2014 at NECO: What’s In and What’s Out

Happy New Year to NECO’s current and future optometrists! To commemorate the shift from 2013 to 2014, and our shifting focus from coursework to what will this summer become full-time clinical assignments, here’s what’s in and what’s out for third years at NECO.

In: Studying comprehensively for Board exams in March
Out: Studying only for specific classes

With Boards only two months away, it’s becoming increasingly urgent to devote time every day to reviewing. Due to the depth and breadth of the material the exam covers, I have been trying to prioritize key subjects and identify my potential weaknesses. It’s hard not to feel a great deal of pressure due to the extremely challenging nature of the exams and the large scope of the material covered, but I’m trying, as I discussed in my last blog entry, to let the pressure and stress motivate me rather than hinder my study efforts. I’ve found it helpful to vary my study strategies as well as locations; I drift from reviewing Boards notes in a coffee shop to studying flashcards in the NECO library to using a Boards review app when I have a few minutes on the T.

Studying for Boards, however, does not mean that we can neglect our current courses; it means that when studying for these courses, we need to look at things comprehensively. Our coursework in Pediatric Optometry, Advanced Ocular Disease, and Solving Complex Refractive Issues is all relevant to material tested on the board exams, and it’s important to find connections between different topics in order to learn the material more thoroughly.

In: Integrating coursework concepts with clinic through Clinical Reasoning projects
Out: Studying separately for classes and clinic

When I see a challenging patient at clinic, or when my preceptor asks me a question that I’m unable to answer, I’ve been taught to then go home and study that concept so that the next time I see it, I don’t make the same mistake. While this is still an important aspect of learning from clinical assignments, this semester we are expected to expand further on the concept of connecting clinic and classes through our Clinical Reasoning course. We have two projects that necessitate critical thinking about patient care as well as coursework: a presentation that will be given to our section of the course and a written paper. Both projects are on the topic of a challenging patient care scenario, or a patient that we have who helps us learn something new. We will analyze every aspect of these patient visits and set up a presentation that enables our class to experience the case along with us and to develop their own diagnoses and set of reasoning for each conclusion. We will then relate knowledge from case studies and research to more fully understand the patients’ conditions.

In: Taking the first steps towards business-conscious careers as optometrists
Out: Thinking that clinical knowledge alone will guarantee career success, and procrastinating taking steps toward job searching

The stakes are being raised in our Ophthalmic Business and Management Policy II course, where we will be learning more about the steps to take in creating and running our own practices. We are being taught to think about what we as optometrists can bring to the table in a practice, and to evaluate our potential as business owners in the future. We will be undertaking long-term projects in this course as well, with small groups creating business plans and running a computer simulation on a hypothetical practice. I’ll discuss this more in future posts as the project begins to take shape, but for now I am realizing more and more how close I am to graduating, and how much I need to learn and prepare in order to develop my resume and find a job.

Using Stress to Your Advantage

NECO is paused right now for Thanksgiving break, and I am home in Buffalo, New York, surrounded by a foot of snow and the remnants of my family’s Thanksgiving feast. Due to the once-in-a-lifetime intersection of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah, I’ve spent the past few days baking apple and chocolate pies and making potato latkes and turkey with my family. It’s the calm before the storm of final exams, which begin less than two weeks after I return to school, and it’s given me a chance to pause and reflect on the fact that I only have a year and a half left before I graduate and become an optometrist.

It’s incredible to think that I’m more than halfway done with school. I’ve had such an amazing time so far at NECO, and I’ve been continuously learning throughout. I’ve been especially enjoying my clinic rotation this semester, learning by interacting with patients and trying to understand more about, in particular, glaucoma management and pediatric optometry.

Although overall I’ve felt confident that hard work, perseverance, dedication to studying, and my drive to succeed would help me to face the challenges of optometry school, I’ve also grappled with a lot of stress. In college, I was stressed that I might not be accepted to optometry school; when I was accepted and began my optometric education at NECO, I began to stress about the workload and developing my clinical skill set. Stress is something that all students face, and at the same time something that all students desperately try to avoid. However, the key to managing your stress in optometry school, I’ve found, is not to avoid it, but to use it to your advantage.

