Ask any children what they want to be when they grow up and their answers are both somewhat predictable and infinitely entertaining. Astronaut, athlete, actor. Veterinarian, firefighter, ballerina. Some don’t want to limit their options when there’s a whole world in front of them, so they aim to be supermodels by day and superheroes by night. And while the answers are usually given with enthusiasm and conviction, both often fade as the little astronauts grow and opt for something a little bit more down to earth.
But some people have clarity from a very early age. Some see their path forward, follow it faithfully, and find, at its end, that their dream wasn’t a fantasy, but a vision worth pursuing.
Picture your life
From a young age, Jennifer Zolman saw her life developing right in front of her. Literally. With amateur photographer parents and a darkroom in their house, there were always snapshots of her life in East Liverpool, Ohio around her. Glimpses of a little girl in a small town with big dreams of where life would lead.
If she were to look back at those photos now, Jennifer would see a little girl with big dreams, but with the fortitude to make them come true. There’s always the one girl—the one out in front. The one who naturally stepped out into a position of leadership. A born organizer. A natural motivator. Someone who didn’t let dreams remain as merely as a fancy or a fantasy. Someone for whom failure wasn’t an option.
That girl was Jennifer…in virtually everything she put her mind to.
The coming of Dawn
Sometimes, despite all the foresight in the world or all the planning, you never know when an unexpected event will change things for your future. It was at a Girl Scout meeting that young Jennifer found one of the most important parts of her life. There, as a fourth grader, she met Dawn Wahl and a dynamic duo was born.
They quickly became inseparable. Dawn was by Jennifer’s side throughout their childhood, even as they ended up going to rival high schools. Dawn was by Jennifer’s side as they moved into their college dorm room together at Ohio State. And Dawn is still by Jennifer’s side every day as they work together in their current practice.
But years before when they were still kids, Dawn was by Jennifer’s side when they went together to get their first pair of contacts lenses together. And it changed the direction of their lives.
“I was in fifth grade, and I couldn't see the board. And for a little while, I don't think my parents really believed me because some of my friends were getting glasses and my parents thought I just wanted them too. Until the teacher said, ‘No, she's literally going up, sitting on the floor to copy the stuff on the board.’" Jennifer got her glasses but soon decided she wanted to try contacts. And so did Dawn.
Together, they went to Pittsburgh and were fitted with contacts. And if there was any blurriness in Jennifer’s plans for her future, it vanished. “I had already known I wanted to do something medical or be a veterinarian or something along those lines. And then when I put these contacts in my eyes, it was so amazing to me that this little piece of plastic could totally change my world and my view of everything I was seeing.”
Her focus on a medical career, which had been present since her earliest childhood, was suddenly crystal clear. Veterinary medicine, human nutrition, and other things that she had considered disappeared from her head. Her future was in optometry.
But anyone who knew Jennifer as a child knew that she didn’t leave anything to chance. So as a freshman in high school. she sought out a local husband and wife optometry team and convinced them to allow her to shadow them for a few days. It turned out to be a few days that lasted the four years and began a relationship with Drs. Lynn and Tom Scullion that was among the most influential in her life.
“She’ll never get into optometry school”
Don’t tell Jennifer she can’t do something. That lesson was on full display when she headed for Columbus—with Dawn, of course—to begin college. Jennifer was enrolled in a pre-optometry path and was ready to continue the success she had always achieved through elementary, junior high, and high school.
Then Organic Chemistry happened.
There’s a class at every college that, if not by design, then by circumstance, serves as a test of the students’ mettle. At The Ohio State University, Organic Chemistry is that class and Jennifer experienced its challenges firsthand. And her grade reflected it. For someone used to success, she wasn’t happy. She was even more unhappy when a past optometrist with ties to the school ran into her father and said, “She got a C in organic chemistry. She'll never get into optometry school.”
Jennifer has never lacked motivation, but that kicked her into another gear. She redoubled her efforts, successfully completed her undergraduate degree and turned her attention to where she wanted to attend optometry school. One thing was certain, it would be warmer than Columbus, Ohio. Florida eventually won out over California and the die-hard Buckeye fan travelled south to the land of Gators and Hurricanes to begin the next phase of her life.
Going to Carolina
As a child, Jennifer used to tell her mother that she was going to move to South Carolina—specifically Charleston. Her maternal grandparents lived there, and school vacations spent in the Palmetto State left her with the certainty that she too would live there some day. As Jennifer journeyed to the campus of Nova Southeastern College of Optometry, she knew that it was a step closer to Charleston, but she didn’t realize everything else it would bring her.
“Mike and I were in the same group of friends. And after I moved to Charleston, he moved here not too long afterwards, and we really didn't have anybody we knew. So, we were hanging out with each other all the time. And then we started dating. I realized it was going to be really good or really bad. I was going to lose my best friend, or this was going to turn out awesome. Luckily it turned out pretty awesome.”
But before Charleston would bring her a husband and family, it would bring her opportunity—one that held a grip in a corner of her mind for many years. “I always thought I'd want to have my own practice so I could treat it like being from a small town my where patients can come in and are feel like part of my family. Where, with my team, I treat them like my family, where it's kind of a happy place to come to get your eye exam, a fun place to come.”
