Dean Jennifer Coyle

Dairy Queen to Dean: My Journey in Optometry

By Dean Jennifer Coyle, OD, MS, FAAO November 05, 2019

When I was 15, my family lived in Alaska, where I got my first job at the local Dairy Queen. Soon after becoming employed, I went to the sole optometrist in town and told him I had been wearing glasses since fourth grade and wanted contacts. I told the doctor that because I had to pay for them with my Dairy Queen earnings, I’d need to be on a payment plan. He responded by hiring me. That summer I worked in the optometry practice all day and Dairy Queen at night. At the end of the summer, I still had to pay for the contacts, but I left the practice with more than a set of lenses. I left with a passion for optometry that fueled my career all the way to Dean.

I have been at Pacific University College of Optometry for 30 years—first as a student, then as faculty member and administrator, and now as Dean. During my time, I have been lucky to work with more than 3,000 students. Many of those students have gone into private practice; some focus on research, others are leaders in the military; and some are optometric educators like me. They practice in a variety of settings from established practices in major cities to private practices in their hometowns. As I tell my students, the great thing about optometry is that there are options. You really get to find your bliss, in whatever way that it is.

One of my favorite stories is a student I worked with about ten years ago. He was a wonderful, well-rounded student who, at the time, had four children. Having had young children myself while in optometry school, I could really relate to his story. I’d followed him on social media over the years and knew he had gone to work in someone’s practice. About three years ago he started posting pictures of himself in front of a new building with his name on it. He had started his own practice—cold. He came by for a visit recently and told me that his practice is thriving and even hiring. Those are the student stories that really motivate me and make me focus on being the best advocate for these students. As Dean, my success is their success and what I can do to help them get there.

My relationship with VSP started my fourth year of optometry school. At that time, I was very pregnant, with a four-year-old daughter, and I was trying to figure out how to pay my student loans and feed my family at the same time. Out of the blue, I received the amazing news that I was the recipient of the VSP Award for Primary Care Excellence in Clinic. It was such an honor to be selected out of an incredibly bright class, and an incredible blessing—that scholarship helped decrease the amount of debt I had when I graduated. It helped us eat, basically. VSP has always been very supportive of schools and students of optometry. I feel like they have been my champion for 30 years, all through optometry school and into academia.

It’s an exciting time to be an optometric educator. The demand for eye care is growing—with 276 systemic diseases that have an ocular condition, the public needs us, and we have opportunities to practice in the way that makes sense for each of us. I frequently interact with former students at conferences and hear about the success they are experiencing in practices—optometry and private practice are alive and well!

There have been many changes in optometry since I started out at age 15. But the one thing that has remained true is the thing I love about the profession—no matter how much technology we have, who the patients are that we see, or what we're allowed to do in our state—we're helping people be successful in life by making sure their vision and eye health are the best they can be. As I see it, no matter what path we take as optometrists to providing care, there's nothing like helping someone see really well. It's amazing.

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