Q&A: William To, 2016 Doctor of Optometry Candidate, Western University of Health Sciences

May 23, 2016

I always wanted to help people and be in health care. It did take me a little while to figure out where in health care. I was going the pre-dental route originally-I worked in at a dental office as an assistant during undergraduate. I liked it a lot. But, anybody who meets me, one of the first things they’ll tell you is that I’m a big people person, I like meeting people, I like talking to people, and in dental that’s more of a one-way conversation, it’s not quite the same.

Where did you grow up?

I’m from San Jose, CA. Born and raised there, went over to UC San Diego for my undergraduates. Took a few years off between undergraduate and graduate school. I was an optician for a few years, and that’s what pushed me into the direction of optometry. I learned a lot about the industry, the profession, got to meet a lot of great doctors, representatives, all these amazing people, and it just made sense to go in this direction.

How did you go from opticianry to optometry?

I always wanted to help people and be in health care. It did take me a little while to figure out where in health care. I was going the pre-dental route originally-I worked in at a dental office as an assistant during undergraduate. I liked it a lot. But, anybody who meets me, one of the first things they’ll tell you is that I’m a big people person, I like meeting people, I like talking to people, and in dental that’s more of a one-way conversation, it’s not quite the same. That’s what really pulled me toward optometry. You really get to know your patients, you get to grow up with them. You’re not always rushed to get patients in and out, I like the environment, and that really drew me toward the profession.

What has been the hardest part of your OD school experience?

[Laughs] Maybe just getting back into that school mentality [after] taking a few years off. Sure, there are a few classes that are hard here and there, but I felt that the past four years I’ve had such a great time. You know, I’ve been able to travel a lot and meet so many great students from different schools. All these people who are so amazing have been such a great positive influence in my life. I don’t know if I can say I’ve had any hard moments because it’s such a great profession that everyone you meet is so amazing.

How did you start off as an optician?

I was going more in the pre-dental route originally and then I graduated undergraduate and my brother, who had worked as an optician before, told me to check out the optometry world. “Try being an optician for a little bit.” For him, he felt that type of profession suited me and my personality a bit more. I found a job down in San Diego for a little bit before going back up to the Bay Area for another opportunity. Everything just clicked, everything just worked. So, I’m glad I did look into opticianry, and that’s what pushed me into optometry.

 

What’s something most people don’t know about you?

I travel a lot, I attend a lot of conferences, I do a lot of leadership. I wasn’t always like that. I almost really never left California at all. It’s hard to, we have stuff going on. Nice, beautiful place which is why everyone else wants to be there. Yeah, I never really ventured outside [the state], didn’t really think about traveling too much. But then, getting an opportunity to meet so many people, it’s like, wow-there are a lot of different places out there. If you had just met me just a few years ago, I’d be a little bit more quiet, more reserved, not as outspoken and doing as many things as I am now. I was a lot more quiet back then, I guess. [Laughs] You talk to people now, they say one of the worst things you can do is hand me a microphone because I’ll never shut up. [Laughs]

Why should students get involved?

I always encourage people to get involved in general because I don’t think people realize how small a profession we really are. We’re growing, it seems that we’re constantly opening up new optometry schools, which I view as a good thing even though I know a lot of people view it negatively. I always tell them I’d rather they were opening new schools rather closing down schools because if they’re closing schools we’re in big trouble. Relative to health care, we’re a very small profession. It’s amazing how many people know people. If I talk to a doctor from Denver who will introduce me to his friend in Florida who will talk about an opportunity in New York, you’re literally talking about opposite sides of the country but that’s how small and how tight the profession is. Because there are so few of us, we care so much about each other and know so much about each other. So any relationship that you can develop, you never know where that can take you. So I do encourage students to get involved, get to know people. Try to get outside of your comfort zone just because the opportunities out there are endless.

What do you tell students who want to get involved in leadership roles?

Think about what you want out of it. You shouldn’t be doing it just to add another line on your resume. Honestly, the opportunities are there. If anything, we don’t have enough people stepping up as leaders. Just put yourself out there and just seek out these opportunities. That enough tells me that you’re a leader. You don’t need a title to show that you’re a leader. So even if you don’t happen to be the president of this club or the AOSA trustee of your school, that doesn’t mean that you’re not a leader. There are a lot of things you can do which can highlight your leadership skills. People notice. People know who the strong leaders are around them. If you do what you can to help out everyone around you, you’d be surprised what you’re capable of doing.

 

What are your plans after graduation?

I’m looking into buying a couple of practices in the Bay Area. In just the past few months, I’ve decided to go that route. For me, buying a practice uses the business skills I’ve developed over the past few years with the connections I’ve been able to make because of the leadership positions and opportunities that I’ve had. I’m in a position where I can take over two relatively large practices relatively quickly after graduation. But just because I’ll be going for practice ownership right away doesn’t mean I’m still not developing my clinical skills. I figure this is a great opportunity, and if I have the ability to do it now, what’s the difference between purchasing practices now vs. a year from now or two years from now. I’d rather get a head start and start growing in all directions rather than just one aspect.

Why private practice?

One of the reasons why I was drawn to optometry is the autonomy of it. I can be the type of clinician that I want to be. You hear enough doctors now talking about how insurances are controlling their ability to practice. So many people are just getting their hands in and dictating what you can or cannot do as a clinician to help out your patients. I’m not saying that you don’t get that outside of private practice. To me, it’s the ultimate form of being able to do what you want to do vs. what other people want you to do.

What’s one piece of advice would you offer your fellow students?

Whatever you want to do, it’s not too early. Establishing your name and your brand, building relationships, that should be started early, even in your first year. But on the opposite end, it’s never too late. I know some classmates who realized a few months from graduation, “Oh, I don’t actually know what I’m going to do a few months from now. Sure, I’ll have my license but I don’t really know anybody, I don’t really know where I’m going to practice.” You know what? Start now. [Laughs]. So if it just clicked in your mind that, “Oh, I need to do something,” then do it now. Put yourself out there-it’s never too late. You never know who knows who and what opportunities will open up from starting one relationship with one person and how that can quickly grow.

What do you do for downtime?

I definitely don’t have as much as I’d like to. Down time for the past few years has been mostly just being able to sit home, relax, spend time with my friends, go to the beach, things like that. I think it’s important to have some things going on outside of optometry. I like spending a little bit of time outdoors.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done?

I don’t think I’m allowed to say that. [Laughs] As an undergraduate, a few of my buddies were driving on the freeway down in San Diego. This was part of the freeway that was only two lanes, and there was a car next to us going about the same speed. All of sudden, this car starts coming up from behind us really fast. It’s a red Porsche going 90+ mph and he’s right behind us in the left lane with high beams on. We keep driving because there’s nowhere for us to go. He jumps onto the left shoulder to get around us, which is dirt, rocks, and grass. He loses control and slams up against our car. Right when this happens, the freeway opens up into four lanes. He hit the car pretty hard-we pull over on the right and he pulls over on the left.  Everyone’s fine, just a little shaken up. This is where the stupid part comes in. We think, “We don’t want this guy to get away. We should run over there and make sure.” Wow, when cars are coming at you at 80 miles an hour -those cars come fast. I don’t know what we were thinking-cars are coming at 80 mph-we did Frogger across the freeway. He hands over his insurance and doesn’t say word. Cops come, take statements from everybody, then a cop looks at us and asks, “Where’s your car?” We point across the freeway. He looks at us and says, “You guys are idiots!” The cops had to stop the freeway for us to walk slowly across. Seemed like a great idea at the time. [Laughs]