By Brance Arnold ’10 MA
On May 10, the University of the Incarnate Word’s (UIW) Rosenberg School of Optometry (RSO) made history by graduating its inaugural class at the Spring 2013 Commencement ceremony held in the Alice P. McDermott Convocation Center. Earning their Doctor of Optometry (O.D.) degree, the Class of 2013 was comprised of 58 students from 17 states and several countries including Canada, Mexico and Nigeria. Since RSO’s inception in 2009, these graduates have established and built a reputation of excellence as vision care providers and have set the bar for future RSO students.
“The Class of 2013 will forever hold a special place in history as the inaugural class,” said Dr. Andrew Buzzelli, dean of the RSO. “These graduates are pioneers of optometry and the university.”
Indicative of the perseverance and resilience of the Class of 2013 are the seven students who graduated with honors. The valedictorian of the inaugural class was Samantha Susan Rieger and co-salutatorians were Briteny Brunner Allison and Martin Vicente Diaz. Buzzelli said some of the students plan to return to their home states and countries to practice but many will practice in Texas as licensed optometrists. Allison plans to join a general practice in rural northeast Texas and Diaz will head to Vermont to complete his residency in primary care at the White River Junction VA Medical Center.
Rieger, who plans to serve the nation as an optometrist and Captain in the United States Army, said the inaugural class members were trailblazers in establishing the RSO program.
“This program was formed around and by the Class of 2013,” said Rieger. “We identified strengths and weaknesses in curriculum, clinics and extracurricular clubs and activities and were able to help shape the future of the RSO.”
For Diaz, it meant a great deal to be among such a pioneering group. “I like to do things differently and get an experience that no one else will, and pave new ground being a part of the first class,” he said.
“They singlehandedly invented the culture and collegiality we call the Rosenberg School of Optometry,” Buzzelli said. “The evaluation of the institution, which we underwent during the accreditation process, showed that this class of interns has done it with distinction, with diligence, with empathy and with compassion.”
Kristine Benne, RSO director of student affairs who has been with the program since 2009, concurs that the inaugural class has directly contributed to its success and growth over the years. Specifically, she cited their expansion of student organizations.
“When they first started the program we had two student organizations,” explained Benne. “Today we have 17 organizations dedicated to the professional, academic and personal growth of our students. Many of these organizations and the numerous opportunities they afford our students would not be in existence without the continued efforts and leadership of our inaugural class.”
When Rieger entered the program, she had no prior optometry experience but had the mindset of learning to provide the best patient care possible and not to simply pass exams. And she believes her training at UIW prepared her to deliver such superlative vision care.
“I believe it is my duty to my patients for them to feel confident in my abilities and for them to know they received the best care possible,” said Rieger. “RSO gave me the opportunity to provide that level of care.”
To achieve their degree, the graduates of the RSO underwent a rigorous four year curriculum earning a minimum of 206.5 credit hours. Throughout the duration of the program, they received didactic and clinical laboratory instruction with all courses integrating and emphasizing clinical applications and scenarios. In their third and fourth year rotations, they applied their training in professional settings to include the UIW Eye Institute, the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind and various CommuniCare health centers. The curriculum even entailed courses in practice management to emphasize the skills essential to maintaining a business or private practice.
“The RSO curriculum and clinics have provided the Class of 2013 with a solid education and resource network for continued support,” stressed Rieger.
However, Rieger and Diaz indicated that establishing the RSO was at times a trial and error process.
“Our class had the opportunity to learn how to adapt to as well as solve problems and complications,” she explained. “Sometimes it’s beneficial to experience some bumps in the road so that you learn how to successfully overcome them in the future.”
“Overall the best thing I can take away from my RSO education is to be adaptable to change,” added Diaz.
Since the RSO is one of only 20 optometry programs on the United States mainland and one of two in Texas, the inaugural class has also made an impact on a statewide and national level.
“The Class of 2013 has set a new standard for initial health care colleges which will come after them,” said Buzzelli. “Their legacy will live on as the best example of the Incarnate Word intern, setting a standard above the rest in what they do and who they are.”
“Looking back to the beginning of the RSO program, it is amazing to see the growth of the school, and I am honored to know I helped make it what it is today,” Rieger shared. “As with all of my classmates, now fellow O.D.s, we showed that with hard work, dedication and setting goals, your dreams can become a reality.”