First and second year are very coursework-heavy years, and there is a great deal of stress that comes with taking five to seven challenging classes, all filled with information that we will utilize later in our careers and need to recall for boards. Stress during first and second year comes in bursts before midterms, finals, and proficiency exams, and it can often be difficult for students to manage, especially at first. Exam week, and the pressure of studying so much material at once, can feel intimidating. It’s crucial, however, to prevent stress from becoming an overwhelming force, and instead to use it as inspiration and motivation to study consistently for each class instead of simply near the exam.

Stress doesn’t have to be negative, threatening, or disturbing–if you use it the right way, it can be the opposite: positive, motivational, and helpful. If you feel stressed about an exam or a certain topic in school, it’s a sign that you need to study more or work harder to master it. Instead of letting stress control you, it’s crucial that you instead take control of your stress and use it as a tool to inspire you to immerse yourself in a certain area. Learning in optometry school is very different from learning in high school or college: you need to retain and utilize your knowledge here for the duration of your career, and instead of viewing exams as concentrated stressful periods, optometry students should view them as ways to evaluate your current knowledge within the framework of a continuous learning process.

This year, the stress we face is different. We have fewer classes, and we need to be prepared to learn in clinic each week, but the major source of our current stress is board exams in March. Mentioning boards is a guaranteed way to make any third year enter a cycle of stressful thinking. But instead of letting boards intimidate us, we need to take their difficulty and comprehensive nature and let it instead inspire us to start studying earlier, to study thoroughly, and to learn the information in a way that will allow us to access it throughout our careers.

Boards, Boards, Boards

We’ve heard about optometry’s National Board exams throughout our time at NECO, but always in terms of the future; as a first and second year, Boards were something that I didn’t think I would be facing for quite some time. But now, in November of my third year, Boards suddenly feel imminent. We take Part I of the National Board exams, Applied Basic Science, in late March of our third year, and parts II and III, Patient Assessment and Management and Clinical Skills, during our fourth year. Part I, however, is the section that requires the most commitment in terms of direct studying and preparation, which is why even though it is still months away, I am already feeling the pressure to begin reviewing. This first section includes questions on anatomy, biochemistry, physiology, immunology, microbiology, pathology, optics, and pharmacology, and to succeed on the exam we will need to review what we have learned in class in all of these areas.

Luckily, we students we are not alone in preparing for the Board exams. In addition to our individual studies, we have the option of taking a Part I Boards preparation course that runs for three weekends during fall semester of third year. During the live course, instructors come to NECO and give a comprehensive overview of the major sections of the exam. They also give us an outline of a study plan that they recommend we adhere to, and two review books that summarize and explain key information for the test. In addition, their website provides hundreds of review flashcards and quiz questions to better prepare us for the two-day exam.

After completing two out of three live review sessions and beginning to review flashcards for different Part I topics, I’m starting to realize that reviewing for Boards is a long-term commitment. It’s very different from studying for exams, or even from studying for the SATs or OATs. It’s a long-term investment; as we’ve been told several times, studying for Boards is a marathon, not a sprint.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, glancing at the Boards review book or thinking about the immense amount of material covered by Part I of Boards. Instead of sliding into worry, however, it’s important to instead approach Boards like a problem that needs solving by combining a definitive study timeline with knowledge of how we as individuals prefer to study. The good news is that we have technically already learned all of the material that will be covered on the test for our school courses; the important thing to do now is to review the concepts and reinforce what we have already been introduced to. It’s crucial that I begin studying now, but it’s even more crucial that I lay out a long-term study strategy for myself immediately. I need to study and continue to learn and review concepts whenever possible; even current course material or concepts I am introduced to in clinic may be elements that could be included on the Board exam.

