This is part one of a two-part series on the history and evolution of Salus University’s current Department of International and Continuing Education (DICE).

To understand the continuing success of the University’s Department of International and Continuing Education (DICE), one has to look at the history of the institution and the foundation on which it was established.
D. Monaco in Saudi ArabiaAlbert Fitch, OD, FAAO, the founder and first president of what was, in 1919, the Pennsylvania State College of Optometry (PSCO), laid the strategic underpinnings for the eventual success of international programs by establishing a curriculum with a biomedical emphasis, which in turn would guide all other optometry programs in the United States.

“The reality is that were it not for the institution’s emphasis on biomedicine, pharmacology and all of the biological sciences, none of this would have happened,” said Anthony Di Stefano, OD ’73, MEd, PhD, FAAO, vice president emeritus of Salus. “When Dr. Fitch set up the College, he said he wanted it on par with medicine and dentistry. That pretty much led to his philosophy that we should be teaching the biological sciences, because medicine and dentistry were rooted in biological sciences.”

As early as the 1930s, PSCO was teaching pharmacology because Dr. Fitch believed optometrists needed to understand drugs and their impact on vision and the entire body to be true health professionals.

With the expansion of optometry’s scope of practice in the early 1970s, there was an urgent need for postgraduate education in the use of diagnostic pharmaceutical agents (DPAs) and therapeutic pharmaceutical agents (TPAs) — and the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO), which changed names in 1964, was uniquely prepared to deliver such programs across the country because of its experience with biomedical and pharmaceutical training.

Norm Wallis HeadshotLeadership played a critical role at the time. Norman Wallis, OD, PhD, DSc (Hon.) ’90, FAAO, was PCO’s third president — a position he held from 1972 to 1979; and according to Dr. Di Stefano, it was Dr. Wallis, Thomas Lewis, OD ’70, PhD, FAAO (PCO/Salus president from 1989 through 2013), and Louis Catania, OD ’69, FAAO, DSc, who were at the forefront of advancing the profession.

“When Norm became president in 1972, he didn’t come in and turn the place upside down and reject the heritage of the institution. He seized that biomedical heritage and built upon it,” said Dr. Di Stefano. “When the laws were changed, he and Drs. Lewis, Catania and others were right in the middle of it.”

Louis CataniaDr. Catania would go on to become an internationally renowned lecturer on optometry’s role in the diagnosis and treatment of anterior segment diseases. He was a PCO faculty member until 1995, serving as an associate professor and also director of the Center for Continuing and Post Graduate Education (now called DICE). As the first director of what was then called the Center for International Studies, Dr. Catania played a pivotal role in expanding the College’s educational scope worldwide.

Healthcare leaders in other countries noticed that PCO was at the forefront in the profession and started to call on the institution for the development of similar programs. Spain was the first country that showed interest and sparked PCO’s expansion into new degree programs in clinical optometry.

“Once Spain kicked in and once we received state approval to award the Master of Science degree in Clinical Optometry, we were equipped to give any country and any optometrist, the kind of training they were seeking,” said Dr. Di Stefano.

In the 1990s, international demand grew even more which led to the delivery of both non-degree and degree programs. This growth included expansion throughout Europe and the Middle East. A strategic plan for advancing the profession of optometry worldwide was developed by then-president Dr. Lewis; Dr. Di Stefano, who was the dean of PCO at the time; and Dr. Catania. In 1994, Abraham “Avi” Gonen, OD ‘73, joined PCO as the director of Middle East/European Programs to further develop these initiatives.

Gonan and Lewis in Saudi ArabiaDr. Gonen did not believe PCO and eventually Salus University should stay in each country and do this job forever: it was imperative to make sure local faculty in each country were trained to take over responsibilities. In Norway, for example, eight Master of Science in Clinical Optometry (MSCO) degree program cohorts were taught over the course of 16 years. Following the ninth course, Norway became independent in offering its own MSCO degree program.

Also joining PCO in the 1990s was Melissa Padilla, MPH ‘13, who held several leadership positions throughout her 24-year career at PCO/Salus, including serving as director of what was then called Professional Studies and International programs.

When PCO launched its first such venture it was with the Colegio Nacional de Ópticos-Optometristas (CNOO). This initial on-campus initiative greatly benefitted from Padilla’s bilingual skills. In 1997, when PCO became the international headquarters of the World Council of Optometry (WCO), Padilla stepped up and assumed the role of director of Communications and Professional Service. Her leadership skills and passion for global public health causes were rewarded by her appointment as the WCO executive director in 2005. Her responsibilities in these roles spanned across numerous accomplishments including the implementation of global initiatives such as the World Conferences on Optometric Education (WCOE) and the historical World Conference on Optometric Globalization (WCOG).

According to Dr. Di Stefano, the rest of the world was coming to PCO because word spread to other countries about the profession of optometry and they wanted to emulate PCO. Other countries wanted more biological sciences because they wanted to have better optometrists.

“Our mission at PCO and Salus has always been to advance its professions to better serve patients and populations,” said Dr. Di Stefano. “Other countries wanted to expand their services so they could do more for their patients.”

Next: In Part 2, we speak with Melissa Vitek, OD ‘95, FAAO, dean of the Department of International and Continuing Education (DICE) for Salus, about how DICE has continued to evolve, expand and innovate to reach more diverse audiences.