International students make up 16% of the Illinois College of Optometry’s student body. While at ICO, they receive a world-class education, but what happens next? Health care systems, cultures, and the scope of optometric practice vary around the globe. To learn more about international optometry, we spoke to three diverse alumni. Each chose to practice outside of the United States for a different reason. We are privileged to share their valuable lessons from abroad:
Cliff Gittens, OD ’14
Born and raised in Barbados, Cliff Gittens, OD ’14, “spent most of [his] time swimming.” He came to the United States for college, hoping to swim for St. Peter’s University in New Jersey. However, “it was not to be due to an NCAA eligibility rule.” He found optometry, and due to strong family ties, was enthusiastic about bringing the skillset home to Barbados.
To practice in his home country, Dr. Gittens did not have to take any additional exams. “We don’t have board exams,” he says, “but we do have a paramedical board who will sort through your qualifications to determine eligibility.” Dr. Gittens tries to complete between 9 and 12 hours of continuing education per year, but this is his personal preference- not a requirement.
Dr. Gittens owns and operates Visual Oasis, Inc., a primary care private practice with two locations. While his patient base is somewhat typical- mostly adults aged 30-50, plus some children- the Caribbean setting has its unique challenges. “We see lots of dry eyes and sun-related issues like pinguecula and pterygium,” says Dr. Gittens. Pterygium is also known as “surfer’s eye.”
Though Dr. Gittens sees his share of cataracts, glaucoma, diabetes, and keratoconus, he sometimes feels limited in his ability to help. “Optometry in Barbados is dominated by U.K. optoms,” he explains. “The legislation language is such that we have extremely limited treatment options other than lubricants. Hopefully, we can change that soon.” He is one of only two U.S.-trained optometrists in Barbados. “ICO has a very robust curriculum that ties in just about everything you could expect to come face-to-face with,” he says. With all of his training, Dr. Gittens sometimes feels “stuck” referring out complicated cases that he technically has the knowledge to treat.
As an international student, Dr. Gittens could not apply for any U.S. financial aid while at ICO. As of September 2018, one Barbadian dollar equals about 50 cents in the United States. This can make traveling to and studying in the U.S. difficult. Eye exams in Barbados cost one flat rate, and do not “go up based on diagnosis.” Still, Dr. Gittens says optometrists earn “a decent living” in Barbados.
Dr. Gittens works seven days a week. He says his wife is “extremely happy for bank holidays,” during which they spend time together “on the beach” or visiting “local hangouts and bars.” Compared to the “icy tundra” of Chicago, Barbados is his “paradise.” He enjoys the Caribbean lifestyle, happily calling himself “Bajan to the bone! The people are just a bit warmer, a little calmer… more laid back, a little more casual.” Dr. Gittens laughs, “Let’s not get into island time, mon!”