Students Transition From Classroom to Clinic

Annual Ceremony Marks Second-Year Students’ Transition from Classroom to Clinic

When optometry students at the University of Houston are cloaked in the white coats that are a hallmark of the health professions at a ceremony Jan.5, they will share a collective sigh of relief for having passed their exams and survived their first year and a half of professional studies. That feeling will be fleeting, however, because the clinical garb is weighted with new and greater pressures that come with being a caregiver – the person patients expect to have all the answers.

At this year’s white coat ceremony, the seventh to be held by UH’s College of Optometry, 104 second-year students will mark the end of their preclinical studies and the beginning of a lifetime of working with patients who will depend upon them, said Dr. Nick Holdeman, O.D., M.D., executive director of the University Eye Institute and chief of medical services for the college. The ceremony draws family members, friends, faculty, staff and students from other classes, he said.

Among them will be the parents of student Lara Nguyen.

“The white coat ceremony is a culmination of the sacrifices that my parents made coming here as refugees during the Vietnam War,” Nguyen said. “I know that, at the very moment my parents see me being coated in a white jacket, they will truly believe that their ‘American dream’ has finally come true.  They have always instilled in me that all things are possible if you persevere and never stop believing in your dreams.”

When the students recite the Optometric Oath in unison, they will vow as a class — and as individuals — to practice the profession with honor and compassion, said Holdeman.

“The presentation of their coats underscores their commitment to our patients and to our profession before they begin to interact with the patients whom we serve at the University Eye Institute,” he said.

Starting this semester, the students will work with some of the institute’s more than 30,000 patients under the direct supervision of clinical faculty members. Each semester, thereafter, the students will alternate between classes and clinical rotations until they complete their degree requirements at the end of the fourth year.

 “The ceremony is certainly a turning point for our students,” said Dr. Earl Smith, O.D, Ph.D. and dean of the college. “The coat represents purity and kindness. It reaffirms the trust patients and their families have in these future optometrists, which carries with it the responsibility to maintain the highest professional standards at all times.”

Reaching this milestone has been challenging, according to Dr. Don Fox, a professor of vision sciences, biology and biochemistry, and pharmacology. Students enter the clinical phase of their training only after having successfully completed three semesters of coursework and laboratory studies, which were capped off by competency exams last month, he said.


Second-year student Rebecca Williams said the fall semester was especially challenging.

“Students before us have said that it is the toughest of all the semesters.  We had a little added stress when Hurricane Ike came passing through,” she said. “It was extremely difficult to focus on school when there was so much to be done at home, and studying by candlelight just did not work that well.  Even with the added stresses, our class rose to the challenge and made it through the hardest semester of all.”

Of course, more ups and downs still lie ahead, Fox said.  In addition to comprehensive in-house clinical training, the students gain diverse clinical experience during externships in hospitals and at various health-care centers in Houston, the nation and abroad.

“As Colin Powell once said, `There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure,’” said Fox.

Michael St. Peter will get his white coat as his mother, wife and 9-month-old daughter look on.

“The ceremony marks a transition from studying about the visual system to putting into practice what we have learned in the classroom,” St. Peter said. “It is symbolic of the progress we have made thus far in our graduate program, and it gives us the privilege of directly helping patients with their vision.”

Alex Chen, a fourth-year student, said he was comfortable moving into patient care when he earned his white coat at the college two years ago. “Our competency exams allow us to demonstrate that we are, in fact, capable of conducting an exam, all the way from refraction to dilation,” Chen said. “Going from books to actually treating patients feels great, because we are well-prepared to examine patients by the time we earn our white coats.”

The white coat ceremony, first conducted in 2003, is held annually with approximately 100 students participating. This year’s ceremony is being sponsored by Wal-Mart.  

Optometry has been ranked among the best careers in 2009 by U.S. News & World Report.

WHAT: UH College of Optometry white coat ceremony
WHO: Second-year optometry students
WHEN: 5:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 5
WHERE: University Center, Houston Room, Entrance 1

About the University of Houston
The University of Houston, Texas’ premier metropolitan research and teaching institution, is home to more than 40 research centers and institutes and sponsors more than 300 partnerships with corporate, civic and governmental entities. UH, the most diverse research university in the country, stands at the forefront of education, research and service with more than 35,000 students.  

About the UH College of Optometry
For more than 50 years, the University of Houston College of Optometry (UHCO) has trained optometrists to provide the highest quality eye and vision care.  One of only 17 optometry schools in the United States, UHCO offers a variety of degree programs, including Doctor of Optometry (O.D.), a combined Doctor of Optometry/Doctor of Philosophy (O.D./Ph.D.), Master of Science (M.S.) and Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.).  UHCO consists of 65 full-time faculty, 206 adjunct faculty and 100 full-time staff.  

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