Northeastern State University is very fortunate to offer many in-demand academic programs where graduates help meet Oklahoma’s professional workforce needs. The ultimate success of these programs is vested in the quality of the faculty who are committed to providing relevant and rigorous courses that meet the requirements of the applicable specialty accrediting body.

At NSU, we have one professional doctorate degree, and it has a true statewide mission and an outstanding national reputation. The Oklahoma College of Optometry (OCO) has been meeting the state’s optometric needs since 1979. Graduates earn a Doctor of Optometry degree after four years of professional graduate study and countless patient contacts at nine clinics throughout the Cherokee Nation’s historic boundaries.

The idea of a school or college of optometry began with an interim study by the Oklahoma Legislature to establish a college at NSU in 1973. The Oklahoma State Regents completed their study, “Optometrists for Oklahoma: A Study of Supply and Demand to 1990,” in May 1974. The State Regents authorized Northeastern to begin a program in optometric education for the fall semester of 1979, and gave formal approval to implement a full four-year professional program in optometry during the July 29, 1981, meeting. As we often say, the rest is history.

Space limitations in this column prevent me from offering an exhaustive history of NSU's OCO. However, I believe most would recognize many outstanding leaders, both past and present, who contributed to its initial and continued success. In fact, the Oklahoma College of Optometry is one of only 23 optometric training schools in the nation. The college prides itself on developing world-class optometrists with practical experience, both in and out of the classroom, as well as post-graduate clinical residency certification and continuing optometric education. Through our decades-long partnerships with the Cherokee Nation and other area entities, our clinics see about 50,000 patients each year.

Although the optometry college was established in Wyly Hall, in 1988, plans were made to relocate it to the original W.W. Hastings Hospital, which was built by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1936. Ten years later, a large amphitheater style classroom that could be used as a conference center was added. All parts of the original 15-acre hospital campus are currently used to educate future optometrists and provide outstanding patient eye care.

About four years ago, a team of NSU representatives led by Dr. Doug Penisten, dean of the Oklahoma College of Optometry since 2009, began a comprehensive study of future facility needs. As you would expect, a lot has changed since the original structure was built some 84 years ago. For some of the same reasons the Cherokee Nation built a new hospital in 1984, we find ourselves in need of a new state-of-the-art complex to facilitate the training of future optometrists.

For the past year, the OCO faculty and leadership have been meeting to determine what should be included in a new building to meet the state’s optometric needs. Their work in the programming phase is complete, and after meeting with architects, they have identified how to incorporate their needs into a dynamic complex. Drawings of the proposed design will be made public in November. The proposed new 101,500-square-foot facility will create a seamless connection between hands-on learning, continuing education and clinic operations simultaneously. The current design includes both academic and clinical space. The academic space includes two mock exam rooms, 10 instructional exam lanes, three classrooms, and 46 offices. The clinical space includes 24 exam rooms and eight offices. The estimated construction cost of the new complex is approximately $26 million.

Our commitment to providing students with a nationally recognized optometry education has not wavered since 1979, nor has our commitment to providing comprehensive vision care services to the region. What has changed significantly is how the building is designed and used to accomplish these important educational and eye care responsibilities. Let’s start the conversations about what is required to propel NSU’s College of Optometry into the future.

Steve Turner is the president of Northeastern State University.

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