A lot happens during a student’s four years at ICO. It can be difficult to account for how much growth and change takes place, with everything building in tiny increments over the course of some 1,400 days. But it’s a little easier for Drs. Hannah Hays and Damaris Benitez of the class of 2014 to recognize the progress they’ve made between move-in day and commencement day. As the featured students in ICO’s “A Day in the Life” web series, all they have to do is go to YouTube to see how far they’ve come since arriving on campus in 2010.
“I think how young I was,” says Dr. Hays. “How nervous I was. ‘Who am I going to meet? Am I going to be okay here? What’s Chicago going to be like?’ When I think about how I was first year and how I am now, now I feel more grown-up, I feel more professional, I feel like I know what I’m doing–most of the time.”
“I’m much more responsible now,” says Dr. Benitez. “That’s not to say I wasn’t responsible before. But now it’s on a totally different scale. Because I’m not just responsible for me, I’m responsible for a lot of other people.”
Both new grads agree that they were overly concerned about academics as first years.
“I remember back then I was very conscious of how I did on one exam,” says Dr. Benitez. “When you look back, you realize one exam doesn’t matter. If I could go back to my former self and give myself some advice, I’d probably say, ‘Relax. Enjoy each moment. Don’t stress so much. Enjoy each moment, because everything goes by so fast. Just because you’re in school, your life doesn’t stop.’”
“I would tell her to relax and have some fun,” says Dr. Hays, when thinking about advice she would give her younger self. “We are here to learn, number one, absolutely. But at the time I don’t think I realized how involved I’d become with the other people here–how much I’d depend on them. I’d tell myself to go out more. Enjoy Chicago more. Let loose. Chill out.”
Over the course of more than 20 episodes, the two newly minted ODs filmed themselves partaking in a variety of experiences, from first-year orientation and cramming for exams to traveling on mission trips and working externship rotations.
In reflecting on their four years at ICO, Drs. Hays and Benitez both agree that externships constituted some of their most challenging times.
“When you’re in class, it’s weird to say, but you have more freedom,” says Dr. Benitez. “On your externship rotations, you’re expected to be superhuman. There are a lot of strong characters, and it was hard to mold to different situations. If felt like there was no room for error, almost.”
Dr. Hays found one of her externship sites, in North Carolina, to be socially isolating. “I was the only student there,” she says. “I lived by myself, and my neighbors in the apartment complex were kind of creepy. That was a really rough quarter. I learned a lot at the clinic, but when I got home I was all by myself.”
Drs. Benitez and Hays each met their significant others while at ICO. Dr. Hays is engaged to Matt Sipola, OD ’13, and last year Dr. Benitez married Sean Kreymborg, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s College of Pharmacy.
Dr. Hays says she found being in a relationship with another optometrist advantageous. “With him being a year ahead of me, if I didn’t feel comfortable with or understand something, he knew exactly what I was going through,” she says. “He knew how to help and could answer my questions.”
In contrast, Dr. Benitez embraces the fact that her spouse is taking a different career path. “I don’t think I would ever be able to marry another optometrist,” she says with a laugh. “You have to leave your work at work. I think it’d be too much.”
As her husband finishes up at UIC, Dr. Benitez plans to spend the next two years in Chicago. She’s been interviewing and is considering some offers; as of publication, she still had a few more interviews on the horizon. The Miami native says she’d eventually like to return to Florida. “That’s where I’ve always wanted to practice.”
Dr. Hays will be in Michigan for a year, pursuing a residency in ocular disease at the Battle Creek VA Medical Center. She’ll move to Virginia, Minn., in 2015 and join her fiancé, where they will assume the practice owned by his father, Don Sipola, OD ’73.
She knows that although her days as a student are over, she’ll continue to face tests in the professional world. “Every day’s a new challenge–whether that be a political challenge with optometry as a profession or trying to balance career with family or friends, or having a patient that’s not very nice, or a difficult case,” says Dr. Hays. “But I feel like I picked the right profession. I’m glad to wake up and have those challenges.”