A Ticket to Academy Changes the Course of a Malawi Optometrist’s Future

cropped image grace ogbonna

Grace Ogbonna, who received a travel grant to attend Academy 2023, shares how she turned a childhood tragedy into a personal mission and why the opportunity to attend Academy helped change the trajectory of her optometric career.

Every fall, eye care professionals from across the globe convene at the American Academy of Optometry meeting to discover the latest in research, attend first-in-class continuing education sessions, and network with colleagues, familiar and new. 

For some, the journey is long, and the cost of travel is challenging to meet. 

In preparation for Academy 2023, CooperVision, in partnership with the American Academy of Optometry Foundation (AAOF), acted to fill this need by supporting the international travel grant program, now in its second year, for individuals who reside in low to lower-middle income countries and needed financial assistance to travel to Academy in New Orleans. In 2023, the ten recipients hailed from Ghana, India, Nigeria, Nepal, Pakistan, and Malawi.

For one of the recipients, Malawi optometrist Grace Ogbonna, the travel grant provided a life- changing experience that helped open doors for her future. 

In this Q&A, Dr. Ogbonna shares how she turned a childhood tragedy into a personal mission, her early experience working at a hospital in Northern Nigeria in the midst of a violent period in her county that left millions of individuals displaced, and her dreams of making a difference at home and abroad by improving the vision and eye health of every patient she treats.

Can you please share some background information about yourself?

I am a Nigerian trained optometrist. I graduated from Abia State University in 2011. Following my graduation, I did my internship in one of the federal hospitals in the Northern region of Nigeria. The time of my internship coincided with the onset of activities of the dreaded Boko-Haram in this region. This meant that there was a very high need for rural clinic outreach and healthcare service for those who were internally displaced. This was a great experience for me, and it served as a foundation for the trajectory of my career as an optometrist.

What inspired you to pursue a career in optometry?

I had a cousin who during our childhood had measles and a convulsion. When his parents tried to use herbal drugs to treat him, they unfortunately put some into his eyes. That led to his going bilaterally blind. He passed on at the tender age of eight after sustaining third-degree burns from trying to navigate through their kitchen. This was very heartbreaking for me, given that I had stayed with his mom during her pregnancy and his delivery. This ignited in me the desire to be in the medical field and at least be of help to people who may be indigent. Hence, when I was admitted to study optometry, it was indeed a thing of joy as I saw it as an opportunity to achieve my dreams of serving humanity, by preventing avoidable blindness and infant mortality.

What was your experience like at Academy 2023? 

My experience at Academy was one that can only be described as beautiful. The lectures were both enlightening and eye opening. I had the opportunity to connect with other optometrists, learn from recent research work, and be inspired by great minds which make an impact on the lives of others every day. The award section was like icing on the cake, and I was indeed motivated to be a better optometrist. Attending Academy is an experience that I feel every optometrist across the globe needs to experience.

Can you share how receiving a travel grant to attend Academy 2023 impacted you and your career?

The grant was really very helpful to me. Initially, I didn’t have the necessary funds in my account to show proof of sponsorship which is a prerequisite to be granted a U.S. Visa by the U.S. Consulate. I was not sure how to go from what I had to what I needed. But I was very lucky that I was advised about the grant one day before my Visa interview. So, with the email detailing the funding, I was able to prove to my interviewer that I had the necessary funds for the journey. Further, the air ticket to New Orleans was quite expensive ($2,549 USD). On my own, it would have been very difficult to pay. As such, the grant cushioned the effect of the cost of the ticket to my pocket. Indeed, my going for the Fellowship interviews, making my poster presentation, meeting other optometrists, and having great fun at Academy was all thanks to the CooperVision grant opportunity. 

What area of optometry are you most passionate about?

Being in academia, I love to equip the younger generation with the necessary skills to practice optometry holistically. I am also very passionate about pathologies and low vision rehabilitation for the pediatric and geriatric population. This is because eyecare for these populations in most developing countries is still far from the desired. I love to see that despite a child having an eye problem, s/he can still go on to lead a normal life. My passion is indeed reflected in the courses that I teach (clinical optometry procedure, pediatric and geriatric optometry, anterior and posterior eye diseases, and low vision), as well as in the poster presentation which I made on Waardenburg syndrome during Academy in New Orleans.

What are your future professional goals?

I would like to be able to practice as a licensed optometrist as well as teach in one of the optometry schools in the U.S. The FAAO program opened my eyes to see that optometry practice in Africa can be more than what it is currently. It also showed me that I could do more for my students if I have the requisite skills and training. I would also like to enroll in the New England College of Optometry Advanced Standing International Program (2026 cohort). I see myself as a professional who will use the skills acquired from this training to impact my patients and students alike. It will also create opportunities for me to grow in my career path as a clinician and a researcher within and beyond Africa. I am hopeful that I will be able to secure the necessary loans and/or scholarships that would ensure the actualization of my dreams and goals. 

My experience in Malawi as a lecturer means that I am equipped with the necessary skills for this. However, given the licensing requirements, there is need for me to pass the NBEO exam. In order to be eligible for this exam I have to be nominated by a state or go through the ASIP program (which is very expensive for internationals who do not have access to loans or scholarships).

Is there anything else that you’d like to add? 

Thank you, CooperVision, for extending your kindness to people in low- and middle-income countries. I am really very grateful. I should also mention that henceforth, I will continue to be an ambassador for your products in Africa, having been a beneficiary of your kindness. Further, please, it would be awesome if the grant can continue for people in the low-income countries for future Academies.

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