I never thought I’d have the guts to write this. It’s pretty personal, but I want to hopefully inspire those who have hit similar hard paths, and to remind people to appreciate what they have, and never give up.
How I found optometry
I haven’t always known a lot about optometry. I didn’t consider it as a profession growing up, mostly because I come from a family of bankers and IT professionals. I always knew I wanted to work in healthcare, so I spent most of my life volunteering and talking to healthcare workers to see what I wanted to do. For a long time, I thought I’d be a pharmacist or physiotherapist–it makes me laugh now. The truth is, I had no idea what I was doing in my first year of undergrad, and had no drive to succeed in anything because I had no set goal in mind.
I am not one for cliches. But when I randomly turned in my resume to an optometry office, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t meant to be. I was also on my way to drop off my resume at a local restaurant for a position that would presumably pay better, but I couldn’t find the restaurant. At the interview, I still remember I telling my soon-to-be boss that I wanted to become a pharmacist. But I loved every patient interaction I had at the optometry office, and I fell in love with the profession. My co-worker, Janet, worked for the LensCrafters next door and told me about her mission trip to the Philippines to help give eye exams and glasses to those in need. That’s when I knew I wanted to become an optometrist someday. I wanted to be in a position to help people, to go on those mission trips and give back globally and locally to the best of my abilities.
Preparing myself in undergrad
Once I was back in school, I went to the career office on campus to get more information about my newly chosen profession. We had a folder with a list of careers and schools; I think one measly page was devoted to optometry. I even signed up to talk to a career counselor, who admitted she didn’t know anything about the profession. In fact, when I asked her about the OAT, she talked to me about MCAT, DAT, and even the GMAT instead. I remember being so disappointed to be so thrilled about this career path, only to have virtually no information about how to get on board. Optometry felt almost taboo during undergrad. I remember doing a ton of research online (thank goodness for the advent of the internet), and got a lot of good information about schools in the USA, job rankings, the profession in general. I didn’t want anyone else to have to go through the hard path that I did to find optometry, so I founded the Pre-Optometry Club at the University of Toronto. I wanted to tell everyone about this awesome profession, disperse all the information I collected so others wouldn’t have to accidentally stumble upon optometry like I did as they considered their own career paths. I collaborated with a business student to write the club’s constitution, and even used my own money and artistic skills to create my own membership cards and banner.
I started to plot my roadmap to optometry in middle of my sophomore year. My GPA didn’t start out spectacular, but my involvement with the club helped me stay focused on my goal. After not doing so well my first year, I worked extremely hard to strengthen my GPA and had earned mostly As. I wanted to graduate as soon as I could, with all the prerequisites I needed. Since ICO was doing rolling admissions at the time, I wanted to make sure I finish my OAT as soon as I could. I took the test even before I took organic chemistry (which involved a lot of self-teaching and improvising) so that I could better my chances of gaining a seat in the class of 2013. Upon finishing my application, OAT and interview, I’d gained acceptance at ICO–my top choice. I jumped up and down and told everyone I knew.
The bad news
Then the economy crashed. The American bank that had been offering a special loan to Canadian students, allowing students to defer repayment until graduation, pulled the plug on the program. I couldn’t afford to go to school. All the work I’d put in–with the club, raising my GPA, studying for the OAT, organizing seminars–meant nothing anymore.
I spoke with representatives from many banks, and I’ll never forget what one told me:
“There is no way you could afford to get a loan to become an optometrist. Most kids that go to grad school have parents that are doctors and lawyers. Your parents aren’t.”
My heart broke. I had to hold back tears and anger. Only wealthy people can become doctors? I’ve never heard more condescending words in my life. That was the first time since discovering optometry that I had no clue what my next step could possibly be. My GPA wasn’t good enough for a scholarship; my first year ruined it for me. I had no family wealth to draw upon. I’d come so far, worked too hard–it couldn’t possibly be the end, right? My family felt helpless. I remember my brother calling people, crying and pleading for them to “do something, do something to help my sister.”
The girl that got in, but not really
My friends and family had heard me talk about optometry all the time. They knew how much work I’d put in, and knew I got accepted to my first-choice school. What was once so exciting became the worst feeling in the world. Everywhere I went, people felt sorry for me. I had messages from people I’d known in elementary school and lost touch with, expressing how sorry they were for what happened. As I watched students I’d mentored gain acceptance to optometry school–and put down their deposits, because they could actually afford to attend–I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for myself. I almost believed what the horrible banker said, and thought that maybe I’d just never be able to offer a better life for my family.
I didn’t allow myself to wallow in depression for too long, though. All I wanted to do was to get into a graduate program, and if it wasn’t optometry, it didn’t matter what it was anymore. At the end of the day, I needed to support my family. I worked at a bank and learned all I could about money. I tried to stay positive and even got promoted three times within nine months of working there. I was doing terrific, but deep down, the fact that I wasn’t pursuing my dream to be an eye doctor was nagging at me.
Trying to go back to school in Canada
I could cover my tuition with government loans if I stayed in Canada, so I considered pharmacy school again. I only had one more class to take to meet the prerequisites. The kicker–that class was only offered once a year, and with limited seats available. If I didn’t get a spot, I’d have to wait another year to apply for pharmacy school. I registered within the first five minutes it became available, but it was still too late–the class was full. I pleaded with the professor and got special permission to attend the class, but the school vetoed it because the lecture room could only accommodate a certain number of students before breaking fire code. I finally broke down. I’d done all I could, and I felt there was nothing more I could do anymore. I’d already tried my best.
Looking back, it was a blessing in disguise. Had I gotten into pharmacy school, I might not have continued to pursue my dreams.
In undergrad, my brother worked harder than anyone I knew. After he decided to transfer schools, I remember he received phone calls from his program coordinator, who begged him to reconsider (the new school offered better job prospects). He become one of a select group of Canadians to move to New York to work as an investment banker. Meanwhile, I continued working at the bank, learning all I could about money and loans, and worked out the math with my parents about how to make grad school financially viable. I even saved up enough tuition for a quarter or two. My brother, the one that had begged people to help me, did all he could to lend support, including convincing my parents that optometry was a worthy investment. People probably look at my brother with envy now–they see a big shot Wall Street i-banker. Only a few know about the sacrifices he’s making: He’s supporting me through school, and he’s still living like a student. My parents still work every day doing odd jobs to help the best they can. My family is my inspiration to graduate. I want to prove to them that I’m worth believing in.
Now we’re here
I’m two weeks away from becoming entering my fourth year at ICO, and I’ve never been more appreciative of my family. I’ve even taken an optometry mission trip like I wanted to. I’ve learned to not rely on the possibility of scholarship funding, and instead I maximize my work study hours to gain as much steady income as I can, in order pay for my living expenses and lessen the burden on my family. Members of my generation have been taught that every individual is special. This roller coaster ride of experiences has made me realize the only thing that makes me special is that I have a family that’s generous and loving enough to make sacrifices because they believe in me. If there’s one thing I’ve learned for everything, it’s that familial love is the most precious thing in the world, and I’m constantly reminded to never take it for granted. I don’t know if I’ll ever become a millionaire, but even if I do, I don’t think I’ll be able to repay my family for all they’ve done for me. It’s been a very hard road paved with sweat and tears, and I would have given up long ago if it weren’t for them.