One of the primary strengths of attending the UMSL College of Optometry is the small class size and the “family feel” that radiates throughout Marillac Hall and the Patient Care Center. This atmosphere is fostered, both by classes who work together to help their extended family succeed, as well as supportive and approachable faculty and staff. And then there are the special friendships that develop. In August 2000, four future optometrists began their first day of optometry school without the knowledge that they would be leaders in a class that had a significant impact on the future success enjoyed by the College of Optometry. They also didn’t realize how close they would become as friends and that they would vow to keep this friendship forever. Yes, what began in August 2000 resulted in a special and everlasting bond between four graduates of the Class of 2004: Drs. Bethany Whitesell, Kim Kohne, Amanda Strom, and Gina Gill.
Why They Chose UMSL
For all four of them, it was not a complicated decision. Kim was from Indiana, but her husband, Jeff, accepted a position in St. Louis. Bethany came from a small town in Missouri, and the benefits of a scholarship and a small class size appealed greatly to her. Gina wanted a school that was close enough to drive from her home in Minnesota and was accepted at both the Illinois College of Optometry and UMSL. She favored the small class size at UMSL as well as the city of St. Louis. For Amanda, the decision was based on several factors, as she relates: “Growing up in the Midwest, I knew I wanted to attend a College of Optometry that was still close to home. I knew I wanted to practice in the Midwest upon graduation, and UMSL was top on my list. I knew that attending college in an area close to my hometown would enable me to become involved in the local chapters of the Optometric Association, and that would help me to find an ideal fit for my first post-graduate job. I also wanted to attend optometry school with a relatively small class size because I felt that provided me a greater opportunity to get to know my professors. I wanted to feel completely comfortable asking any question I had and form personal relationships with my classmates. Of course, attending a college with a good academic reputation was also important to me, and UMSL was certainly competitive with other colleges’ pass rates for National Boards; however, my decision was multi-factorial. While UMSL’s academic rigor was top-notch, the personal attention and the atmosphere created by the staff, professors, and deans at the time, was personal. They cared about students as people, as wives/husbands, parents, and not just as the next generation of optometrists.”
The Beginning of a Friendship
It all began with finding the right roommate. As Bethany says, “Gina and I were roommates the first year. I got the list of classmates looking for a roommate prior to the start of optometry school. I picked Gina off the list because she had “non-smoker” by her name. I called her up and we decided right then to be roommates. Gina and Kim got really close our first year and so, I ended up becoming friends with Kim through Gina. Then, after the first year, Amanda’s husband moved away to go to medical school, and she was looking for a roommate. Gina was getting married after our first year, so I was looking for a new place to live. So I moved in with Amanda and lived with her for the next 2 years.”
. . . That Became Very Special
This fabulous foursome found they had much in common with a shared goal of achieving excellence. According to Amanda, it was relatively easy for them to gravitate toward each other. “A small class size made it easy to get to know each other (there are only so many partners you can have in one lab!), but time outside of class spent in volunteering together really helped develop the personal relationship I have with Gina, Kim, and Bethany. Working together with the Student Council, the American Optometric Student Association, and Student Volunteers in Optometry Serving Humanity, was instrumental in developing our lifelong friendship. Once you get to know like-minded students with high expectations for academic performance, it is easier to make studying fun. While the hours spent studying where sometimes long, the work itself was never “hard” when you got to do it with friends. You also don’t forget the layers of the retina when it’s your closest friends making up their own mnemonic.”
The benefits were especially evident when studying for National Board examinations. They formed a study group in the summer of the second year and wore out a path to both Barnes & Noble and the Millennium Student Center. According to Kim: “The three of them really helped when we were studying for Part I. Gina made a schedule, and I followed it. The four of us would get together about one or two times a week to study together. As we got closer to boards we were together more like three or four days a week. I remember studying the kidney three days before we took boards and thank goodness we did! It was all over the place that year.” It is also important to mention that they were an integral part of a great class in which leadership had a very strong presence. This was best evidenced by their determination to improve UMSL’s performance on Part One of the NBEO Examinations. They developed an extensive review guide that was used by UMSL students for many years, and their resulting performance on Part One was exceptional.
In essence, these four young ladies were like sisters, and this was evident in the very close relationship between Gina and Kim. Gina relates: “My studying/friendship with Kim was vital to my success in optometry school. It was so important to have that person to fill in the gaps of my notes and bounce questions off of and discuss things to better understand them. Kim was always stronger in certain areas than I was and same for me, and so we just balanced each other out perfectly. It’s nice to find what works for you and then find a partner that likes that style as well.”
They also had personal challenges they had to experience during their years at UMSL, but the value of friendship again intervened as Bethany explains: “A couple of us in the foursome had personal struggles that occurred during our four years. I like to think that we were able to keep each other motivated scholastically during these tough times.” For Kim Kohne, this friendship was especially vital during a very difficult time in her life. “They were really key for me as Mom was diagnosed with cancer the week before we took Part I. They kept me focused and boosted my confidence going into it. They held me up really.”
