PCO/Salus Alums Want 13 Percent Black Representation - Part 3: Dr. Essence Johnson
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PCO/Salus Alums Want 13 Percent Black Representation - Part 3: Dr. Essence Johnson

As conversations around the globe on issues surrounding race and diversity continue to evolve, a few Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) at Salus University alumni are also leading a dialogue, asking for 13 percent Black representation in the optometry community.

Black Eyesore perspective graphic that says "13 percent"Black EyeCare Perspective, established by PCO/Salus alum Darryl Glover, OD ’11, in partnership with optometrist Dr. Adam Ramsey, has worked toward the goal of 13 percent representation since its founding in 2019. To address the eye care needs of Black Americans in an increasingly diverse society, Dr. Glover teamed up with fellow PCO/Salus alumni Jacobi Cleaver, OD ‘11, and Essence Johnson, OD ‘10, to create Impact HBCU. Formed under the Black EyeCare Perspective organization to support its 13 percent goal, the initiative links optometry school recruitment and admissions to students enrolled at historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

First, we featured Dr. Glover in this three-part series that highlights a few of the thought leaders behind Impact HBCU, their work and the importance of the group’s underlying mission. Next, Dr. Cleaver shared his experiences and thoughts surrounding his PCO journey, beginning in the PCO Summer Enrichment Program (SEP), which recently relaunched as the Robert E. Horne SEP after a six-year hiatus. The goal of the new program is to improve the acceptance, enrollment and graduation rates of underrepresented students through a five-week hybrid virtual and residential program.

Dr. Essence Johnson

When her paternal grandmother unabashedly spoke out against her childhood aspirations to pursue a legal career, Dr. Essence Johnson listened. The story behind Dr. Johnson’s decision to become an optometrist is one she tells often and proves grandma knows best.

Dr. Essence Johnson“I was sold when my grandmother told me,” Dr. Johnson said. “So, I knew I was not going to become a lawyer anymore. The question was, what was I going to become?”

Her grandmother’s sage advice combined with another pinnacle moment during a career fair she attended in middle school, led Dr. Johnson to the answer.

“It was like night and day. I went into the room, and there's this optometrist and she's a Black woman, on top of that,” she said. “It was like the birds chirping and glitter and all that. And, I don't even think until now that it clicked for me, that her being a woman and being a Black person was what spoke to me the most.”

From there, Dr. Johnson fully immersed herself in the profession, spending her spare time at a best friend’s father’s optometry practice and even keeping in touch with the optometrist from the school event who helped inspire her career ambitions.

In 2005, Dr. Johnson received her Bachelor of Science in Biology from Prairie View A&M University, a HBCU in Texas that recruited and offered her a full scholarship. Before enrolling at PCO/Salus, where she eventually earned her Doctor of Optometry degree in 2010, she also completed the PCO Summer Enrichment Program (SEP) alongside Drs. Glover and Cleaver.

“I would love for everyone to know, historically, when we went to SEP, it was not 100 percent Black people or people who identify as Black,” Dr. Johnson said. “It's for underrepresented minorities or people who may have had some sort of challenge academically.”

But the part she loved most about the experience was the sense of community.

“You get to meet some of your future classmates or schoolmates in the process. So, most of the people in my SEP, they're still very close friends for me,” she said.

Since 2014, Dr. Johnson has been practicing at the Southeast Dallas Health Center Community Outpatient Clinic and Lew Sterrett Justice Center. She is also a faculty associate at UT Southwestern. As chief visionary officer of Black EyeCare Perspective and co-advisor to the Black EyeCare Perspective pre-optometry club, she is helping to redefine the color of the eye care industry by creating a pipeline for Black students into optometry.

“I am a living example of what a pipeline can do for you, even if it wasn't as intentional as that. That's exactly what it is,” she said.

Through Impact HBCU, an ongoing initiative created by Black EyeCare Perspective to help identify, prepare and educate HBCU students for optometry school, Dr. Johnson and her colleagues try to duplicate the experience for other Black students. Using Dr. Johnson’s success story as somewhat of a blueprint, the initiative’s pre-optometry club intentionally focuses on HBCUs, but the goal is to influence alumni nationwide.

“We chose HBCUs because we can count the number of HBCUs, but I encourage everyone, Black, white, regardless, to do the same thing that we're doing for HBCUs, me being a graduate from Prairie View A&M University, every alum needs to do that on their own level,” she said. “So yes, we fight so hard for PCO. PCO is our home. PCO is our baby. I encourage everyone, fight for your own school, because we can't do all the work.”

Being a HBCU graduate is not a requirement to participate in the pre-optometry club, but it’s a perk according to Dr. Johnson.

“There are some programs, even offered through the National Optometric Association, that target HBCUs as well to help with the pipeline and recruitment tactics,” she said. “But this is another affiliation you can have that, again, is intentional in bringing all of the Black people together.”

Outside of Black EyeCare Perspective, Dr. Johnson is a life member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority and a regional trustee for the National Optometric Association (NOA). In 2020, she was nominated as Parkland Health and Hospital System’s Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council (DFWHC) Physician of the Year.

From a curious middle schooler to a doctor of optometry, Dr. Johnson credits a lot of her success to the support she received throughout her journey.

“And, here I am as a Black female optometrist who now practices in community health, again, because of the recruitment and the friendships and the networks and the connections,” she said.

For more information, please visit BlackEyeCarePerspective.com.