A Progression of Clinical Thinking, Part 1

Midterms begin tomorrow, already, and it seems impossible that we could be halfway done with the semester. I’ve been able to fall into a routine at clinic, concentrating on trying to improve my speed and to ask my preceptors as many questions as I can while I’m at this location. I’m seeing a lot more glaucoma patients than I have at previous sites, and am taking that opportunity to integrate knowledge from my glaucoma elective course and gain more insight into different strategies of patient management. Last year as a second year, I was almost always partnered with a third year student in clinic who helped me improve my exam flow and understand what questions to ask. This year I’m able to play the opposite role in working with second year students as a third year myself, which helps me to analyze what I do in clinic more fully and to question and challenge myself. Working with another student enables us both to learn, because it provokes us to discuss patients aloud and compare what the second years are learning in their classroom-heavy year to what I’m learning in my more clinic-heavy one. It has also provoked me to think about my clinical education not as something tangible that is spontaneously realized one day with a definitively perfect eye exam, but as a progression of thought that evolves as we question ourselves, our patients, our techniques, and our preceptors. It is shaped both by our successes and mistakes, by the days we learn by identifying an unusual ocular finding correctly and by the days that we are baffled by what we are seeing. It makes me think of my first clinical experiences, performing vision screenings on children as a first year student.

Your first time, you will be so nervous that you completely forget how to take visual acuity. There will be a calm eight-year-old staring at you expectantly, assuming that because of your blazer and nice shoes that you are a doctor, an adult, or at least someone who knows what she’s doing, and you will think to yourself, wait, what do I do first? Which eye should I tell him to cover? Can he tell that I’m nervous? Is he laughing at me? You will suddenly realize that you don’t have the visual acuity cards memorized and desperately attempt to strike a balance between watching the child’s eyes and checking to make sure he is reading the letters correctly. You try to be fast, panicked by the lines of children waiting to have their eyes screened, and you stop your preceptors and ask them to check your work, holding your breath to see if you are correct that this child is hyperopic, or has normal vision, or an eye turn.

Or you will be kneeling in front of a four-year-old who is much too busy and excited to pay attention to you as you gesture wildly across the room saying, look over there! Look at the wall! Look at that poster! What color is the poster? Look out the window! as you frantically try to test their pupils in the milliseconds they are not changing their mind and looking instead at you, at your light, or at the stereo glasses you shouldn’t have left within grabbing distance. You will call your preceptor over with a combination of anxiety and excitement the first time you see movement on cover test in a child, be surprised the first time a child tells you earnestly that he’s sure he needs glasses because they look so cool yet has perfect vision, and get increasingly inventive at coming up with new methods for getting children to stop looking at you while you’re doing retinoscopy. You learn how to reassure, how to encourage, and how to sympathize with the tiny patient in front of you.

Third Year Begins (and it feels like senior year!)

Although optometry school lasts for four years, our third year is the final year that we will spend attending classes at NECO. During our fourth year, we go on rotations at four different clinical sites, only one of which takes place in Boston. The other three rotations can be in Boston or at a variety of sites around the country, a few in Canada, and one site in China. Fourth year is also markedly different in that we will be no longer taking classes, but will be working in clinics full time.

The fact that fourth year and our four clinical rotation sites are upcoming makes third year feel a bit like senior year of college and high school. We won’t find out our site assignments until November, so we don’t know yet whether we will be in Boston for another Back to School Barbecue, or the next NECOlympics, the Halloween party, Alcon night, Spring Bling, or the formal Eye Ball. We don’t know if or when after this year we will study in the library, practice procedures on our friends, or teach other students in preclinic, or listen to our professors lecture. This year is the last that we will truly spend at NECO, and that makes it feel bittersweet.

What continues to impress me the most about NECO is that it is not just a school, but a family. The most difficult part about this being our last year at NECO is that it will be our last year living and working with such incredible classmates and friends, the last time we will be surrounded by the NECO community. I’m so glad that I’ve been able to connect with such amazing people at NECO. I know that we’ll stay in touch long after we’ve graduated, and retain the great memories of our time here. It’s also important to take advantage of our “senior year” and try to enjoy our last full year as much as possible while learning as much as we can to prepare ourselves for our rapidly approaching clinical careers.

The structure of third year is similar to that of our summer session in that we are taking fewer classes than second year and have comparatively increased clinical experience. We are taking four main courses: the second half of Ocular Pharmacology; Development, Strabismus, and Amblyopia; Low Vision Rehab Throughout the Life Span; and Advanced Ocular Disease. We also have frequent guest lectures in Ocular Disease and Advanced Clinical Care. In addition to these required courses, I am taking Clinical Decision Making in Primary Open Angle Glaucoma as an elective course to help integrate what I’ve learned about glaucoma so far and help me to utilize that knowledge in clinic.

