Focused on Excellence in Optometric Education and Vision Research

SocialEyes: Making Connections, Building Trust

On the first day of optometry school, Ohio State students see their social circle expand immediately.
Nikhita Jacob (’26), Kayla Schisler (’26), Kelly Echeta (’26), Grace Johnson (’26), Hala Mahmoud (’26), Hallie Cox (’26), Dr. Lai, Dr. McDaniel, and Taylor Boyd (’26)
Nikhita Jacob (’26), Kayla Schisler (’26), Kelly Echeta (’26), Grace Johnson (’26), Hala Mahmoud (’26), Hallie Cox (’26), Dr. Lai, Dr. McDaniel, and Taylor Boyd (’26)

Simultaneously wonderful and overwhelming, this influx of new friends and colleagues presents a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build bonds that have the potential to last well beyond their four years as students.  

Dean Karla Zadnik, OD, PhD, sought to capitalize on this opportunity to create and strengthen ties, not only among students, but also between students and faculty members. She created the SocialEyes program, which Mike Earley (OD/MS’88, PhD’92) and the Student Services team launched in Autumn 2014. The program randomly assigns six-to-eight first-year optometry students to a faculty member (or in some cases, two faculty members), who are given a budget to plan and host meaningful monthly meet-ups. 

“Having a trusted faculty member to lean on is essential to thrive in our program,” explains Dean Zadnik. “We’ve seen over and over again that when students feel connected to others who are going through the same challenges, they’re better able to adapt and succeed.” 

“Knowing that you have people you can count on makes it easier to seek help when you need it.”
Dean Karla Zadnik

When Heather Anderson, OD, PhD, and Jeff Walline (OD, MS’98, PhD’02) teamed up to lead a SocialEyes group, they planned excursions to Top Golf, OtherWorld, and Cap City Diner for end-of-semester comfort food, as well as home-spun activities that sparked creativity like pumpkin carving and Valentine’s Day cookie decorating. 

“The SocialEyes program allows faculty to connect personally with students,” says Dr. Anderson. “That is what sets Ohio State Optometry apart from other optometric institutions.” 

Dr. Walline found that the activities provided the perfect backdrop to spark conversations that might not have occurred otherwise. “We celebrate successes and empathize with challenges, which ultimately makes us more resilient as a group,” he says.  These experiences create a sense of well-being and belonging.

Phil Yuhas (OD/MS’14, PhD’19) agrees. “The SocialEyes program has become a cornerstone of the college’s tight-knit community. Starting during the very first days of their first year, students are encouraged to see us, their professors, as people who genuinely care about their success and well-being and who have varied interests outside of the examination lane and laboratory. This perspective builds trust with the students that we are on their team.” 

This year, Dr. Yuhas teamed up with Zac Coates (OD/MS’19), hosting a backyard barbecue, participating in an unsuccessful escape room outing, and attending a Columbus Blue Jackets hockey game, among other activities. 

“The program prompts faculty members to think about the individuals behind the names on the class roll and to work with the understanding that the students are future peers,” Dr. Yuhas continues. “It also reminds us that we are not as young or as cool as we would like to think.”  

Quantity and quality go hand-in-hand for SocialEyes outings, and faculty members have been incredibly creative when designing their excursions. Recent examples include: Don Mutti, OD, PhD, treats his SocialEyes groups like a supper club – taking his groups to Columbus’ most dynamic and interesting restaurants, and even hosting a dinner at his home; Mawada Osman (OD/MS’20) and Bradley Dougherty (OD/MS’07, PhD’13) took their group to Game Show Battle Rooms for a night of activities inspired by classic game shows; Vondolee Delgado-Nixon, PhD, and Dawn Goedde (OD’04), took their group to Top Golf and iconic Columbus institutions like Jeni’s Ice Cream; Aaron Zimmerman (OD’06/MS’08) and Tim Fries (OD’04, MBA, MPH) took their group to an escape room and Top Golf; and Ann Morrison (OD’14, MS’16, PhD’21) and Kim Patton (OD’18, MS’20) took their group to a Columbus Blue Jackets game and Zoo Lights at the Columbus Zoo. Cayti McDaniel (OD/MS’08) and Nicki Lai (OD/MS’03) hiked with their group at Hocking Hills.

Student feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Ohio State Optometry student Claire Rezai (’26) appreciated the impact SocialEyes had on her first-year experience.

Claire Rezai (’26)
SocialEyes allows us to see each other as people; not as professors, not as attendings, not as peers, but just as people
Claire Rezai (’26)

“It helps to humanize the staff and my classmates, and it makes me feel more comfortable to be myself while removing any pressures of the classroom. Many of my fondest memories of this past year have been at SocialEyes, a dedicated time to put any school stress aside and focus on getting to know each other outside of the world of optometry.”

For student Hope Santangelo (’26), her SocialEyes group has become family. She says, “SocialEyes has consistently been something I’ve looked forward to during my first year experience. To me, SocialEyes means trying different restaurants around Columbus with Dr. Mutti. My group talks for hours at dinner until we look up and see we’re the only table left at closing time. We’ve tried amazing foods and not-so-amazing foods and talk about a wide range of topics. Some are optometry-related, and others are more personal like our favorite TV shows or top bucket list items.

Hope Santangelo (’26)
As my first year comes to a close, I am truly grateful that my experience in SocialEyes has given me a lasting relationship with a faculty member that goes beyond the classroom.
Hope Santangelo (’26)

It’s invaluable to know that I have Dr. Mutti as a friendly face who I can go to for help and who I know is always cheering me on.”

Student Elise Frazee (’26) found that SocialEyes helped reduce stress. “I feel that SocialEyes was an integral part of my first-year experience, as it allowed me the opportunity to form meaningful relationships. With all the craziness of optometry school, it’s easy to forget the importance of finding time for breaks and doing things you love. I enjoyed spending time with my classmates, especially those I don’t see much outside of the classroom, but I also really loved interacting with my professors during SocialEyes."

Elise Frazee
It made me realize that my professors will soon be my colleagues, and they really want to get to know me and want to see me succeed.
Elise Frazee (’26)

While the SocialEyes group gatherings technically stop at the end of the first year, the friendships rarely fade. The formalized, planned outings make way for everyday exchanges that help frame how students approach life’s challenges. 

“Knowing that you have people you can count on makes it easier to seek help when you need it,” says Dean Zadnik. “Ultimately, that’s what’s at the heart of SocialEyes.”