One thing the COVID-19 pandemic did not spoil is charitable giving, including new philanthropic partnerships. In fact, the University’s most recent donation of $7,500 came from a new donor named Keplr Vision. The Illinois-based company immediately recognized an opportunity to help students through the Optometry Learning Experience (OLE), a program established 40 years ago by the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) at Salus.

Due to the pandemic, OLE took on a virtual format this year, attracting nearly 60 students from across the U.S. – and even Canada. Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, director of school engagement at Keplr Vision and a practicing optometrist, participated as a panelist during the three-day event. Above and beyond the donation that will be used to offset application and testing costs for students who participated in this year’s OLE program, Dr. Lewis wants to help students gain confidence in pursuing an optometric education.

Dr. Jeffrey Lewis from Keplr Vision
“I think that students deserve the opportunity to at least hear about practicing optometry,” Dr. Lewis said. “They need the opportunity for exposure. I believe that and Keplr Vision believes that, too. So, we love increasing public awareness about the profession of optometry, because many of us, now that we're in it, think it's phenomenal.”

Keplr Vision’s donation, which is called the Keplr Vision Application Grant, will be offered to students who participated in this year’s OLE on a first-come, first-served basis. Chad Killen, OD ‘19, Resident ’20, PCO/Salus instructor and clinical instructor at The Eye Institute (TEI), first came to PCO/Salus as a junior in the OLE program pursuing his bachelor’s degree. According to him, the program also serves a more practical purpose.

“I remember my pre-health professions club in undergrad. Optometry wasn't a career that was talked about as much,” Dr. Killen said. “Until I had the opportunity to do OLE, I didn't know as much about it and I'm sure some of my classmates had no experience with it at all. So, I think more opportunities to expose the profession to undergrads, or even younger, will help students make sure that they're on the right path.”

The OLE program gives undergraduates an in-depth look at receiving a Doctor of Optometry degree at PCO/Salus. Melissa Cinciruk, MA, associate director of Admissions, spearheads the organization of the program and as a result has witnessed the impact of the experience among visiting students.

“By meeting real members of the Salus community and speaking with current students, the whole process seems less intimidating,” Cinciruk said. “OLE participants can see that there are people like them who have gone on to succeed.”

That’s just one example of the support undergraduates receive through the program. Cinciruk also pointed out that the pandemic and social distancing guidelines have made it challenging for students to job shadow.

“At a time when finding shadowing opportunities can be particularly difficult, access to optometrists is invaluable,” she said. “Given their exposure to multiple optometrists during OLE, there is a greater chance that students will have found an optometrist with whom they can relate.”

Screenshot of several students who attended OLE virtually this year.
Although OLE, which usually takes place in-person, had to be hosted online this year, PCO/Salus students Kelsey Harnish ‘21OD and Felicia Cicco ’24OD both agree a virtual format is just as important to encourage the next generation of optometrists. The two participated in OLE as undergraduates and eventually served as program guides after enrolling at PCO/Salus prior to the pandemic.

“The root of it is to understand the program,” Harnish said. “You get a lot of information about PCO and the curriculum, which is really important in the decision-making process.”

Cicco agreed, “OLE gets you prepared and ready for optometry school, the application process and maybe moving to a different area,” she said. “I think all of that is just so important. There are so many other aspects to graduate school that they teach you in the OLE program that I think should be more widespread.”

Growing Need for Optometry infographic
During the virtual OLE event, Dr. Lewis gave a live presentation that covered topics and statistics surrounding the growing need and high demand for optometrists, optometry specializations and shifting priorities of the profession. He also offered his personal contact information for students to continue the conversation with him, perhaps knowing the most important resource he could offer the crowd of aspiring healthcare professionals is – time and wisdom – as Dr. Lewis' own mentor, an award-winning optometrist named Dr. John Bonsett-Veal, did for him years ago.