This past fall, MBKU welcomed Jennifer Coyle, OD, MS, FAAO, as the new Dean of the Southern California College of Optometry. An optometrist and educator for 30 years, Dr. Coyle has extensive experience as a clinician, educator, and administrator. We sat down with her to learn a little more about her and her vision for the program.
Q: What inspired you to become an optometrist?
A: I was that kid who was nearsighted pretty much all of grade school and junior high. I got my first pair of glasses when I was in fourth grade and I hated them because that was the 70s and the 80s. I barely wore them. I really wanted contact lenses! The summer between my freshman and sophomore year of high school I lived in Kodiak, Alaska, and I got a job at the local Dairy Queen. I went into the local optometrist—there’s only one on the island—and I said, ‘I really want contact lenses. I’m 15 years old, I have to pay for them myself so would you put me on a payment plan.’ And he did, but he also gave me a job. So I worked for him every day that summer and he still made me pay for the lenses, so I valued them. Many optometrists are influenced by another optometrist, and I was lucky; I had that early intervention.
What motivated you to become an educator in addition to being an optometrist?
In the spring of my second year of optometry school, in my first contact lens course lab, I had an ‘a-ha’ moment. I looked at this little piece of plastic on the tip of my finger and I was just fascinated at how life changing that little bit of technology is. It’s a biomedical device, and it totally transformed me from a very shy, introverted person to being someone who could experience the world because I could see it. And I was just hooked from that moment. I was so motivated and inspired by my teacher, who has been my mentor now for 30 years, that I wanted to learn as much as I could from her. I just loved everything about optometric education. You’re always challenged to learn more and to really understand something because you have to pass it on to the students.
How will you approach philanthropy as the Dean of SCCO?
To be honest, fundraising is one of the favorite parts of my job! People get to give back in a way that really means something to them. The best part of being a fundraiser is that I develop friendships, which often naturally leads to moments where we can match people with where their heart lies. Giving is a very personal thing and I take it very seriously and thoughtfully because I respect how hard people have worked for what they have. It’s so flattering when they want to invest in something, whether it’s supporting students in a meaningful way so that their time here is easier, or whether it’s investing in new technology or in our facilities so we can continue to be cutting edge and a place where students want to come and learn. And I like being able to foster alumni pride. The value of our alumni’s degree is enhanced when we continue to promote excellence and constantly look for ways that we can be even better.
Why is philanthropy important for a school like SCCO?
Tuition dollars cover operations, but they cover just the bare minimum to keep things going. And we have a really vibrant dynamic profession that is always changing our scope of practice and the technology we use. The way for us to be ahead and to really shine as a program is to constantly stay fresh, and the way that we can stay fresh is to invest in exciting new things, technology training, keeping our facilities up to date. For all of that, we really do rely on support from philanthropy. The other thing about philanthropy is that our donors often have really good ideas for new directions and new things that we can focus on. There are moments when a donor may come to us and they have this fantastic idea of a resource they wish they had had as a student, or a program that they’ve implemented in their practice that they’d like to be able to offer to students, so philanthropy isn’t just the money. It’s the giving of people’s time. To me, the time, energy and expertise that our alumni and our community partners and corporate partners provide are just as rich as the dollars.
What motivates your own giving?
I feel like I’ve been very lucky in life and I’ve been rewarded. To be a member of this profession, I feel like it’s my duty to give back because there have been so many points in my life where somebody did something for me that really made a difference, starting with that job and the contact lenses. When I was in optometry school, I was a parent and it was expensive to survive and also support a family, and I was a recipient of a very impactful scholarship. At the middle of my fourth year of optometry school, in the beginning of December, I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to buy groceries, and suddenly I received this $2,000 scholarship from Vision Service Plan. And it allowed me to not only put food on the table but actually buy holiday gifts for my daughter. I understand the power of a scholarship for a student and how impactful that could be.
What are you excited about as you begin your tenure as Dean of SCCO?
I’m part of something really unique in this interprofessional environment with a president who is so inspiring and visionary. And I’ve been so impressed with the expertise of the faculty here and how invested they are in the student experience, and in supporting each other. There is this camaraderie here that is really special, and I feel lucky I get to be a part of it. I’ll add that every year at graduation, after I shake the students’ hands, I always say ‘Now, go find your bliss.’ And one of the best parts of being a dean is talking to alumni and finding out how they achieve their bliss and what their bliss is, and I think my role is to help continue to support them to do that even after they graduate. So, I like to say, we have an open invitation for alumni to reach out to me and introduce themselves and share their stories with me