No Surprise: They all Achieved Success
All four have achieved great success professionally, although – and this is the beauty of optometry – they each chose a separate modality. Kim Kohne is Associate Dean for Students at the Indiana University School of Optometry. As with most educators, this was not her original plan: “I don’t think I picked academia, it picked me. During my residency (at Indiana University) I worked with interns on the clinic floor and my residency coordinator asked if I would be interested in academia. I said no because I wanted to make money, but as the residency went on, I found that I really enjoyed it. A position came open at the end of my residency, and I was lucky enough to get the job. I haven’t looked back.” For her friend Gina Gill, it was a private practice. “I am at a private practice, EyeWest Vision Clinic in MN; I have been here 11 years. I chose this practice because of the flexible hours a private practice allows and the variety of patients I can see in a day.” After completing a residency in ocular disease, Amanda Strom was interested in an MD-OD practice environment back in her home state of Kansas. “I practice with two cataract and glaucoma specialists in Overland Park, Kansas (Stiles Eyecare Excellence). After my ocular disease residency, I knew I wanted to work side-by-side with ophthalmology to tailor my practice to the treatment of advanced eye conditions. Now, I am able to assist patients who have had complex cataract and glaucoma procedures to maintain their vision longer.” For Bethany Whitesell, who was influenced by the impact of one of her clinical rotations, it was the Mount Vernon, MO, Veterans Affairs Medical Center. “I did my first student rotation at the Kansas City VAMC. After that rotation, I was convinced that this is the setting I wanted to practice in. I enjoy working with an older population, and I enjoy the challenge that comes with seeing a lot of ocular diseases.”
And They Credit Their UMSL Education in Helping Them Become Successful
They were unanimous in their opinion of how well UMSL prepared them for optometric practice, notably the experience gained in the clinical rotations. Amanda Strom reports: “Having the opportunity to travel to six different optometric externship sites was an unmeasurable advantage. I was even able to set up my own externship in pediatrics in a pediatric hospital setting focused on pediatric ocular disease management. The opportunity to really experience so many different modes of optometric practice really helped to broaden my understanding of optometry’s scope of practice. With that experience, I was able to tailor my residency training, then gather a broad scope of ocular disease experience by working with a general ophthalmologist before transitioning to the specific care of patients with glaucoma.” Gina Gill agrees: “I felt completely prepared when I graduated optometry school. I remember my last day of rotations having the preceptor double check my BIO on my last patient. The next time I saw a patient I was the only eye doctor on a military base, and everyone was asking me eye questions. I was seeing every single eye-related issue! I felt that I was able to walk out on that last day and was completely prepared to run my own clinic right away.” And for a young Indiana Hoosier who pursued optometric training in St. Louis prior to returning to become a beloved faculty member at IU, Kim Kohne was very happy with her decision. “My education at UMSL made me a strong student and clinician. I think my involvement in clubs and the school itself while I was there really helped me get ahead in academia and taking on those leadership roles. I loved my time at UMSL and am proud of my education. It is where I was supposed to be.”
A Friendship for Life
Whether it is a weekend with the four families – now totaling no less than 11 children – or simply a “girls’ weekend,” our four young leaders make it a point to get together, at minimum, once a year. Kim says, “I don’t think we ever made a pact to stay together, we just have. One year we will have girls get together and then the next year all of our families will get together.” Bethany agrees: “We usually group text intermittently to update everyone on what is going on in our lives. There are also texts here and there to talk about crazy cases that we each see in the clinic. We also make it a point to get together at least once a year. We rotate going to each other’s houses, which has gotten more and more challenging with the number of combined kids that we have! Other times the four of us will meet up for a long weekend at a central location, like St. Louis.”
How valuable and beneficial is this friendship? Just ask Amanda Strom. “Optometry school is an intense time of life! You are no longer searching for ‘what am I going to be when I grow up’ and you are instead actually pursuing an education for the exact career that you will hold (in only four short years)… and probably continue with for the majority of your adulthood. You study hard and experience big successes and sometimes big failures with the people who are right next to you. Those experiences alone, sometimes personal and sometimes public, truly bind you to each other. I was just lucky enough to find friends that honored that, cherished it, and agreed that it was not to be lost.”
The dictionary defines friendship as “a relationship between friends.” For the UMSL College of Optometry, it is defined as Drs. Kim Kohne, Gina Gill, Amanda Strom, and Bethany Whitesell. They not only represent all that is good about the College of Optometry, they represent all that is good about the profession of optometry. They also remind us all of the importance and benefits of developing friendships in optometry school . . . friendships that can be rewarding for a lifetime!