who could help manage, treat and preserve the sight of others.”

Being a tutor as well as helping out in the program’s pre clinic was something that Deligio recalls as a rewarding moment while in school. Post grad, he will be starting the Cornea and Contact Lens Residency at the University of Alabama School of Optometry for the upcoming year.

In the meantime, he plans on becoming a Fellow of the American Academy of Optometry and after his residency, pursue a career in academia.

HIS SCHOOL SAYS… “The Midwestern University Arizona College of Optometry selects Daniel Deligio Class 2015 valedictorian. He’s been awarded many scholarships and has been very active in community service.”

Julie Shalhoub, OD

Indiana University School of Optometry
Bloomington, Ind.

“I have an aunt who is an optometrist, and she exemplified a true passion for her career and became a role model for me at a very young age,” said Julie Shalhoub, OD. Julie%20Shalhoub.tif

Beginning in her second year of school through her fourth year, Shalhoub was an associate instructor for some clinical sciences and contact lens courses. “I loved interacting with my peers and teaching them the major skills of optometry and helping them prepare for working in clinic, all while getting to know them a little better.”

Shalhoub will be completing a residency in pediatrics and vision therapy at SCO, and as a Canadian citizen, she also hopes to practice on both sides of the border within the Midwest and/or Southwest Ontario.

HER SCHOOL SAYS… “Julie has demonstrated an exceptional combination of intelligence, leadership and maturity. She has given much of herself to her passion for becoming a practitioner.”

Megan Taylor, OD

The Ohio State College of Optometry
Columbus, Ohio

Megan Taylor, OD, knew she wanted to do something in medicine, but nothing gripped her passion until she was assigned to shadow an optometrist for a course. However, her passion was solidified during a medical mission trip to rural Honduras where she took over distributing the counter reading glasses.

“The amazing thing is those glasses were the biggest hit at that little clinic, and they seemed to instantly change lives for many of the patients we were seeing. It was incredible how easy it had been to positively change their lives, and I knew I wanted to make a difference in helping people see better.”

Among the activities that Taylor participated in during school, reviving her school’s Lions Club chapter from a few members to several dozen was a very rewarding moment as she was able to volunteer and connect with groups outside of Ohio State.

Post grad, she plans on working at the Columbus and Chillicothe VA Eye Clinics in July as an optometry resident, and after that she plans to use her knowledge of ocular disease and low vision to find work with a large multispecialty optometry or ophthalmology practice.

HER SCHOOL SAYS… “Megan displays a work ethic and professionalism that is beyond exemplary. She is dedicated to elevating patient care to the highest level and has a passion for contributing to the current body of knowledge that will impact the quality of future standards of care.”

Alina Wheeler, OD

New England College of Optometry
Boston, Mass.

By simply putting on a pair of glasses and seeing the instant improvement of her vision, Alina (Ali) Wheeler, OD, found herself continuously intrigued by eyes. After researching the field, Wheeler had her mind made up before she even entered college. The relationships that she has built at NECO has allowed her to come in contact with many “admirable” people in optometry.

“I’ve gotten to know many admirable people in optometry, and these individuals continue to push my potential. I am lucky to have had the chance to get to know and love my NECO family and know they will be there throughout my career.”

After a much needed vacation, Wheeler will be attending basic training for the Army in Fort Sam Houston, Texas where she will be an optometrist for the Army after completion. She will be heading to South Korea in the fall. “I have a long lineage of military in my family, and I am honored to serve these men and women’s visual needs.”

HER SCHOOL SAYS… “Ali, as she prefers to be called, is a natural leader and has put those talents to good use at the college. She comes from a military family with both her father and her brother having served. She is the recipient of an Army HPSP Scholarship where I am sure her skills will again be appreciated.”

Opticians Best in Class 2015: Cutting Edge

Whether opticianry has been a life long goal, or one that was recognized the second time around, it’s clear that the 2015 Best in Class honorees are invested in their mission to bring sight to all. These upcoming opticians and optical technicians are not only at the top of their classes but are armed and ready to unleash their knowledge and expertise on the world of the visually impaired.