This semester my clinical assignment is at a community health center similar to the one I worked at over the summer, but larger. Working at a community health center as opposed to a smaller private practice means that you tend to see patients with more eye disease; so far I’ve seen a number of glaucoma suspects, degenerative myopia, and Bell’s Palsy. I feel that every time I go to clinic I learn something new: different questions I should be asking patients in certain circumstances, how demographics can affect patients’ risk profiles for different disorders; tricks for identifying retinal or skin abnormalities; how to make judgments about treatment for ocular hypertension and glaucoma; and when to used advanced testing methods like OCT, visual fields, and pachymetry. I hope that this is the beginning of a “senior year” where I will gain clinical experience while enjoying my last full year here in Boston.

How Did You Know You Wanted To Be an Optometrist?

It’s a question you hear countless times, both before and after you enter the New England College of Optometry. When you’re talking to a friend, or a relative, or anyone you meet in Boston, people are curious — either because the idea of touching other peoples’ eyes makes them queasy, or that they’ve heard it’s a great field to be entering right now, or because they wonder what made you choose eye care out of all the different health care specialties that are available.

It’s a question that you’ve thought of a variety of different answers to, because you don’t have just one reason why you decided you want to be an optometrist. It’s because you’ve worn glasses since you were seven and contacts since you were thirteen, and because in eighth grade health class you wrote an extra credit paper called “Intermittent Exotropia and What it Means” to help you understand why your eye turns out and you see double when you’re trying to study. It’s because you had eye surgery that helped your eye stop turning so much, but that  started back up again when your workload increased later in high school and in college, and because one eye doctor suggested to you something called “vision therapy” that you’d never heard of before but were immediately fascinated with.

It’s because when, in college, you sat yourself down and forced yourself to think, “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?” you were sure about two things: that you want to do something that will make a positive impact on the lives of others, and that you want to do something you are passionate about.

It’s because you’ve always wondered how it’s possible for people to see, to take images from the world around us and use our eyes to transmit the information to our brains, because you wonder why some people can see more clearly than others, how it’s possible for two people to perceive colors differently, and what causes someone to lose their sight.

So you begin the research process, exploring the internet to find out how you become an optometrist. You’re worried that because you’ve already started your sophomore year of college and switched majors from writing to environmental studies, that it’s too late, that the classes you’ve taken so far are too random to facilitate acceptance into optometry school. But it doesn’t matter what you major in, the website says, although most people choose biology or another science. You’re relieved, and you like the idea that you can return to a major in writing and explore learning to tell stories and communicate in a way that could one day help you as an eye doctor. But, the website says, you need to be sure, when you apply, that optometry is where your interests lie. And to be sure, you need to shadow an optometrist, or several.

So you call the optometrists in your town, any that aren’t too far away or who specialize in something that sounds interesting to you, like pediatrics or vision therapy. And one of them calls you back and you stress about whether your clothing choices are professional enough, and you feel uncertain as you tell the receptionist you’re not a patient, you’re a student, well, not a student yet, not really, but you’d like to be one. The optometrist emerges and saves you from further awkwardness by inviting you to his office and answering your hesitant questions about what optometry school is like (“Hard work, but you’re going to love it!”) and where they went to school (“This is where I went, but it depends on what you’re looking for–where do you want to go the most?”) and you nervously stutter out that you want to go to NECO. He sounds so certain that you will get into a school and that you will love it and you’re nervous, because as far as you know you’re the only pre-optometry student at your small liberal arts college, and this is the first optometry school graduate you’ve actually ever spoken to since you started the research process.

He says he doesn’t mind if you shadow him while he sees patients, and you watch as he brings their vision from blurred to clear, as he shines different lights at their eyes and explains to you what he is looking for, the responses of their pupils and how their eyes move. And he looks at one patient’s eyes through a slit lamp, and he uses the phrase “slit lamp” so casually and you nod like you know what that means, and then he tells you to come look inside and you’re not sure what you’re looking at, only that it looks like dozens of yellow points of light like the night sky and he smiles and says that it’s called epicapsular stars, that he only sees one patient or so a month with this and that it still makes him smile every time he sees it, that it’s an abnormality but not something that usually bothers a patient.

