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Durham Tech: Unique in its vision

Tracy Bennett wanted to be a film director. Maybe a Hollywood editor. But, as these things happen, life got in the way. 

“I had a big medical thing that happened, and that kind of set college to the side for a while,” she said. 

But she still needed a job. In particular, a job with health insurance. Her dad was an optician. He knew that Bennett liked to work with her hands, so he told her that she should think about getting a job with Lenscrafters. 

Not knowing what else to do, she went in, applied, and got the job. 

“It was supposed to be kind of temporary but I found out I absolutely loved it,” she said. 

That began a journey that led directly to the door of Durham Technical Community College where Bennett is the program manager for the school’s opticianry department. It’s a unique program–the only one of its kind in the state. It’s been around for almost 50 years. Ironically, it will celebrate its 50th anniversary in the year 2020. Get it? 20/20? 

Bennett liked working with glasses so much that she decided she wanted more education. Her colleagues at Lenscrafters told her about the program at Durham Tech. It has two avenues to opticianry: a certificate program with an apprenticeship or a degree track. 

“I really wanted to be the best at what I was doing, so I figured the degree was the best option,” she said.

She moved to the Triangle from Charlotte to take the classes. 

Tracy Bennett, program manager for the opticianry program at Durham Tech. Alex Granados/EducationNC

Bennett has done a lot of work in the field over the years, but she’s been teaching now at Durham Tech for about 12 years. She said she’s made the right choice.

“It’s a really fun job. It really is. A good career. It offers a lot for people. A lot of variety,” she said. 

Bennett’s “office” the day I met her looked like the kind of shop you would go in to buy glasses. Glasses on the wall, mirrors, a sales counter, and desks with chairs for consulting. 

The opticianry program at Durham Technical Community College. Alex Granados/EducationNC

Students in the program work out of there. They get to experience both the practical side of the profession as well as the business. Faculty, staff, and students of the school can come in to get a full-service experience at a discount. 

“It gives them the opportunity to save some money, but also us the opportunity to have some customers,” Bennett said. 

The degree program in opticianry lasts two years. 

At the beginning, students are learning terminology, the anatomy of the frame, dispensing — the basics. In the second semester, they go into the lab. All the theory they learned about light and the eye starts being applied. And then in the third semester, they’re actually working on the glasses. 

The school doesn’t have “surfacing” capabilities. That’s where experts grind the surface of the lens, put on a coating, and actually make the prescription lenses. But they do have the capability to do finishing. That’s where, once a shop has the prescription lens, they orient it, cut it to fit a frame, and edge it. 

“They really like that when they start getting their hands on,” Bennett said. “A lot of students in this program are real hands-on people.” 

The final semester is externships, where students go out into businesses in the community to learn about the different avenues they can take in the profession. 

Since Durham Tech has the only opticianry program in the state, Bennett said students come from all over. The school just graduated a class of 18. Of that, only about eight or nine were local. The rest were from around the state: Greensboro, Winston-Salem, the beach. 

“Which is a great thing because all those areas need opticians as well,” she said. 

She estimates that about 20 to 30 percent of students get interested in the profession because they have personal experiences with glasses. It might be a trip to a shop that is the impetus for their ambitions. 

“A lot of them will say, I was getting my glasses and started talking to the optician there,” she said. 

There’s a deficit of licensed opticians, Bennett said, and the program has 100 percent job placement. 

Janet Alspaugh, the clinical coordinator for the program, is not one of those students who came because of experience with glasses. Her first career was in chemical compounding, where one day she came into work and found she didn’t have a job anymore. 

She lived in Georgia at the time, and someone in her neighborhood mentioned that she should go over to Lenscrafters for a job. 

“I said I don’t know anything about that,” she said. “That is not my area.” 

But after giving it some more thought, she decided she didn’t want to continue in her field. 

She took the job and eventually got transferred to North Carolina to help out with her parents, who had some health issues. Her new manager told her that she should think about doing the program at Durham Tech. 

“[I] ended up doing it, and I haven’t regretted one minute of it,” she said. 

Bennett had her as a student when Alspaugh came to the school. Bennett described her as a good student. She got a 100 on her first assignment and then asked if extra credit was available. Now they work together as peers. 

And they aren’t just helping the students at the school. The program tries to give back to the community, providing services and lenses for the community.

“There’s a great need. Glasses are very expensive, and there’s a great need for providing glasses to underprivileged youth, and even adults,” Bennett said. 

For people with experience at a store that sells eye glasses, they may think opticianry isn’t a complicated profession, but Bennett cautioned that’s not true. Only a fraction of what the customer sees is the actual job. Experts have to find the right prescription, order or make the lenses, and ensure that the customer is happy. After all, if the customer doesn’t like the glasses, they might not wear them. 

 “There is a lot more to it than ‘Oh, those look really pretty with your eyes,'” she said.

In two more years, the opticianry program can say it’s reached its 20/20 milestone, glancing back at its legacy with perfect vision and looking forward to the future opticians it will train. 

EducationNC Senior Reporter Alex Granados at the opticianry program at Durham Tech
Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.