As her studies progressed, Jennifer began thinking about her next step toward achieving that dream of practice ownership. She began searching for private practices interested in taking on a new doctor and offering the chance to eventually become a partner. In her fourth year during her clinical rotations, she secured a position in Salisbury, North Carolina. Not Charleston, but a job within driving distance and a dream within reach. It provided a base for her to interview for a permanent position in Charleston and she found the Draisin Vision Group where she put down roots and began working on her other dreams that she sketched out in her youth.
Party-planning’s loss, children’s gain
Even as a child, when most kids are forgetting their homework and wearing mismatched sneakers, Jennifer was buttoned up beyond her years. “I always joke, I would have been the best party planner there is. Even when I was in elementary school, I just think I was probably the bossy girl who came up with all these ideas like, ‘Oh, we should do this. Oh, we should do that,’ kind of thing. And I'd get my tribe to follow me.”
Her dedication to optometry may have deprived children everywhere some incredible parties, but it brought them something much more valuable. Since her earliest days as an OD, Jennifer has been on a mission to increase awareness of the need for eye exams in children and to make going to the eye doctor as prevalent for kids as going to the dentist.
As a child needing vision correction and throughout her pediatric rotations, Jennifer became acutely aware of the need for eye care in children, as early as in their first year because of its potential to head off problems that have often been misdiagnosed. “Parents will come in and say their kids are having trouble reading. They're getting ready to put them on medications for ADHD and they just really have a problem around their eyes converging together. They'll act out or they won't pay attention. A lot of times, one of the first things that comes up is an attention problem or it's assumed they have delayed development, but it may not be.”
For the little girl that other children naturally just seemed to follow, the focus on children is a natural fit. “I'm kind of a big kid myself and I love kids so I can relate to them very well, I can get down on their level, I can play with them to get the information from them. My practice now is actually 25 to 30% pediatrics…including child’s vision therapy. A lot of what I do with leadership is involved with that area. I think it comes from my own experience as a child. When I got the glasses and suddenly I was aware… ‘Oh, there's pebbles on the road, there are leaves on the trees,’ and it just really turned my world upside down regarding what I was missing out on.”
"I'm kind of a big kid myself and I love kids so I can relate to them very well, I can get down on their level, I can play with them to get the information from them."
While her impact on children has been carefully planned, one family experienced an impact that was a surprise and even more profound.
One day, a pharmacist came into the practice looking for a last eye exam and set of glasses before he retired and lost his vision insurance. With no indication of any issues, he hadn’t had an exam in more than a decade, so Jennifer gave him a full workup including a scan for visual field testing. “I saw the results and thought, ‘Oh no.’ It was a very distinct visual field that is indicative of something going on in the brain. Could be a lesion, could be an aneurysm, could be a tumor…so I put him on our more extensive visual field testing and found exactly the same thing. I referred him right out that day to a neuro-ophthalmologist.”
The next day, he and his wife came into the office full of gratitude. Additional testing had uncovered a very aggressive brain tumor and surgery was scheduled. The operation took place two days later and gave her patient the gift of time with his growing family. Fast forward a number of years and the patient passed away after the cancer returned, but not until he saw his son marry and he met his grandchildren. Jennifer became very close to his family and one of his grandchildren is a classmate of her son. In a life so carefully planned, this turn was unexpected—and unimaginably rewarding across generations and families.
Sharing others’ dreams
Of course, Jennifer’s dream to be an optometrist isn’t a unique one. Her vision at such a young age and her dedication to making it happen is distinctive, but many others share the aspiration. And while her vision has been clear since childhood, her perspective has remained acute throughout her life. Because of that, Jennifer has always channeled her leadership skills toward helping others.
That leadership has taken many forms, always with an eye toward helping others. She has served as President of the South Carolina Optometric Physicians Association (SCOPA), is an adjunct clinical professor for five Colleges of Optometry and the Residency director in Vision Therapy/ Pediatric Optometry affiliated with Southern College of Optometry. She board director of the College of Optometrists in Vision Development (COVD); chairperson of the American Optometric Association’s InfantSEE and Children’s Vision Committee; and South Carolina InfantSEE State Leader. She also serves as a clinical director of South Carolina’s Special Olympics Lion’s Club International Opening Eyes program that provides vision care and glasses to people with special needs.
And in her spare time, Jennifer is a member of Charleston’s Junior League, has worked with Pet Helpers Animal Society, and has served as a Brownie Girl Scout leader and a Big Sister since 2007. “I like leadership, I like mentoring. I think as a servant leader that if I'm not encouraging other to lead, then I'm not doing my job. It's just always been in my DNA since I was little.”
Even for a person with exceptional clarity around her life goals, she has been remarkably successful doing what she dreamed. “Looking back at me as a little girl, at little Jennie's dreams…I 've accomplished so many of them. I wanted to be an optometrist, I wanted to move to Charleston. I wanted to get married, I wanted to have a family, I wanted to own a practice.”
And it all started with one little girl…seeing the future, but not the blackboard.
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