Hailing from technician and optical dispensing programs from across the U.S., the following graduates were nominated by their schools because of their talent, skill and love for a craft that each student has willingly adopted as their own.

Vision Monday congratulates all of this year’s opticianry graduates and dedicates this special section to shed the spotlight on the Best in Class 2015.

Gabriela Aguilar

Hillsborough Community College
Tampa, Fla.

Gabriela Aguilar was drawn to the opticianry program after having a conversation with a friend who is also in the field. Her main motivation is her desire to help others. “I simply love people,” Aguilar said. Gabriella%20Aguilar.tif

After graduation, she plans on becoming a licensed optician and further her education in the near future. Aguilar is thankful for the love, support and encouragement from her husband and children as she pursues these goals. “I love hearing my children say to me, ‘You got this, mom.’”

During her time in the program, she served as the president of the student opticianry organization and has been very active in optical and charity events. One of her most rewarding experiences was partnering with the ICARE vision program to serve underprivileged patients in Jamaica.

“We provided full eye exams, prescription glasses, reading glasses and sunglasses,” Aguilar said. “Several Jamaicans were given the gift of sight. The experience was truly gratifying and life changing.”

HER SCHOOL SAYS… “She has done an excellent job of balancing her duties as a wife, mother and student. I think she will be a great addition to the field.”

Nina Byrnes

Raritan Valley Community College
Branchburg, N.J.

For as long as Nina Byrnes could remember she’s always loved glasses. When she was younger, she didn’t need corrective lenses so she would pop the lenses out of her sunglasses and wear the frames to school. Byrnes, who never worked in the field before finding the Ophthalmic Science program at Raritan Valley Community College fell in love with the curriculum.

“I guess you could say I have been an optician at heart for the majority of my life,” Byrnes said.

She credits her biggest motivation for going into this industry to her two mentors, her professor Brian Thomas and Gregory Ritter, the first optician that she worked for, with her most rewarding work revolving around pediatrics.

“I have been able to focus on fitting glasses for children specifically,” Byrnes said. “I love the entire process of getting a child and their parents excited about their new glasses. It is so rewarding to be able to effectively educate parents on the importance of their child’s correction.”

This summer, Byrnes plans to continue working for Paul Naftali OD’s practice in Madison, N.J. Later, she plans to transfer to Towson University in the fall to pursue a BS in Biology to further her career in vision care as an optometrist specializing in pediatrics.

HER SCHOOL SAYS… “Nina is probably the student I am most proud of in my tenure as a professor. She began the program tepidly, and a bit unsure if she wanted to pursue this degree and then blossomed beyond all description as she fell in love with opticianry.”

Jessica Fox

J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College
Richmond, Va.

Before her time as a student at Reynolds, Jessica Fox started her optical education in the service at the Tri Service Opticians School, Naval Ophthalmic Support and Training Activity in Yorktown, Va.

“My motivation for going into this field stemmed from my roots in the military,” Fox said. “I have been working as an optician for the Navy since July 2012. I really enjoy working with patients and find optics interesting. Getting my Associate’s degree just seemed like the right thing to do.”

One of the most gratifying moments in the field for Fox was seeing how happy patients were during a humanitarian deployment to Polynesia and Micronesia when they finally were given clear vision.

Post grad, Fox plans on taking the ABO and NCLE to obtain certifications, and she will be continuing her service as an optician in the Navy.

HER SCHOOL SAYS… “Completing a college degree is no small task. Completing a college degree with high marks while serving our country as a soldier in the United States Navy is pretty awesome. There is no doubt in our minds here at Reynolds that Jessica has was it takes to become a leader within our profession.”

Megan Jones

Roane State Community College
Harriman, Tenn.

