In 1969, C. Clayton Powell, OD, and John L. Howlette, OD, met with a select group of African American optometrists in Richmond, Virginia. Their mission with their new organization, the National Optometric Association (NOA), was to give a voice and platform to minority doctors around the country. Fast forward to 2019, when a recent graduate of the Pennsylvania College of Optometry at Salus University, Nishan Pressley, OD, was appointed to be the director of communications for the NOA.
Dr. Pressley finished the school’s relatively new accelerated three-year program, and she was the first African American to do so. When Whitney Roberson, OD, saw Dr. Pressley’s capabilities, she made it a point to get her around other ODs involved in the NOA. “It was great because those doctors looked like me,” Dr. Pressley says of her new colleagues. “The NOA brings us together—doctors who can relate to my cultural experiences. There is this hub of diversity and knowledge.”
Dr. Pressley cataloged her own journey through optometry school on her social media channels. When her colleagues saw her following and unique style of making her work not just appealing to young people, but teaching and advocating for optometry, she was hand-picked by the previous NOA communications director to fill the role, she says. Although the role was daunting when she was first approached, Dr. Pressley considered how she could influence young minorities who might be considering the optometric profession. “When I thought about the impact I could make, I thought ‘this is something I have to do.’”
Dr. Pressley didn’t always know she was going to go into optometry. She knew she loved science and math and saw herself in a medical career, but she didn’t have a particular specialty in mind. As fate would have it, she went on a field trip senior year of high school to visit an optometrist and her decision was solidified. “I said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is an actual career? I went up to the OD and said, ‘Can I shadow you?’ She said ‘Yeah, come on in,’ and once I shadowed her I was in.”
Living her mission
Dr. Pressley says that she has a personal mission of “advocating for diversity in optometry, mentoring the younger generation and educating anyone who will listen.” How does one live this mission? She spends her time outside of working at Florida Eye Clinic, a multi-MD and OD practice in Orlando, Florida, being out in the community. She talks to high school students, college students and anyone at career fairs with any interest in optometry.
She serves as an example of someone who can excel at challenges, such as her accomplishments at PCO. She was the president of her graduating class, passed all her boards the first time and believes firmly in her opportunity to be a role model for young minority students. “It feels amazing to be a role model—showing students who look like me that [they] can do this with hard work. My message is that as a black woman, you can do this. I love the NOA because it provides all of us with people to look up to,” she says.
She didn’t see an African American OD until she went to optometry school. “That’s why I’m really big on posting on social media and going into the community because I didn’t have that.”