That night you go home and think about the person with stars in their eyes and you think, yes, I could get up every day and do this. I could help people see, and I could learn to look inside their eyes and understand the problems with their eyes and vision and work with patients to solve them, like my optometrists have worked with me. You think that it’s not something that will be easy, but that it will be worth it.

And that is how I knew I wanted to be an optometrist.

It’s only been three weeks, and I can’t believe how much I’ve learned.

Clinic in third year begins abruptly; you rapidly move from the chaos of second year final exams to the relaxing break of summer to a completely new environment with a different set of responsibilities and expectations. Increasing clinic time from one afternoon per week to two or three days may not sound like a drastic change, but in addition to the increased time, we also have increased responsibility. We are now expected to give each patient a full eye exam, from entrance tests to refraction to a slit lamp exam and tonometry through dilation, examination with a 90D lens and BIO. We speak with our preceptors before tonometry, dilation, and after the full exam has been given to discuss how to manage each case, what the diagnosis is, how we should treat the patient, and when they should return.

Learning in clinic is completely different than learning in class. Classroom learning means learning from notes and pictures, studying and introducing ourselves to new concepts. Learning in clinic means learning from experience, from speaking with people and learning about their individual visual needs and problems, from examining the eyes of a variety of different people and understanding how to adapt clinical skills to new challenges. In class you get feedback about how well you’re learning from your grades on midterms and finals, but feedback in clinical situations is more immediate. Preceptors are able to see how you interact with and test patients and can give you advice on how to improve your clinical skills as well as how to deal with different types of situations. I find it very helpful to get quick feedback and feel like it helps make things more memorable; I use what I learn from experiences and am able to try to make improvements with each consecutive patient.
In the past three weeks I’ve been able to see 24 patients ranging from age 3 to 80, and I’ve been able to see new conditions that I haven’t seen outside of class like refractive amblyopia, concretions, pterygium, diabetic retinopathy, a branch retinal vein occlusion, and several glaucoma suspects. I’ve gotten a lot more experience performing dilated eye exams on different pupil sizes, and I feel like I’m starting to improve my skills with BIO and the 90D lens. I feel like I am also developing better communication skills and trying to adapt my exam to specific patients. It’s very different interacting with a five-year-old who needs to wear glasses but doesn’t want to as opposed to an elderly person who is unhappy with their reading glasses.

I’m also working on developing my communication skills in Spanish. I took French in high school and college and never had the opportunity before to learn to speak Spanish; if I had known how important it would be as an optometrist to be able to communicate with my patients, I would have. I discovered on my first day of clinic that I needed to immediately start learning to speak Spanish when my first patient spoke no English at all, so I asked a friend for help and with a few other students was able to start learning key phrases from her. I’m not able to take a case history in Spanish yet, but my clinic has a translator service that we can call for case history if needed. For now, I’m learning to give instructions and how to explain the different optometric tests to patients, as well as brief conversational phrases. I hope to keep learning and to reach a point where I’m able to speak and comprehend enough to take case histories.

Overall, I’m thrilled with how much I feel like I’m learning in only a few short weeks. As new clinicians, we all make mistakes, but the important thing is that we are able to learn from those mistakes to improve for the next patient and keep learning throughout our clinical education.

Celebrating Summer and the Official Start of Third Year

Next week marks the beginning of my summer semester and the beginning of my third year at NECO. Half of my classmates are finishing their summer session this week with only one or two final exams and their last few days at their summer clinic sites. They will then be able to take a much-deserved summer break while the other half of us third years begin our classes and clinic assignments. From what I understand from my classmates, the tone of our third year at NECO is very different from that of our first and second years. We have drastically increased clinic time, from one day a week to an average of twenty hours per week, and reduced classroom time. During first and second year, we became used to balancing five to seven difficult courses at once, but now we will begin to have fewer mandatory classes and are able to select our own electives as well. We are required to take 2.75 credits of electives during our third year, and classes can be taken either online or in the classroom, and may involve clinical work as well.

