Gaining accreditation

As I enter my third year at the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, I can’t help but reflect on the time I have spent here so far. This dynamic optometry program is unique in so many ways, and it’s been really interesting to be a part of all of the progress that we are making here in the beautiful city of Worcester, MA.

When I first arrived as an eager and wide-eyed first-year, the optometry program was still in the process of gaining accreditation. Little did I know how much I was going to be a part of this process. We still had to prove to the accreditation board that we were a viable institution built on a standard that we always knew would get us approved. These standards were comprised of acceptable pass rates on board exams, undertaking research studies, and expanding our clinical outreach.

As the years went on, the optometry program eventually gained accreditation. While the program has reached the goals it had initially set out, the greatest achievement was not tangible. The ultimate prize to being recognized as an accredited institution can be summed up in one word: stability. While optometry school can seem like a whirlwind to students, the opposite should be true to professors and administrators who have the challenging task of shaping the minds of those same students to effectively think and act as professionals in an optometric setting. However, a professor who is laying the foundation to an entire optometry program can be just as perplexing as a student going through the motions of their education.

To get an inside look at how our optometry program operates, I sat down with the Associate Dean for Academic Programs, Dr. Amy Falk, and asked some burning questions.

AP: Now that MCPHS is at a point where we are accredited, what are we doing to keep accreditation?

Falk: We recently received a report from our accreditors, the Accreditation Council on Optometric Education, stating that we can continue moving forward. We are not stagnant when it comes to the accreditation process. It is not unusual to have growing pains as a new program, but the rest of the faculty and I are determined to keep the program moving in the right direction. It is important to remember that MCPHS is the first new optometric program in decades! Hiring people to do a cold open was a challenge, but after 5 years, I can confidently say that we have laid a foundation to carry us forward for quite some time. Being a professor is truly a full-time job, and starting a school is not something anyone can do half-heartedly! Essentially, my goal is to make the necessary changes so we keep improving without taking a step back.

AP: Where do you see this program in 5 years?

Falk: I envision continued stability. We have added five new faculty members this year and have plans of adding more. So, faculty growth is something we really have been focusing on. We believe this will show an increase in publishable research and have a positive impact on the overall education of the students. Also, MCPHS prides itself on being very involved in the surrounding community. In the future, we plan on seeing local clinical growth in Worcester. With clinical growth, the next step is residency.

AP: What residency programs will be offered? Is it too early to ask?

Falk: It’s never too early to ask! Residency programs take years of preparation, and the first one we have planned is Community Health Center Optometry. After that, we have Vision Therapy Rehabilitation – which is our strongest specialty so far. As Dr. Waldorf, Associate Dean of Clinical Programs continues to expand our clinic, all of these plans will become reality.

AP: So would you label us as a “vision therapy rehabilitation” school?

(laughs) That might be too early to tell.

AP: Based off of your past experience, where would you rank the clinical experience that students receive at MCPHS?

Falk: I can honestly say that the clinical program here is among the best in the country. As an administrator, I can tell you that we cherry-picked the best clinical education components from every school. We have professors here from Oklahoma, SUNY, ICO, NECO, and other top programs, and we have all come together and discussed what educational qualities were valuable and beneficial during our own time in optometry school. We compared these traits to characteristics that did not work so well, and we went from there. So, in effect, we are implementing all of the positives of other programs.

AP: What would you say to your future students to help them prepare for this optometric program?

Falk: I think one of the biggest leaps an optometry student has to make from their undergraduate education is to get in the mindset that everything you learn must be retained. Retention is key! If we learn about a rare disease early in the year, you are expected to know it from that point on – I believe this applies to any optometric program.

AP: You could have gone anywhere, why would you ever take on this challenge of being a school that is starting up?

Falk: (laughs) Good question!

I have always been a small-town girl, and I think this city and the program fits perfectly for me. I completed my undergraduate studies at the College of the Holy Cross, right here in Worcester. I have a real love for this city and the community. Worcester offers the fine balance of having a small city charm with big city amenities. Also, there is something inherently special with starting something like an optometric program. I’ve never been one to shy away from a challenge and hard work. It’s the small-town girl in me! I love to nurture something and watch it grow.

AP: What would you say to someone who may be considering MCPHS?

Falk: If I had to go back and look at MCPHS as an applicant, the major things that would attract me would be the small class size. This plays directly into the low student to teacher ratio, which is truly the essence of MCPHS. As a professor, I cannot stress the advantage that we have in being able to focus on students who may be struggling. By doing so, we are able to pinpoint areas of weakness and even propose individual study plans. This also builds a community feeling, and I think it’s a unique quality that may not be offered by other programs.

The stability is due to a foundation that has been built over the past 5 years. This was a time where we have seen varying changes in leadership, a time where we have had inescapable growing pains, a time of gradually gaining accreditation, and a time where we have seen our first class graduate to ultimately become promising residents, compassionate doctors, and keen business owners. This is a unique school with very special students, professors, and administrators. Everyone here can attest to the fact that we are growing community who thrive off of each other. While we have seen our fair share of controlled chaos, there is no doubt that the school is now on the right track.

Every optometry class has roughly 65 students, which is relatively small compared to other schools. One of the distinctive features of having a small class size is the natural bonding that occurs as we progress through the program. While this is a natural occurrence among students, it is extra special when it occurs between students and professors. The professors all work with an open-door policy, which makes it particularly easy to clear up any discrepancies in our learning. In essence, along with a quality optometric education, students also get to learn how to develop meaningful professional relationships with optometrists who are leaders in their own respective fields.

During your first year, you will be taking basic sciences and will be mostly didactic coursework. Moving forward into the second year, you will be exposed to more clinical aspects of the curriculum. Moving on to your third year, you will be preparing for the NBEO Part I. If all goes well, during your 4th year you will be traveling across the nation to the various rotation sites the school has relationships with. Those who are more interested in the curriculum can find a detailed breakdown on the school’s website.

For those who seek extracurricular activities, there is no shortage. MCPHS is home to over 70 clubs pertaining to all of the disciplines the university offers. Interestingly, the Student Government Association recently recognized the Private Practice Club as the best organization on campus – the first optometry club to receive such a distinction. Along with all of the clubs, students are also encouraged to attend the various national conferences that occur throughout the year, as well as apply for scholarships to help out financially.

Personally speaking, there is no other optometry program I would choose to be in. I am very happy to be a part of the MCPHS optometric community, and I hope to look back on my time as a student in Worcester with pride for all of the progress we have made together.