ELKINS PARK, Pa.—The Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO) at Salus University will announce today that America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses will be the sole sponsor of the University’s Summer Enrichment Program (SEP) with its vision to increase the number of Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) in the optometric profession. The sponsorship totals $300,000 over a five-year commitment, and is the largest sponsorship Salus has received to date in support of this program, according to the announcement. SEP, now called the Robert E. Horne Summer Enrichment Program, was originally founded in 1977 by Horne, vice president and dean of student affairs who retired in 2012. The program was offered every summer for 39 years continuously through 2015, but was discontinued due to loss of grant funding and support. During that time, it served 700 students and America’s Best commitment will reach up to 100 potential new PCO/Salus students.

“To fully achieve the level of diversity in optometry that we all hope for requires that we overcome a variety of systemic obstacles. Salus’ Summer Enrichment Program, founded by the legendary PCO Dean Robert E. Horne, played a pivotal trajectory setting role in the lives of many minority optometrists practicing today,” National Vision chief executive Reade Fahs said in the announcement.

“There would be fewer minority optometrists practicing today were it not for this program. National Vision’s America’s Best Contacts & Eyeglasses brand is proud to be reigniting this program and hopefully laying the groundwork required for as many as 100 new minority optometrists to someday join the profession,” Fahs said.

BIPOC remain underrepresented in educational attainment in the science, health, and engineering workforce. This program will increase the number of students, residents, and faculty in the optometry program in order to create a diverse and inclusive educational environment and to improve the health outcomes of the minority population PCO graduates serve in Philadelphia and beyond.

“We are thrilled to partner with National Vision and America’s Best to provide opportunities for Black Indigenous People of Color and other minorities to obtain an optometric education,” Dr. Michael H. Mittelman, president of Salus, said in the announcement “Their generosity to underwrite our Robert E. Horne Summer Enrichment Program for five years, potentially enrolling up to 100 students over that course of time, will not only help to diversify and enrich optometry and PCO/Salus, but also allow us to more directly serve those communities we live and work in.”

Dr. Mittelman’s sentiments were echoed by Dr. Melissa E. Trego, dean of PCO/Salus. "PCO at Salus University is incredibly grateful to National Vision for their support of the Robert Horne Summer Enrichment Program. The impact of this generous gift will ensure PCO's commitment to diversity and inclusion in optometric education and the optometric profession,” said Dr. Trego.

The purpose of the SEP program was to introduce underserved and underrepresented prospective students to the curriculum of PCO via a six-week residential program, which consisted of mini-courses on topics such as optics, human anatomy, biochemistry, neuroscience, pathology, and clinical applications. The same faculty who taught these courses during the academic year taught the SEP courses. Past programs provided an invaluable experience for those who participated.

This newly designed program will feature a five-week hybrid program, which includes three weeks of remote (online) instruction and mentorship and two weeks of in-person instruction and mentorship. While full immersion into the didactic program is an important element of the SEP, facilitating peer interactions and face-to-face faculty mentorship has been found to be an integral part of an underrepresented minority (URM) student’s experience and success in the SEP and optometry school.

This new format was designed with the intention of meeting the needs of modern-day students and creating greater accessibility for those who are interested in participating.

According to the announcement, now that the program is being revived, the goals remain as ambitious as they were when Dean Horne established it. They include improving the matriculation, attrition and graduation rates of URM applicants while fostering a safety net of support and mentorship.

“I’m a product of summer program after summer program after summer program,” said Essence Johnson, OD, PCO class of 2010, FAAO, and chief visionary officer for Black Eyecare Perspective. “A barely second-generation college student and if it wasn’t for the exposure that I had in the Summer Enrichment Program and the pipeline created for me into the eyecare industry I wouldn’t be the wife, mother and entrepreneur practicing and preaching optometry to her community today.”

"We are excited to receive this gift from National Vision for a transformational program that plants a seed to address the inequality found within the eyecare profession,” added Jacqueline Patterson, MPA, vice president of Institutional Advancement and Community Relations at Salus.

“The Summer Enrichment Program completely changed the trajectory of my life,” noted Darryl E. Glover Jr., OD, PCO class of 2011 and co-founder of Black Eyecare Perspective. “By allowing me the opportunity to learn with grace, I was able to understand the tools I would need in order to excel in optometry school. Having been a college student who worked a full-time job, I had previously not been able to reach my full potential as a student. The Summer Enrichment Program, led by Dean Horne, gave me the opportunity to fulfill my dream of attending optometry school.”

The new iteration of the SEP will be under the direction of Ruth Shoge, OD ‘06, resident ‘07. Before she started at PCO in 2002, Dr. Shoge, participated in the SEP, which is where she developed a passion for the program. When she joined the faculty in 2008, Dean Horne asked her to be a mentor and teach one of the SEP courses.

Dr. Shoge anticipates the participation of 20 students in the revived program annually.

The University will pilot the new iteration “specifically for the optometry program, but long-term goals include expanding the program to other colleges in the university, especially to those that lack diversity,” Dr. Shoge said with the hope that this type of program will help recruit URM candidates into various health care professions.