Johnson notes that in many cases, returning students often have to give up a comfortable life and leave or uproot their families while they are studying at ICO. That was the case with Gary Partnow, OD '13, who graduated in May at the age of 41. He and his wife, Kellie, sold their four-bedroom house in Colorado and moved to a studio apartment in Chicago while he studied at ICO. He also left behind an 11-year career as an officer in the Colorado Springs Police Department.
Dr. Partnow's father had a prosthetic eye, so he was always intrigued by optometry and vision health. But after graduating from college in Long Island, N.Y., the Brooklyn native decided to head west to Colorado. He spent time as an EMT and with a land-based ski patrol before pursing his dreams of being a pilot. He decided the path to doing that would be to become a police officer and become trained to fly police helicopters in Colorado Springs.
Being an older student, you have experience and a little more grounding to weather the storms of optometry school
After several years, though, he began to think there may still be something else out there for him. He got an inkling of what that might be at his wife's optometry appointment.
"It was a combination of things that put me on the path to ICO," he says. "It was my father's prosthetic eye, how intrigued I've always been about the eye, and when I went to my wife's appointment one day, I looked around and thought it seemed like a nice environment," Dr. Partnow says. "I started off with one class just to see where I was. I got good grades, so I took two classes. When I decided to apply to optometry schools, I took a look at ICO and was impressed with their reputation and the location and board scores, so I chose them."
He says being an older student made it easier for him to focus on the big picture and remember why he was in such a challenging program. He also says his experience as a police officer was excellent training for working with—and caring for—people of every age, socioeconomic level and ethnic background.
"Being an older student, you have experience and a little more grounding to weather the storms of optometry school," he says.
He says the ICO community was very supportive of him and his goals, though he admits it was tough to return to a demanding professional program at 38, more than a decade past the typical ICO student's age.
"The whole thing is a challenge," he says. "We essentially left our life and had to really start over. It was a little painful, and being a poor student again is challenging. I never could have done it without my wife. She is my rock."
As he holds his new optometry degree—and prepares to head back to Colorado with Kellie and their new baby girl—he has no doubts the experience was worth any sacrifices they had to make. He says anyone who feels intrigued by a new career should take some time to explore that calling, even if it's just to test the waters with a class or two, as he did before he came to ICO.
"Try to live without regret," he says. "I prayed a lot. Giving my resignation and packing up and moving to Chicago was huge. You have to do what your heart wants you to do and live without regret. But before you do it, be sure you're prepared for the challenges. It was much harder than I thought."