April: Meet Jennifer Smythe

Jennifer Smythe, is a Professor of Optometry, Dean of the Pacific University College of Optometry and the first woman president of the Association of Schools and Colleges of Optometry. 

This morning as I was eating my breakfast, I looked around the room and marveled at how clear everything in my kitchen appeared. Two days ago I had laser vision correction for near sightedness and my experience this morning was identical to that child-like wonder of a kid in a candy store. It reminded me of why I became a doctor of optometry. I had an identical experience 32 years ago when I stepped outside with contact lenses for the first time, and it set me on the first path of my career - I knew I wanted to be part of a profession where you could instantly have a positive impact on someone's life.

I started optometry school at Pacific University in 1989 and my goal at that time was to complete my degree, and return to my hometown private practice in Alaska to provide primary pediatric eye care. Then…I met my academic mentor. I remember the day as vividly as I remember my first day of wearing contact lenses, and probably as clearly as I will always remember my experience today in my kitchen. Professor and Dr. Cristina Schnider was demonstrating how to modify a contact lens to make it more comfortable for a patient to wear, and throughout the demonstration she was quoting the evidence in the literature that supported what she was showing us. It instantly struck me – I want to do what she does! She had me completely engaged, excited about what I was learning, curious to learn more and fascinated by the science of what we were doing. My career path was forever remapped in that moment, because I discovered that (a) I was addicted to contact lenses and completely amazed that you could apply a small piece of plastic in someone's eye and their world would suddenly be clear, and (b) a career in higher education would offer limitless challenges, including having the ability to be impactful in ways that I had never realized. I graduated from the Pacific University College of Optometry in 1993, and completed a residency in contact lenses the following year. During my year as a resident, I also took advantage of the opportunity to work on a master’s degree in clinical optometry. Both of those post-graduate experiences provided the credentials to apply for a full-time faculty position at the College, but I had to recognize that I was really trained to be an optometrist, not necessarily a teacher! I also had to make that transition from student to teacher. I think many of us start our careers as an educator, thinking that relating to students will be the easy part, after all we were a student once, and because we made it through our degree program we know what works in the classroom or lab and what doesn’t. What I figured out quickly is that we all learn differently, students teach me, and if I am lucky, I allow myself to learn from THEM every single day.

Both my personal experiences and my observations after spending 21 years in optometric education are that the most difficult and time-consuming years for a new faculty member is the first 6-7, because you are forced to learn how to be an effective teacher and at the same time working on the requirements for promotion and tenure. Every institution has it’s own standards, but the overlying criteria and themes are the same – demonstrated effectiveness in teaching, professional development / research and service.

I credit my mentors for providing new opportunities for research, leadership roles in professional organizations, and even more important – suggesting a new path or direction. I believe a good mentor is someone who sees something in you, that you may not have seen yourself. They also take on the willingness to provide advice related to time management or prioritizing commitments. As an administrator, I now see it as my obligation (and privilege) to not only be the role model, but the mentor to junior faculty who are struggling to find that balance between being an effective teacher, pursuing scholarly contributions, and providing service to the College, University and profession. Sometimes it requires stepping in and saying, for example – “no death by service” and "being on 10 committees is altruistic, but not realistic".

One of the biggest challenges - even though the majority of faculty become educators because they want to have that positive impact on student lives and they treasure those moments when they see the light come on for a student, they are also pulled in so many directions. This makes the role of the entire team in higher education so important. We all have the ultimate goal of educating our students and facilitating their success, but we need to rely on our individual roles and strengths to see it happen. It requires communication, trust, commitment and creativity from the very beginning with the office of admissions, with student services support in the middle, and ultimately the registrar making sure the degree candidates are lined up in the correct order so I can place the hoods over their shoulders at commencement. Every role is critical and that is what makes a career in higher education rewarding and impactful. However, it is important that we take the time to understand each other’s role and challenges.

Recently, I prepared for a board certification examination. It was the first time I have had to study so intensely for over 20 years. I learned as much about our students and their learning process in 2014 as I did about what was new in optometry or what I had let the cobwebs in my brain cover up over the years. As I tried to read the electronic textbooks and study the power points, I was constantly distracted by email, text messages, Facebook updates, etc. Before I thought I had a fairly decent understanding of the challenges that students currently face with the constant bombardment of information and the habit of continuous digital communication, but I don’t think you really understand it until you live it. I have renewed respect for the ability of this generation of students to focus and learn, but at the same time I also realize that they have information about nearly everything at their fingertips. It was such an eye-opening (pardon the pun) experience for me as an educator and administrator, because I was tasked with concentrating on learning under their conditions. It is very different from when I was a student. On the one hand I am amazed they can focus on their coursework, but I also realize how quickly you can find answers when something is not clear. Preparing for that examination offered many “ah-ha” moments that I know will make me a better dean and teacher.

As I reflect back on my academic journey, I realize that there have been many purposeful choices that have led to where I am today, but there have been just as many “moments” that I was not expecting that have also provided opportunities to embark on a new direction or gain a better understanding of the people I encounter in higher education. I believe my success is largely because I allowed myself to look another way, I have taken risks by going those extra steps, and I have trusted both my instincts and those of my mentors.

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