The Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) at Salus University was officially presented with the National Optometric Association (NOA) 2021 School of the Year award during the University’s inaugural DEI Speaks event hosted on campus last month. The award was originally announced at the NOA’s recent 51st convention, which took place virtually earlier this year.
Recognized for its strong commitment to diversity and inclusion, particularly its focus on recruiting and enrolling underrepresented students of color, Paula Harmon Boone, OD, director of the NOA’s “Visioning the Future” HBCU mentorship program and NOA trustee, nominated PCO/Salus for the award. According to her, PCO/Salus received the honor for advancing the recruitment, enrollment and retention of a diverse student body. The other factor was the high level of support by the University’s Office of Admissions for diversity and inclusion efforts.
“This is indicative of the leadership of a diversity sensitive administration, who realizes the significance of cultural competency and cultural humility,” she said.
Following a daylong visit to the University’s Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, campus, Dr. Boone also keynoted the DEI Speaks event with a talk titled “Diverse Representation Matters in Healthcare.” The talk focused on how healthcare inequities endured by people of color have led to poor health outcomes and shortened lifespans for Brown, Black/African American people throughout history.
“The bottom line is life for people of color,” she said. “Its presence can determine the basic survival of Black and Brown people. Without proper representation, data shows that people of color too often die a premature, painful death without empathy, as a nucleus of diverse representation is race and ethnicity.”
The presentation touched on recent events surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, covering how the mistreatment of people from diverse backgrounds infected with the coronavirus has caused many premature deaths among the Black population since the start of the pandemic. She discussed the death of Dr. Susan Moore, who was discharged from Indiana University Health North in Carmel, Indiana, while battling COVID-19. In a video Dr. Moore posted on Facebook prior to her death, she said she was treated poorly due to her race. Dr. Boone also spoke about her hopes for the current era, marked by heightened social awareness of race, expressing empathy and realizing what other people go through, which can be a powerful catalyst for change.
Throughout the presentation, Dr. Boone incorporated her own life experiences with the healthcare system as a Black American, offering the perspectives of both a patient and a healthcare provider. She started her talk explaining that the importance of diversity in healthcare starts as early as birth, citing a study conducted by the National Academy of Science in August 2020. Data reported revealed the mortality rate of Black babies is decreased dramatically when they are cared for by Black doctors. An all-too familiar story for Dr. Boone, who was born six weeks premature, weighing only three pounds.
“My survival was enhanced by Black racial representation. I was categorized as a complicated case,” she said. “Fortunately, I was born in a fully accredited, Black-owned and operated hospital, delivered by a Black physician who was assisted by Black nurses. I was treated with the utmost care, remaining in the hospital for over three weeks, until I was able to thrive at home. The doctor took time to inform my mother of the unique requirements of caring for a preemie.”
At the end of the discussion, Dr. Boone shifted from discussing the issues to the solution and all the current and aspiring healthcare practitioners who filled the room provided a captive audience.
“Health professional schools and colleges around the country are reengaged as never before,” she said. “So, I'm hopeful. They are planning programs. They are increasing diversity, equity and inclusion in student, faculty and staff representation, and Salus is at the top. And, as a result, corporations are now, in some instances, picking up the tab to create a pool of healthcare providers.”
Dr. Boone capped off the event, which was co-sponsored by the University’s Offices of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) and PCO/Salus, by officially presenting the NOA School of the Year award to Salus President Michael Mittelman, OD ‘80, MPH, MBA, FAAO, FACHE, and Melissa Trego, OD ‘04, PhD, dean of PCO/Salus.
“There's a microscope on diversity,” Dr. Mittelman said. “There's a microscope on trying to increase diversity in healthcare professions to ensure that we are all successful and that we are able to deliver not just equitable but equal healthcare. And, I think your class in particular is extremely well-positioned to help get us out of the gates.”
The Award, Mission-Critical DEI Work
The NOA School of the Year recognition coincides with a pivotal time for PCO/Salus. The University’s efforts to increase diversity were reinforced by the new incoming class this fall, admitting 13.8 percent of first-year Doctor of Optometry (OD) students, the largest Black enrollment at PCO/Salus in more than 30 years. In support of creating an inclusive University community, Salus continuously implements and deploys strategies related to recruitment, retention, student leadership development, academic success, didactic and clinical training, and proactive campus-wide diversity and inclusion education as part of its DEI mission.
Dr. Boone said the University’s commitment to underrepresented students of color aligns with the NOA’s purpose to help underserved communities and decrease vision health disparities.
“This should be the modus operandi of all colleges of optometry,” Dr. Boone said. “Recruitment is the start of the process and academia is the place of preparation. With broad exposure and support during matriculation, some students will pursue a pathway to academia to create an increase in Black faculty; others will pursue various modes of practice to increase a more diverse representation in the eye care industry.”
Salus also has several different initiatives on campus designed to help students know they have a place of support, and to highlight the voices of people from various backgrounds, including race, gender, LGBTQ+ identity, and religious and spiritual beliefs, along with others. Some programs include a DEI committee, an ongoing series of events featuring speakers and various diversity and inclusion topics as well as a resource page on the University’s website dedicated to DEI education, covering books and articles to read and topics such as how to raise anti-racist children.
In 2020, Dr. Juliana Mosley-Williams was hired as the University’s special assistant to the president for DEI, to lead the school’s DEI efforts. As a diversity leader, Dr. Mosley-Williams works to ensure DEI practices remain central and not ancillary to the University’s mission.
“Today, we are one of the most diverse colleges of optometry in the country, with women as the majority and the largest Black student enrollment among all 24 schools nationwide,” she said. “I was elated to hear that PCO/Salus was selected by the NOA as the School of the Year, due to our demonstrated commitment to increasing the number of Black and African American students entering the profession of optometry. While it is always an honor to be recognized for hard work, it is more important that we continue our efforts because it is our identity, mission and responsibility.”
PCO/Salus also recently relaunched its Summer Enrichment Program (SEP) for high-achieving students of color, renaming it the Robert E. Horne SEP as a tribute to its founder who originally established the program in 1977. The original intent of SEP was to introduce disadvantaged students and underrepresented prospective students to the curriculum at PCO/Salus. Since its reestablishment after a six-year hiatus, goals of the program include improving the matriculation, attrition and graduation rates of Black and other underrepresented applicants of color while fostering a safety net of support and mentorship to meet the increasingly diverse nation’s optometric needs.
The program’s reinstatement was also recognized by the NOA.
“Recruiting a diverse student body results in a more diverse healthcare workforce,” Dr. Boone said. “A diverse workforce ensures improved health outcomes for all. Patients will have greater access to culturally competent healthcare providers who understand their lives, their challenges and their needs.”
Founded in 1969 during the Civil Rights era by the late Drs. C. Clayton Powell, John Howlette and 25 other Black optometrists in Richmond, Virginia, the NOA was the first national organization to represent the professional interests of Black doctors of optometry. For more than 50 years, the NOA’s mission of “Advancing the Visual Health of Minority Populations” has included the recruitment of students of color into schools and colleges of optometry, with the goal of creating better delivery of optometric care for all communities.
To learn more about the University’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, visit salus.edu/DEI.