The Summer Enrichment Program (SEP), initially started in 1977 by Robert E. Horne, was offered every summer for 39 years continuously until its hiatus in 2015. And, now the program will be returning under the direction of Ruth Shoge, OD ‘06, Resident ‘07.
Before she started as a first-year student at the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) in the fall of 2002, Dr. Shoge, participated in the SEP, which is where she developed a passion for the program. When she joined the faculty in 2008, dean Horne asked her to be a mentor and teach one of the SEP courses.
“That really made it a full-circle experience. It’s a program that I am very proud of and strongly believe in,” said Dr. Shoge.
After securing internal support, SEP was supposed to start in the summer of 2020, but due to the pandemic, it is now scheduled to resume next summer.
The program got a big boost in October 2020 when the University announced that America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses will be the sole sponsor of the SEP. Totaling $300,000 through a five-year commitment, it is the largest sponsorship Salus has received, to date, in support of its diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives.
“To fully achieve the level of diversity in Optometry that we all hope for requires that we overcome a variety of systemic obstacles. Salus’ Summer Enrichment Program, founded by the legendary PCO dean Robert E. Horne, played a pivotal trajectory setting role in the lives of many Optometrists of color practicing today,” said National Vision CEO Reade Fahs. “There would be fewer minority Optometrists practicing today were it not for this program. National Vision’s America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses brand is proud to be reigniting this program and laying the groundwork required to increase the number of students, residents, faculty and practitioners of color in the optometric profession.”
The original intent of SEP was to introduce disadvantaged students and underrepresented prospective students to PCO’s curriculum via a six-week residential program, which consisted of mini-courses on topics such as optics, human anatomy, biochemistry, neuroscience, pathology and clinical applications.
Now that the program is being revived, the goals remain as ambitious as they were when dean Horne established it: they include improving the matriculation, attrition and graduation rates of underrepresented minority (URM) applicants while fostering a safety net of support and mentorship.
“The success of SEP has shown that this kind of program really helped bolster the number of our minority students in general and black students specifically,” said Dr. Shoge.
This newly designed program will feature a five-week hybrid program, which includes three weeks of remote (online) instruction and mentorship and two weeks of in-person instruction and mentorship. While full immersion into the didactic program is an important element of the SEP, facilitating peer interactions and face-to-face faculty mentorship has been found to be an integral part of a URM student’s experience and success in the SEP and optometry school. This new format was designed with the intention of meeting the needs of modern-day students and creating greater accessibility for those who are interested in participating.
According to Dr. Shoge, not only is the program important for introducing participants to the curriculum, but it also establishes a foundation of friendship and support.
“I made lifelong friends through this program — some of my best friends were in that program,” said Dr. Shoge. “I thought I was ready for optometry school before I did this program because I had already been accepted. I felt even more prepared walking in on the first day of the first semester because I had some exposure, not only to the material but also to the teachers who would be teaching the courses. And, that was a very important element.”
There is research support for that specific element. James M. Caldwell, OD ‘89, Resident ‘91, EdD, dean of Student Affairs, wrote his Doctor of Education thesis on understanding the experiences of students in the SEP program.
Dr. Caldwell cited three fundamental goals in his qualitative study: (1) To understand the personal, lived-experiences of the participants; (2) To understand if the SEP influences the professional development of the participants; (3) To understand if the SEP contributes to the creation of social capital for participants.
Dr. Caldwell interviewed 24 optometrists who completed the SEP program before entering PCO’s program. According to his results, the participant’s personal experiences are rooted in the connections made during the SEP, the attributes of the program and the successful personal growth and personal commitment needed to complete the program.
Additionally, Dr. Caldwell’s findings illustrated that the SEP influenced the professional development of the participants, including academic success in completing their degree, setting personal career goals and creating awareness about the personal and professional responsibilities of being an underrepresented minority healthcare provider.
And, finally, the study showed how participants currently value the SEP as professionals, notable influencers are acknowledged notable influencers and perspectives on the value of mentoring. Interwoven throughout the findings are valuable insights about how SEP contributes to the creation of social capital.
“When asked about their favorite aspect of the program, the recurrent responses were meeting colleagues/making personal connections and becoming prepared for the full four-year program,” Dr. Caldwell wrote in his dissertation.
For the new iteration of the SEP, Dr. Shoge anticipates the participation of 20 students. Past programs have had between 20 and 25 students.
The University will pilot the new iteration “specifically for the optometry program, but long term goals include expanding the program to other Colleges in the University, especially to those that lack diversity,” Dr. Shoge said with the hopes that this type of program will help recruit URM candidates into various healthcare professions.
Along the same lines, Dr. Shoge hopes dean Horne’s legacy will continue through the SEP program and its sustainability, viability, and importance to PCO/Salus, will continue to be evident.
“It’s really an honor, and his are big shoes to fill to carry on dean Horne’s legacy because he was the program,” said Dr. Shoge. “Dean Horne and SEP were synonymous with each other. It started out being a passion project and ended up being a passion career for him. To be able to now take over in that capacity is an honor because so many people looked up to dean Horne, as I did.”
For this reason, she has renamed it to the Robert E. Horne Summer Enrichment Program in order to acknowledge his efforts, commitment, and honor his legacy.
“Without him, PCO would not have been the diverse educational environment that we see now,” she said.