Optometry's 20/20 fundraising vision

Farsighted faculty dig deep to support graduate students

| 02 April 2009

"There's a lot of caring here," says School of Optometry Dean Dennis Levi, whose faculty is boosting The Campaign for Berkeley. (Wendy Edelstein photo)

Over the past three years, Berkeley's School of Optometry has raised $715,000 for endowed graduate-student fellowships. What's remarkable about that figure isn't its size, but its source: Most of the money came from the school's current and emeritus faculty.

Optometry faculty seeded 32 fellowship funds at $10,000 apiece, with the goal of having those monies matched by the Chancellor's Challenge for Student Support. The "challenge" matches donations for need-based student support that come from active and retired faculty and staff, current students, and surviving partners and spouses of Berkeley faculty. Optometry has only 19 full-time professors, yet they believe they have funded more new fellowships under two campus matching programs than any campus unit, apart from the College of Letters and Science.

This is largesse born of necessity. Once among the most affordable optometry schools in the country, Berkeley's school saw its tuition quadruple during California's last budget downturn, earlier this decade. Tuition for in-state students climbed from $5,000 a year to more than $20,000; for out-of-state students, the tab is now more than $32,000 a year.

The lion's share of the school's students are aspiring clinicians enrolled in a four-year postgraduate training program that produces doctors of optometry. Unlike graduate students pursuing an M.S. or Ph.D. degree, students in professional schools aren't supported by the university with teaching or research posts. "Graduate students who are doing a Ph.D. get their tuition paid and receive a stipend," says Dennis Levi, dean of the optometry school. "They have GSI and GSR opportunities that optometry students simply don't have." He notes that the students also maintain the school's seven-day-a-week clinic during the academic year and in the summer.

The optometry faculty empathize with the difficulties posed by the stiff tuition increases, says Levi, who says that out-of-state students typically graduate $100,000 in debt. "If you have a huge debt, your choices about what you're going to do after graduation are limited," he says. New optometrists with sizable debts might forgo working in underserved areas or public-health clinics where they might not be well-paid. In addition, in-debt grads are less likely to teach optometry, since doing so requires at minimum master's degree and optimally a Ph.D., and obtaining an additional degree means going further into the red.

Levi saw a "fantastic opportunity" to help remedy this situation in 2005, when the Graduate Division announced its Named Fund Initiative, which matched faculty gifts of $10,000 to establish or support graduate fellowships. (The Chancellor's Challenge for Student Support took over where that initiative left off in 2007.) Levi led by example, donating $10,000 to create the school's first fund. Dean of External Affairs Lawrence Thal and Associate Dean Richard Van Sluyters both followed suit.

Farsighted fundraising

To entice his faculty to give, Levi used the kind of sales pitch often heard during public-radio fund drives, suggesting the donors could pay off their $10,000 pledge over five years by putting the gift on a credit card. "That's $166 a month. You'll barely notice it," Levi told his faculty.

In addition, Levi offered to "forward fund" each pledged gift so that newly named fellowships would begin paying out immediately. With an additional $5,000 from Levi and matching funds from the Chancellor's Challenge, a gift of $10,000 thus results in a $25,000 fellowship. (A fund established with $20,000 yields about $1,000 a year for student support.) Levi recalls telling his faculty members that "if they really stood up, they could provide us with an endowment that would forever allow us to give students financial support."

Seeding a new fund isn't the only way to support the school's students. Existing funds have been augmented by faculty and alumni, reports Levi. And last year, when the school's graduating students established a fund of their own (a gesture Levi hopes will become a June tradition), a faculty member offered to match their contributions to ensure that the total seed money reached $10,000.

One optometry student who has benefited from faculty generosity is Patty Oh, who in her second year of study began receiving financial assistance from the Dr. Raymond L. Eng Family Fund, one of the school's 29 "professional-student support funds." Eng, a retired faculty member, seeks to support students who show interest and leadership in community healthcare and vision research.

Oh, who like many optometry students at Berkeley pays for her tuition with a patchwork of grants and scholarships, says she appreciates "being rewarded for community work and being active in professional groups." The award, she says, "nurtures more well-roundedness it's not just about getting the great grades."

Optometry's current named fellowships for more are in the pipeline exemplify the school's big-heartedness, says Levi. "I think our students really appreciate how our faculty have stepped up to the plate. They know that the faculty are really there for them."