I’ve spent my summer break visiting friends and family in Buffalo, and also enjoying what summer in Boston has to offer. One of the great things about studying at NECO is having the advantage of living in an amazing city with a multitude of opportunities for entertainment. You can enjoy the gorgeous warm weather by going for a jog on the Esplanade next to the Charles, or check out a book from the Boston Public Library’s gigantic selection and read on the Boston Common with a picnic. You can catch an outdoor concert on the waterfront, kayak on the river, or watch the sailboats from the Mass Ave bridge. You can take advantage of the city’s walkability and make a day of walking to the North End, South End, or the harbor. Overall, Boston is an incredible town for students.

Although I’ve had an amazing time enjoying my summer, I’m also really looking forward to starting my third year. It feels simultaneously amazing and daunting to be halfway done with optometry school; I’ve enjoyed my time here at NECO so much that I’ll be sad to leave in only two years, but at the same time I’m excited to be only two years away from being a practicing optometrist. Third year will introduce new challenges, and I expect to learn a lot more about patient care, interacting with patients, how to hone my clinical skills, and diagnosing and treating different ocular conditions that I may not have encountered previously. I am also hoping to gain more exposure to patients with ocular diseases like glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, and age-related macular degeneration so that I can be more confident treating patients with those conditions in the future. A great advantage of attending NECO is the large number and diversity of clinic sites around the city; each third year will be able to experience at least three different sites, if not more, and hopefully learn about different aspects of optometry through each of them.

Thoughts on Finishing Second Year, Starting Third Year, and Beyond

I’m extremely excited for and proud of the class of 2015 for completing our second, and arguably most difficult, year of optometry school. We survived all seven of our final exams through hard work and perseverance, and extended our clinical education by learning new procedures and incorporating them into our experiences at our different clinic sites. We learned to identify and diagnose various eye conditions, as well as how to incorporate a patient’s systemic conditions into their diagnosis and treatment. We expanded our scope of knowledge through both classroom instruction and gaining experience in clinic. I feel like I learned so much this year, but there is still so much I want to explore within the field of optometry: different eye conditions, other areas of expertise, and different ways of understanding ocular disease. Unlike last year, when we had our summer free, this summer we begin our third year of optometry school, and in doing so we begin to expand both our clinical experience and our classroom experience.

The summer after second year, we had the option of taking classes in either the first or second half of the summer. In addition to classes like Clinical Reasoning and Ocular Pharmacology, this summer we also had our first opportunity to choose elective classes based on our specific interests within the field of optometry, in areas such as OCTs, traumatic brain injury, ocular nutrition, and specific anterior segment disorders. We will also be able to take elective courses in fall and spring semester, although it is recommended that we complete them all in the fall to avoid adding strain on ourselves while studying for part 1 of our national board exams. We will also be greatly increasing our clinic time starting this summer, spending an average of 20 hours per week in clinic with more responsibilities and involvement in patient care than we have had previously. I’m very excited about the increased amount of clinical experience that will begin this summer; learning in clinic is very different from learning in a classroom, and I’m glad that we will have the opportunity to learn at new clinic sites and from new preceptors and patients.

Last week also marked an important deadline for me and my classmates: I turned in my selections for my fourth-year rotations. Our fourth year at NECO is comprised of four three-month externships that can be completed either in Boston or at a variety of sites around the country; there is even an externship site in China. When choosing our externship sites, we are able to rank our preferences in three different categories: a specialty rotation, which can be at a site that specializes in an area such as pediatrics, contact lens, ocular disease, low vision, or binocular vision; a veteran’s administration site in a hospital setting; and an elective rotation, which could be a private practice, specialty clinic, or in a hospital setting. The fourth site, a community health center site in Boston, is assigned to us.

It’s exciting to be able to choose sites based on our interests and to have so many varied opportunities for where we can learn, and it’s also extremely thought-provoking. Thinking about what fourth year sites I want to work at evokes thoughts about what type of clinic I eventually want to work at after I graduate, and which specialties interest me the most. When I first started at NECO, I thought that I wanted to specialize in vision therapy or pediatrics; as I learn more and more in class and clinic, I realize that I am no longer so sure about where my interests lie because so many specialties offer different and interesting opportunities for learning. I want to gain more experience in fields like ocular disease and low vision in addition to learning more about pediatrics and vision therapy before I can determine whether I’d like to pursue a residency or work at a certain type of clinic. Many optometrists also do not have a specialty, so it is important for all of us to learn about each type of specialty because as a general optometrist we could see patients that fit any or several of different categories.

