Chapel Hill: Opinion

Durham Tech program teaches students how to help us buy the perfect eyeglasses

Jo Maeder
Jo Maeder

My mother removed her eyeglasses every time a photo was taken of her. The message was clear: glasses were not attractive.

I was crushed when I had to be fitted for them at age 7. I switched to contacts as soon as I could. An issue with my eyes decades later forced me back into them. Now glasses were cool. So cool, I was overwhelmed by the choices.

As I searched for my new look, it hit me that opticianry was the perfect blend of art, science, style and helping others. What an interesting way to make a living. When many of the opticians said it was a second career for them, I started taking notes.

They had attended Durham Technical Community College’s program – the only licensed program in the state. There was a lot of math in the coursework and on the difficult licensing exam. Um, never mind.

Tracy Bennett, interim director of the Durham Tech opticianry program and an instructor since 2008 told me, “Eighty percent of our students aren’t math people. I wasn’t one either. ” Her father had been an optician who rose through the ranks at Lenscrafters. “Often people get into this because of someone in the family. It’s almost a secret society. Not many know about it.”

The Durham Tech program began in 1970. Over 700 students have graduated from all walks of life. The average starting salary for their students in the Raleigh-Durham area is $45,000. They usually find jobs quickly. Ms. Bennett believes the need for glasses is on the rise, perhaps from the constant use of cellphones, TVs and computers.

Dr. Laurel Gropper, my optometrist and owner of Chapel Hill Eye Care, thinks a lot of eye problems today come from “untrained, unlicensed employees who have little to no knowledge of optics and little understanding of the consequences of wearing eyeglasses that are not fabricated correctly.”

If you’re going to get glasses, make sure the person fitting you is licensed. You’d be surprised how many are not.

Bennett noted that the once male-dominated profession now has over 60 percent female students. She’ll never forget Solmayra Torres who enrolled at age 20, pregnant with her third child. She had been working in the eyewear shop at Sam’s Club when she decided to become a licensed optician.

“Some members of my family believed I should have stayed home with my children,” Torres said. “I took that as motivation. If you want to do something you can do it.”

Torres represented Durham Tech in the 2016 National Federation of Opticianry Schools College Bowl at Disney World and came in second place.

“She did us proud,” said Bennett.

At the DTCC campus, Ms. Bennett showed me their extensive lab and how a round piece of plastic becomes a prescription. Lensmeters, radiuscopes, keratometers and slitlamps sat on a number of tables. Though many courses are online for distance learners and those working full time, students need hands-on lab experience to learn how to make and edge lenses and fit and dispense contacts. Those classes meet once a week.

Bennett concurred opticianry is often a second career. “But our last graduating class was much younger than usual. I was surprised. One started when he was nineteen.”

Though wearing glasses doesn’t have the stigma it once did, for some children it’s still traumatic. She tells me of a child born with no ears who needed glasses.

“We want our students to care, really care, about their customers. It’s not just a job.”

I took the DTCC math placement test. I failed miserably. But I had a great time trying on frames all over the Triangle, from big box stores to boutiques, and developing a new respect for opticians. You’ll never see me buying glasses online. I want the personal touch from someone who knows everything about glasses. These are the only eyes I have.