Berkeley student volunteers see more than 2,800 patients during their four-day annual service trip with Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH) to Nicaragua.
Berkeley student volunteers see more than 2,800 patients during their four-day annual service trip with Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH) to Nicaragua.

A Free Clinic, Nicaraguan style

Along the Nicaraguan coast, villagers come by the busload for the free eye clinic held each January in the town of San Juan del Sur. Children unable to read a blackboard, elderly people struggling with the cloudiness of cataracts, and others simply wanting their vision checked all wait their turn.

This marks the 13th consecutive year that Berkeley Optometry students have joined Volunteer Optometric Services to Humanity (VOSH) in providing eye care to the under-served community. For Cal’s doctors-in-training, the four-day service trip is a true eye-opener.

“It’s amazing how quickly you progress, how quickly you grow and what an impact you can make on people’s lives,” says Melissa Lester, a second-year optometry student and two-time VOSH participant.

Teaming up with optometrists, opticians, translators and other volunteers from VOSH’s Connecticut chapter, Berkeley students see some 2,800 patients and get a chance to treat diseases that they might have only heard about in lectures.

Their makeshift clinic, set up in an elementary school, is far removed from Minor Hall.

“We don’t have all the nice equipment and resources we might have in our clinic in Berkeley,” says Megan Lee, Vice President of Berkeley Optometry’s VOSH club and one of 14 Berkeley students on this year’s trip. Students check patients’ visual acuity, perform a retinoscopy to estimate any needed prescriptions, and do eye health exams. While this is a repeat visit for some, “for many patients, this is their first eye exam,” says Lee.

Though doctors are always nearby to help or take over a difficult case, “you’re thrown into a situation where you’re really having to learn on the fly,” says Lester.

Last year, she saw an elderly woman who had already lost one eye and was anxious because her remaining eye was hurting. Lester referred the woman to one of the volunteer optometrists, who determined the woman was suffering from a severe case of dry eye. The woman was given drops to relieve her condition and calm her fears. For Lester, such an experience “kind of recharges me and reminds me of why I’m doing this.”

VOSH distributes prescription glasses, readers and sunglasses to patients. In past years, Berkeley students have joined the organization in such countries as Vietnam, Peru, Thailand, and Kenya, along with the annual pilgrimage to Nicaragua.

Hold the S’mores, this Summer Camp Serves Up Career Paths and More

The Berkeley campus is home to the country’s first summer camp dedicated to introducing underrepresented college students to the field of optometry.

Since its 2006 launch, Opto-Camp has hosted nearly 300 students, with 63 percent of them going on to enroll in optometry schools nationwide. The three-day program has “turned out very, very well,” says its creator, Sharon Joyce, Director of Admissions and Student Affairs at Berkeley Optometry. “The biggest complaint is it’s not a week long.”

Joyce began Opto-Camp after learning that the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry was seeking programs that would boost diversity in the profession and applicant pools. “There’s definitely a shortage of underrepresented students going into the health professions,” she notes.

At Opto-Camp, participants meet professors, hear presentations about the anatomy of the eye, learn about the profession, receive a free eye exam, and get pointers on how to apply to optometry programs.
Opto-Campers stay in residence halls and are mentored by optometry students who serve as counselors. Some 30 students attend one of two summer sessions.

“After Opto-Camp, I knew I wanted to be an optometrist,” says Yari Diez, a former camper now in her third year at Berkeley Optometry. Diez, who grew up in San Diego, credits the camp with acquainting her with the field and the steps she needed to take to join it. In 2009, she returned to Opto-Camp as a counselor. “It was interesting to see students in the same situation I was,” says Diez, the first in her family to attend college and to go on to graduate school. “I could relate to them.”

Inspired by Berkeley’s success, three other optometry schools — Illinois College of Optometry, The Ohio State University, and Pacific University — have started summer camps of their own.

A Visionary Gift

When UC Berkeley Optometry students discovered they were sitting on a whopper of a nest egg, they hatched a plan to put the money to work.

The result? A $250,000 gift to the School of Optometry that was immediately doubled by the Chancellor’s Challenge for Student Support. The UC Optometric Student Association (UCOSA) donation is the biggest-ever contribution by current students to the Berkeley campus and perhaps to the entire UC system. It will provide much-needed financial aid to current and future generations of optometry students.

“We wanted to be proactive about this and have it go to the greater good of the University rather than sitting in our account,” explains Britta Hansen, the former President of UCOSA, who initiated the gift.

UCOSA, which represents all 260 Optometry students, has a long tradition of successful fundraising and frugal spending. For decades, the group had been tucking away profits from its publication of a popular study guide used by optometry students nationwide, along with proceeds from student dues and cap and clothing sales.

“All of that money had been growing on its own for many years,” says Hansen. “When I became UCOSA President, I got to thinking about the money and how it could be better used by Berkeley Optometry and the University as a whole.”
The $500,000 endowment is expected to generate $25,000 annually for student fellowships. Along with establishing a permanent support fund, the money will help current optometry students, who have faced sharply rising fees.

Administrators were understandably floored by UCOSA’s generosity. “Getting a gift like that from current students just blew me away,” says dean Dennis Levi.

In fact, a philanthropic spirit permeates Berkeley Optometry. Some 40 fellowships have been established by current and retired optometry professors and staff, and the school’s alumni association recently made a $160,000 gift. It, too, will be doubled by the Chancellor’s Challenge.

— Abby Cohn (Originally published in The Graduate, Spring 2011)