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Dori Carlson

Dean Davis, faculty, distinguished guests, new graduates, family, friends and colleagues - It is truly an honor to be with you today. It seems like yesterday when I was in your shoes and sitting at my own graduation. The years since then seem to have just flown by but I do remember sitting THERE trying to imagine what I'd be doing with regards to my profession. Of all the ideas I had one thing NEVER crossed my mind. I never once imagined that someday I'd be standing here speaking to a group of Optometry Graduates.

Which brings me to my point today. There are all kinds of questions going through your mind right now. The next step will be moving…. Where will you be?

The step after that will be locating a place to use those skills you've spent the last four years learning …What will you be?

But today I ask a bigger question: "Who will you be?"

I stole that line from a book by Maria Schriver who published her commencement speech she gave at a University graduation. In it she talks about her struggle to figure out what she could possibly say to a group of new graduates. It applies to a lot of situations in life and today I apply it to you.

Who will you be?

I live in North Dakota. It honestly wasn't one of the places I would have said I was going to reside 21 years ago. I was off to do my residency at American Lake VA in Tacoma, Washington. I was excited and filled with anticipation. Yes, I was originally from Minnesota and thought someday I might go back that direction but for now I was going to stay in the Pacific Northwest. I planned on finishing my residency and then ultimately had hopes of joining the lecture circuit and use my love of teaching. I was all set to start a position with a glaucoma specialist in Seattle……….

And THEN one day the letter came. It was from a little town in North Dakota who said their optometrist had retired and closed his doors. It read, "We noticed that you have a ND license. Would you be interested in looking at our little town and possibly opening a practice here?" Well, heck! I'll visit with anyone (now I need to tell you I had recently married an optometrist. We met in Oregon at school and he just happened to be from ND). So we started the dialogue. Next thing you know this little town started sending us the weekly paper. They asked us if they could fly us out over Thanksgiving to take a look at their little town. They raffled off a four foot stuffed raccoon to pay for our airline tickets (no kidding - We read about it in the paper!) The Methodist pastor drove around in the back of the local plumber's pickup in order to make a video of the town to send to us. We simply HAD to check out this town. They convened every business owner in the town to meet us during a lunch. They showed us 500 or so sq feet in the hospital with which we could start up a practice, rent free for awhile. We said "we'd need hospital privileges", they said, "no problem!" And THEN the owner of the local newspaper started calling our parents. "Could you possibly use your influence to convince your children to move back to the area?" After creating a rather lengthy pros and cons list which I think we still have - we moved there - 21 years ago.

Who will you be?

Then it was time to get busy and try to figure out how to run a practice and make a living. A big part of that was learning how to code exams for insurance and get paid for what we do - so I went to the state optometric association meeting that fall and asked for help. People were really helpful! I learned so much. The more I expressed a desire to learn the more they helped me. It was like my own little family of optometry. So in turn when they asked me to help them…. I did. I ended up being on their "coding committee". Later I joined their managed care committee and ultimately chaired it. Then they decided to enhance their therapeutics bill and asked me to testify in the legislature because of my experience in the VA system. I said NO WAY! I was terrified of getting up in front of a group of legislators. Just the thought of it made my stomach turn and my mouth go dry.

Who will you be?

Guess what? They talked me in to it! I testified in the legislature and it went really well. I had the passion. The passion for our profession. The pride of being an optometrist. And I soon realized I knew FAR more about eyes and my profession than any of those legislators did. I was TEACHING! It was a team effort with my colleagues and lots of fun stories to share over the years but we did it. We enhanced our therapeutics bill and I learned a little more about myself. The next thing I knew I had a 5 week old baby at his very first association board meeting and I was the President of our state association.

Who will you be?

Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we never dreamed we'd be. Sometimes we find strengths about ourselves we never realized we had. By participating in some of these things outside of seeing patients I realized I took far more back home with me than I was every asked to give.

Who will you be?

After being involved in my state association I was asked to work on some committees at the national level and ultimately I decided to run for the AOA Board. In 2004 a female from a very small state was elected to the AOA Board of Trustees - me. That's like someone from North Dakota running for President of the United States (well not quite). With only 648,000 people in the state we have very few votes! The same is true for the AOA House of Delegates. We have votes based on the number of optometrists in the state - and we're a small state. But I got elected. Over 21 years ago when I was at my graduation - I would have NEVER dreamed that someday I was going to be part of the AOA Board of Trustees.
So I ask you again…………..Who will you be?

You're going to have all kinds of opportunities that will present themselves to you. Some will work out great. Others won't - but that's true with anything in life. Seize the opportunities. I tell you these stories today to entertain but to also open your eyes to the opportunities you might never have thought existed. I have asked you about who will you be today but as you graduate I want you to know I expect you to "BE" a few things.

Be a mentor - it might be to your colleagues, to other professions, to the public. You know FAR more about your profession than anyone else does. Help those around you.

Be prepared to continue to learn. Yes, you graduate today but your education is not over. You are a health professional and as a result need to commit to a lifetime of learning. In fact I recently took a laser and minor surgical procedures course. It was excellent and so energizing. It gave me renewed excitement about our profession and my skills as a doctor.

Be confident. You are now a member of the greatest profession of health care - that of Optometry. Be confident in your skills and abilities. You will help many people.

Be a Leader - sometimes leaders emerge from the most unlikely places.

Continue to be a member of our professional association - The American Optometric Association. You already are a member as a student and we need you continue that membership after graduation. You need to remain part of our family of Optometry. The AOA is the only group that represents your issues and our profession at the state and national level. Just this past year we lobbied hard to be included in Health Care Reform when there were those that would have excluded us. We need all of us working together to remain strong.

Be involved. We're a small profession and need people to help us get things done. I can guarantee that as you give so shall you receive - professionally and personally - and quite frankly I can't do this all by myself!

And most of all…Be proud of your profession and represent it well. Don't ever let anyone tell you differently.

And so I close today hoping you might remember a few things about your graduation speech. A hokey story of how someone got to live where she does today? Perhaps a message of volunteerism. But hopefully you'll remember the charge of who I expect you to be: A confident prepared leader who will proudly represent our profession and continue to be involved in our professional association and leave our profession a little better than the way you found it. THAT's who I EXPECT you to be.

Congratulations on your graduation. I wish you nothing but the best! And who knows……. One day one of you might just be the one giving the commencement address.

Thank you!