The greatest experience that Megan Jones had while in her program was getting to work in the field, learning and helping others while she was still in school. Her biggest motivation for pursuing this career was “the joy of being able to help and assist those with vision needs.”

Now that she has graduated, her plans include working full time as well as taking the state licensing exam. Jones also hopes to eventually continue her education.

HER SCHOOL SAYS… “We would like to nominate Megan Jones from this year’s graduating class. Megan was elected Roane State Opticianry Student of the Year by her classmates. This award was based on her grades, community service and her involvement in the Student Optical Society (SOS).”

Susan Li

New York City College of Technology
Brooklyn, N.Y.

If Susan Li could press a rewind button and go back a few years, she never would have expected that she’d become an optician. Li grew up around artsy influences and has always leaned in a more creative direction, having previously studied and worked in the graphic design industry.

“After receiving a project with an optical store, I immersed myself into the world of vision to understand more about my client’s requests. I was intrigued with how something so seemingly simple, such as a pair of glasses or contact lenses, had so many processes behind the scenes,” Li said.

After working part time, her newfound passion pushed her to get a second degree and allowed her to discover the art in opticianry. “Combining my passions for opticianry and art, I aspire to be a great optician who can help people find life-changing options and create solutions to all of their visual needs.”

Li hopes to find work in a hospital or eye clinic as she wants to provide for a broader spectrum and assist with ocular diseases, special visual needs and vision therapy.

HER SCHOOL SAYS… “Her desire to learn and her commitment to her education is impressive. Whatever she undertakes, she does with enthusiasm and motivation”

Elise Svennevik

Indiana University School of Optometry-Optician/Technician Program
Bloomington, Ind.

Elise Svennevik’s most gratifying work within the opticinary program was at the Atwater Eyecare Center’s MLK event where she was able to volunteer as an optician for the clinic.

“The patients were incredibly grateful, and it was extremely satisfying to see how much of a difference a simple pair of glasses can make in someone’s daily life,” Svennevik said.

After graduation, Svennevik plans on working in a local optometrist’s office for the summer before entering OD school in Fall 2016.

She was recently awarded the “Student of the Year” award by the Indiana University School of Optometry’s Optician/Technician program. This award was based from votes cast from faculty, staff and fellow students.

HER SCHOOL SAYS… “Elise has a professional attitude and a good rapport with patients. She has been a positive role model to her class and will be an asset to her profession as she continues to grow in her field.”

Andrea Wood

Baker College of Allen Park
Allen Park, Mich.

Wearing glasses at a young age, Andrea Wood admired the men and women who assisted her because they also made the process of getting glasses fun. The difference they made in her life caused Wood to want to do the same for others.

While in the program, making glasses that would be taken on mission trips that provided eye exams and eyewear to those in developing regions was something that Wood took pride in doing.

Her post grad plans include taking the ABO and NCLE exams, continuing on to a bachelor’s degree as well as going on volunteer mission trips to provide eyecare to people in other countries.

HER SCHOOL SAYS… “Andrea has been top of the class for two years. She has been able to attend school full time while also working a full schedule as an optician. For Andrea, the sky is the limit.”

Allison Wunder

SUNY Erie Community College
Williamsville, N.Y.

Allison Wunder grew up in the optical industry. Her father, who owns a small optical store in their hometown, was ultimately her main inspiration for pursuing a degree in this industry.

“I loved seeing my father form lasting relationships with patients,” Wunder said. “I wanted that opportunity for myself.”

Her most gratifying work while in the program was getting to participate in the Special Olympics Opening Eyes event multiple times which, in conjunction with the Lions Club International gives vision screening and eyewear to athletes at no cost.

“Giving back to the community is so important, and I find it rewarding that I can use my passion to do so,” Wunder said.

After graduation, she plans to join her father in the family business. Wunder also hopes to explore as many new learning opportunities as possible. “The optical industry is always advancing, and I am excited to learn as much as I can,” Wunder said.

HER SCHOOL SAYS… “Allison was an excellent student and will be an asset to the profession.”