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The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Optometry (UABSO) has launched a student exchange program with the University of South Wales School of Optometry and Vision Science (UNSW). Two UAB optometry students will have eight-week externships in the UNSW clinic, while four UNSW students will be hosted in four-week clinical rotations at UAB Eye Care, UABSO’s clinical arm.

Discussions about a partnership between the two schools began in 2015 when then UAB Provost Dr. Linda Lucas and Vice Provost Suzanne Austin visited UNSW with Assistant Vice President of Industry Research Jason Nichols, OD, MPH, PhD, FAAO and UAB School of Optometry Dean Kelly Nichols, OD, MPH, PhD, FAAO. The Nichols had a longstanding research collaboration with UNSW and the Brien Holden Vision Institute in Sydney. That visit led to the development of an undergraduate exchange program for UAB/UNSW, and ultimately the optometry/optometry externship exchange between UAB and UNSW.

“Establishing an optometry exchange program was the natural next step,” said Dean Nichols. “The existing relationship with UNSW and the Brien Holden Vision Institute proved that a working relationship was feasible and could be enhanced to benefit our students. We look forward to continuing our longstanding relationship.”

Externship director and UAB School of Optometry Associate Professor, Keshia Elder, OD, MS, FAAO, facilitated making the optometry exchange program between the two universities a reality.

“It took more than a year to get the program off the ground,” she said. “The effort and time were well worth it. Students involved not only get to experience a different culture, but all have a chance to compare the practice of optometry in the two countries. This is an experience that will stay with them for a lifetime.”

unswWhen asked about the impact UNSW hopes the experience has on their students visiting UAB, David Pye, program coordinator and UNSW associate professor said, “The greatest benefit we would expect our students to gain from this experience is to become aware of the breadth of optometric practice in the USA and to be able to experience a different teaching environment in an international setting.”

This exchange is part of UNSW’s Preceptorship Program, which has been conducted since 1990. In that time, their students have gone to more than 25 countries and attended, at one time or another, UC Berkeley School of Optometry, the Pennsylvania College of Optometry, Ohio State Optometry, SUNY College of Optometry and the Indiana University School of Optometry in the United States.

UNSW students Richard Cheng and Ann Tran, who arrived at UABSO on August 26, were the first students to experience the exchange program. Cheng and Tran worked alongside UABSO’s fourth-year students on a specifically tailored schedule seeing patients in the Primary Care and Contact Lens clinics as well as in other specialty clinics.

“Everyone at UAB was incredibly welcoming and friendly to us,” Cheng said. “The best thing about this experience has to be all the inviting people that we have met on our preceptorship and learning so much priceless knowledge about optometry in the States that we can take back home to Australia.”

 Sydney Madrigal and Craig Brown, both fourth-year students, are the first UAB School of Optometry students to participate in the exchange program. They began their eight-week clinical rotation at UNSW on October 7.

“In 2016 during my Introduction to Optometry class, I showed students a photo of the 2015 visit to UNSW, and at the end of the class Sydney Madrigal, then a first-year student, approached me about going there on externship,” said Dean Nichols. “The fact that she and Craig Brown are our first UNSW exchange students feels like an idea taking flight in the best of ways.”