September 2014 Student in Focus: Western’s Ashley Suplee

“On the road again
Goin’ places that I’ve never been
Seein’ things that I may never see again
And I can’t wait to get on the road again”

As any 4th-year optometry student knows, these classic lyrics by Willie Nelson perfectly encapsulate the excitement we feel as we set off for a full clinical year of school. California native Ashley Suplee likely identifies with these country lyrics more than most! After packing up all of her belongings into her tiny car, Ashley hit +1,000 miles of open road on her way to the “Cowboy State.” I was lucky enough to get to know Ashley while we interned together at the VA Hospital in Cheyenne, Wyoming (pictured below). Given that she is a dean’s list student and scholarship winner at Western University, it should come as no surprise that Ashley kept me on my toes and helped me learn a lot while at the VA!  Ashley
Cheyenne Veteran's Affairs Hospital
also became a dear friend of mine, and we enjoyed many laughs about her transition from the big city to small-town Wyoming.

OS: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What got you interested in a career as an optometrist? How did you wind up at Western University?

Ashley: I am from Riverside, California and went to UC Riverside for undergrad, where I majored in biochemistry. When I was about ten years old, I went to the optometrist because I was having trouble reading. At the appointment, the doctor dilated my eyes and I thought that guy had THE coolest job ever. I was amazed he could see into the back of my eye – what’s not appealing about that?! I looked into a few schools and I was most interested in Western’s program. I really liked the idea of inter-professional education. When I took a tour of the school, everyone was so nice and welcoming. I knew it was the right place for me!

OS: Great story! It sounds like you’ve been a Californian for a long time. What was it like to move from Southern California, one of the most densely populated places in the country, to Wyoming? They say there are more antelope than people in the “Cowboy State,” which must have been a bit of a culture shock for you!

Ashley: It definitely was a culture shock for me! Cheyenne has a population that is about 20% of the size of my hometown.  The thing that shocked me the most was how nice everyone was.  I had a great experience in Wyoming. There was definitely some fun stuff to do. I especially enjoyed “Friday Night on the Plaza,” where a different local band would play each week; we were told it was the “it” thing to do on Friday nights! It was an adventure living in a small town in the “Wild West” for the summer.

OS: I agree – it was definitely fun to check out the local bands in Cheyenne with you! It’s amazing to think that you traveled such a distance in your tiny car. What advice would you give to new 4th years as they attempt to pack up their lives into boxes and head out for the open road?

Ashley:  Hopefully other 4th years know how to pack better than I did! I am still shocked everything fit in my small car, which I affectionately refer to as my “Brave Little Toaster.” I’m not sure I am the best person to give advice since I have way more stuff than one person needs for three months! But from experience, I wish I would have packed less – I always have to learn the hard way. Some advice I could give is to try to figure out what you can live without for a year. Also, two words: space bags! Those saved my life when it came to packing my massive amounts of clothing.

OS: Great advice! What is your favorite part of optometry? How would you like to practice after graduation?

Ashley: My favorite part of optometry is how much we can tell about the body by just looking in the eyes. It gives us the opportunity to explain and educate our patients on their health. Eventually I would like to open my own practice. I am really interested in vision therapy and would like to incorporate that into my practice.

OS: It is definitely exciting to get into clinic and educate patients on their health! What was it like transitioning from the classroom life to working 5 days a week in an entirely clinical setting?

Ashley: I really liked the transition from the classroom to clinic. We work so hard in school to learn everything but I couldn’t wait to do rotations. At the VA I saw a lot more patients during a day then I would at school. I learned to be faster during an exam and also how to tailor the exam to a patient’s specific needs.

Enjoying a Colorado Rockies game - even though Ashley is a die-hard Angels fan!
Enjoying a Colorado Rockies game – even though Ashley is a die-hard Angels fan!

OS: What was your favorite moment from working at the VA?

Ashley: There were so many great moments working at the VA, so it is hard to choose just one. I loved hearing all the patients’ responses. If I had to pick my favorite moment, it would have to be when a particular patient came in with reduced visual acuity. He was an insulin-dependent diabetic and reported poor blood sugar control. When I asked him if he noticed his vision worsening when his blood sugar was high, he responded, “No, I don’t think so…but you know when I eat cake my vision gets really misty.” He was dead serious, but he answered my question without even knowing it!

OS: Was it tough moving so far away from home? How did you find friends and things to do while in Wyoming?

Ashley: It was tough at first moving so far away, but I had some family and friends visit me and that helped! I also got lucky that I got along with my co-intern at the VA, Joan. She was awesome! One of my classmates from Western and another intern from ICO worked in Cheyenne as well, so we had a little Wyoming family that hung out and ate dinner together almost every night. My “Cheyenne family” and I found some fun things to do on the weekends, like hunting down some of the 19 painted cowboy boot statues around town! I also spent a weekend in South Dakota at the Black Hills. We went to a Colorado Rockies game, which was great until rain and lightning required us to evacuate the stadium! Those were just a few of the adventures we had this summer.

The optometry family enjoying a potluck dinner after a long day in clinic.
The optometry family enjoying a potluck dinner after a long day in clinic.

OS: We really lucked out with our little optometry student family in Cheyenne! What was it like to check out the Frontier Days rodeo?

Ashley: It was great checking out Frontier Days, aka “The Daddy of ‘Em All!” We were told that Frontier Days is the biggest outdoor rodeo in the world! Everyone in town was really into the cowboy/wild west theme and it was fun to join the festivities. They had a parade that had so many horses! We also got to check out the Championship Bull Riding. I had never been to the rodeo and I had a blast!

Enjoying the Bull Riding Championships at the Frontier Days rodeo!
Enjoying the Bull Riding Championships at the Frontier Days rodeo!

OS: It sounds like you enjoyed your time in Cheyenne! When I first met you, you were a Californian through and through. Do you think you’ll settle there after graduation, or did the wide open spaces of the Wild West make you consider moving elsewhere?

Ashley: I love getting to experience living in other parts of this country but I’ll always be a California girl. The plan right now is to settle back in Southern California.

OS: California is definitely hard to beat! Where to next?

Ashley:  I’m in Chandler, Arizona at a private practice that does vision therapy. I am looking forward to working in a different practice setting.

With three more clinical rotations and several more road trips standing between her and her O.D. degree, there is no doubt that Ashley will be an excellent doctor and skilled traveler by the time graduation rolls around! If you have any thoughts or questions for Ashley, leave them in the comments section below! In the meantime, she’ll be headed home to California for a quick pit stop before moving on to Arizona for her next adventure. Congrats to our September Student in Focus!


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