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SUNY Optometry Hosts Part Two of a Live Webinar Series Addressing Race in Optometry

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SUNY Optometry Hosts Part Two of a Live Webinar Series Addressing Race in Optometry

Panelists seek sustainable steps for increasing minority representation in the field

The State University of New York (SUNY) College of Optometry hosted “Seeking Solutions – Race in Optometry: An Honest Conversation on Optometric Education,” part two of a live webinar series covering the issues and obstacles that impact Black optometrists.         

Organized by the college’s Office of Continuing Professional Education, the second installment of the online forum that took place on July 29th featured an elite panel of Black optometrists and leaders in academia. The focus for the evening was on seeking solutions within optometric education by defining and discussing how diversity, equity and inclusion, when combined with mentorship, can help lead to career pathways for people of color in optometric profession and industry.

“What was discussed at the last panel were people’s experiences and that began the journey of awareness,” explained program panelist Dr. Ruth Shoge, assistant professor, Pennsylvania College of Optometry, Salus University. “The next step is to build awareness, knowledge and skills. Part of that knowledge-building is to understand the terms that we are using. When we say diversity, equity and inclusion, what does that mean? When we say cultural competency, what does that mean?”

Alongside Dr. Shoge, who serves as chair-elect ASCO’s Diversity & Cultural Competency Committee, fellow panelists included Dr. Edwin Marshall, Professor Emeritus of Optometry and Public Health and past Vice President for Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs at Indiana University; Dr. David Heath, President, SUNY College of Optometry; and Dr. John Flanagan, Dean and Professor in the School of Optometry, University of California Berkeley and current president of ASCO. The online forum was led by co-moderators Dr. Joy Harewood, attending optometrist, BronxCare Health System and Adjunct Assistant Clinical Professor, SUNY College of Optometry and Dr. Sherrol Reynolds, president, National Optometric Association (NOA) and Chief, Advanced Ophthalmic Care, NSU College of Optometry, both who participated in part one of the webinar series.

Helpful hindsight

The two-hour talk began with a recap of efforts to expand and enhance minority representation in the field as told by distinguished optometric leader Dr. Marshall. He highlighted the beginnings of boosting minority recruitment more than 50 years ago with the formation of the NOA, an organization founded in 1969 to increase and support African American professionals in optometry. Fast forward to the present, steps have been taken to advance diversity and inclusion in optometric education, including pipeline programming to help interested students learn about the field and engage with optometric professionals who mirror themselves. 

Yet, despite a half decade of multiple efforts toward advancing representation of minorities in optometric schools and the profession, progress has fallen short of expectations, especially for the Black community.

“Underrepresentation has become a catch all and, in a way, a cop-out,” said Dr. Marshall. “We can show underrepresentation increases but we cannot show African American increases. We need to refocus because [that is where] we have not done well at all.”  Evaluating programs that worked toward advancing minority presence and why they worked is a helpful place to start, he added.

At SUNY College of Optometry, state-supported summer programming that orients underrepresented groups to optometry and the health professions has contributed to an increase in minority enrollment, Dr. Heath pointed out, referencing the college's largest group of Black and Latinx students to date in the Class of 2024. However, the recent jump in number has raised new questions about the consistency and impact of pipeline initiatives and related efforts to encourage, boost and retain marginalized students and professionals across time. Of concern, Dr. Heath points to stories of bias and ignorance voiced by some minority students and alumni who have illuminated a different school experience and perception. 

It’s why, along with an existing committee focused on diversity and inclusion, a President’s Task Force on Race and Equity made up of staff and students at the college has been organized to evaluate current practices, identify areas for improvement and open-up the conversation about race, equity and inclusion.

“We want to provide additional resources and sources of support for our students,” Dr. Heath said. “We also know we have a long way to go.”

Looking ahead

Panelist Dr. Flanagan highlighted the growth of other traditionally underrepresented groups, like women, who have evolved over time and changed to become the vast majority of professionals in optometry, yet Black representation, even among women, remains low.

In the works are outreach programs to connect with younger people to promote interest in optometry and inspire movement toward a career in the field, including ASCO’s “Optometry Gives Me Life” campaign aimed at expanding the applicant pool with a focus on reaching minority students. SUNY College of Optometry alumna, Dr. Miki Lyn Zilnicki ’13 is one of the optometrists featured. The National Optometric Student Association (NOSA), a branch of NOA established in 1979, also serves as a mentoring resource for underrepresented students as they work with optometric professionals to deliver quality eye care and service to underserved communities. The organization is comprised of more than 1,000 optometry students in the US and abroad.

As for advancing faculty representation in optometry schools and organizations, the panelists agree that equitable resources are needed to encourage and assist those who decide to pursue an academic position, an action that will also entails non-minorities taking on the role of mentor and confidante.

“If you are non-Black, you need to know that this conversation is for you and you can get involved,” Dr. Shoge said. “Be that mentor, be that person who reaches out, be that person who offers a listening ear…be the person who creates the change.”

To access the latest webinar on race and equity in optometry, visit Race in Optometry-Part 2 or contact the Office of Continuing Professional Education by emailing ce@sunyopt.edu for more information.


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