Our NECO Family

Two weeks ago, I went home to Buffalo, New York for a long weekend to celebrate my mother’s birthday. We had Monday the fifteenth off from school for Patriot’s Day, also known as Marathon Monday, and I was set to fly back to Boston that night. While packing my suitcase to return to the city, I received a text message from my boyfriend who works at the Prudential Center saying that he had heard explosions coming from nearby Copley Square. I texted him back asking what he meant, and anxiously checked news websites on my phone to try to understand what was going on. No one had picked up the coverage yet, but when I checked Facebook I was able to understand from my classmates in the city that the two explosions had occurred near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

It was difficult for me to comprehend what was going on. I texted friends from NECO, knowing that they were more than likely out watching the marathon and was alarmed because we live so close to the finish line that some of them may have been there. What I didn’t know was that cell phone service had been suspended and none of them could answer me, until I went back to check my class’s group on Facebook. We use it as a class almost daily to communicate with each other about deadlines, college events, and news, and we post if we have any questions for our classmates. Our class president, Ting Zhang, had posted to ask whether everyone was okay, and every few minutes, as I repeatedly refreshed the page, people were posting about where they were and confirming that they were safe. Only a few hours after the explosions went off, Ting was able to confirm that everyone in our class was safe and accounted for.

Almost immediately after the bombings, the college Emergency Notification System informed us about the events in Copley Square. All students and staff were e-mailed to evacuate the building and within hours we were told that the college would be closed the next day. Every hour or so, we received updates from NECO via e-mail answering any questions we may have had about the impact of the explosions. The very next day, we were reassured via email by the college president, Dr. Scott, that all NECO students and staff had been accounted for and were safe.

I flew back to Boston the night of the fifteenth to an eerily silent city. I was relieved to be back in contact with my NECO friends once cell phone service had resumed, although school was closed Tuesday and we were encouraged to remain inside. When we returned to school Wednesday I was glad to see the college community showing nothing but kindness and support for one another in the wake of the tragedy. Some classmates had been nearby on Boylston Street when the bombings took place, and others had friends running in the marathon that they had been relieved to hear from. Our routine and complacency were jarred again on Friday, when the city and surrounding areas went into lockdown as police and special forces searched for the perpetrators. Yet again, NECO administration and classmates were prompt and thorough in informing students and staff about the lockdown. At six a.m. we were notified via the College’s Emergency Notification System about the situation in Watertown, and by seven were informed that the school would remain closed and that we should remain in our homes.

I cannot overstate how impressed I and the other students are with the immediacy and thoroughness of the College’s response to the senseless and tragic events of Marathon Monday and its aftermath. In addition to extremely prompt updates and notifications about the ongoing events from NECO administration, we were contacted by professors emphasizing safety and working to extend deadlines and reschedule classes and labs that would be missed. We also were e-mailed resources about dealing with shock and grief, given an emotional help phone line to call, and were assured that the College would do everything in its power to help students deal with the emotional aspects of Monday’s events.

After nearly two years at the New England College of Optometry, I have never stopped being amazed at how the school treats its students. You will never find here that you are just another number; the College dedicates itself to making sure that each individual student has the resources he or she needs to be a successful and healthy student and future optometric professional. The instant you cross the threshold of NECO on your first day of classes you become part of a tight-knit community that, in addition to fostering academic excellence, encourages its members to truly care about one another as individuals and to help each other face any challenge. During this tragedy, we NECO students felt our sense of community expand to encompass the entire city of Boston, as we all united in the face of the tragic events of Marathon Monday. I cannot express the depth of the heartache we feel for the victims of the bombings and their families, just as it is difficult for me to state how incredible the response of the police and emergency responders, as well as the city of Boston itself, was to ensuring the safety of the public. NECO is more like a family than a school, and in the past few weeks we have become part of a larger family – the city of Boston. Together we will remain strong and resilient, united with a sense of love and compassion for one another.