Sharon Alderson is the manager of Paraoptometric Certification Programs for the American Optometric Association (AOA). Since joining the AOA in 2004, she has worked her way up and become the go-to person overseeing the nonstop efforts to maintain the AOA programs and their accredited status.
We recently spoke with Sharon to learn how she worked her way from administrative assistant to manager, and how she has spent the last 15 years becoming the jack-of-all-trades for the AOA and its programs and certifications.
Can you tell us more about your career path?
I started with the American Optometric Association (AOA) in 2004 as the administrative assistant to the Commission on Paraoptometric Certification Administrator/Registrar, Darlene Leuschke. We became the “Batman and Robin” of certification at the AOA for nearly 10 years. Darlene took me under her wing early on, teaching me about certification and the possible programs she envisioned for AOA.
My learning experience started with informal one-on-one discussions, followed by inclusion in meetings and monthly calls with volunteers on the Commission for Paraoptometric Certification (CPC). Darlene was passionate about certification and providing quality programs, a legacy I strive to uphold. In 2007, after much hard work and dedication, three of the CPC’s paraoptometric certification programs earned national recognition as NCCA approved programs.
Unfortunately, in 2014 Darlene accepted another job and for a few years I continued as the administrative assistant under several managers. Those years were difficult. I had the knowledge and institutional history, but lacked the support and confidence needed to prove myself capable of handling administration of the certification programs.
That changed in 2017 when I was given the opportunity to show what I could do. Then in 2018, my work, level of commitment and knowledge were finally recognized, and I was promoted to manager of paraoptometric certification programs. Since then it has been a non-stop effort to not only maintain the programs and their accredited status, but to improve them. I work closely with the commissioners and Professional Testing Corporation, taking necessary steps to ensure the CPC programs remain relevant, high-quality and that we meet, if not exceed, the expectations and standards required for accreditation.
How did you get to where you are today and what can others learn from your story?
Don’t be afraid to speak up and blow your own horn! That is not a dominant personality trait for me. After so many years with the organization, I knew I was the best one for this job. I’m very detail oriented and I knew I could do the job. After having gained so much program and institutional knowledge over the years — plus the interaction with a group of passionate and committed optometric professionals who put their own blood, sweat and tears into these programs — I finally found the courage to just go for it. Now I just wonder what took me so long!
How did you get involved with credentialing? Was it something you were always interested in?
Credentialing was not something that was on my radar, I just kind of fell into it. Before starting with the AOA, I worked for a company that maintained safety certification credentials for their employees. Part of my job was to ensure that everyone’s certification remained current and was properly recorded in their personnel files. There was not nearly the volume of certified staff or the level of involvement with certification and credentialing as I have now. However, I believe this bit of experience is part of the reason for where I am now in my professional life. Recognizing that there is a need for certification and relevant measures of competence, that certification is an important aspect of certain industries and occupations, is fundamental for success when working with any credentialing program.
Can you tell us more about your work with the CPC certification programs? How did you get involved?
Certification has been my entire professional life for more than 15 years. In the beginning there was extensive customer service, data entry, processing payments and working with other organizations that wanted to provide paper and pencil examinations to their registrants. That took up my entire day!
Since converting to computer-based testing, much of that has changed. I no longer process exam applications or payments or work with other organizations to set up examinations. Now, as manager, all the responsibilities of managing five certification examinations, four of them nationally accredited, and everything that this entails are mine. I have no administrative support staff, so I am a jack-of-all trades when it comes to program administration, accreditation, candidate support, customer service, recertification, testing activities, selection of SMEs, maintenance of certification databases, reports, Commission meetings, website maintenance, quarterly newsletters, marketing, and updates of certification materials. I also oversee four committees, as well as the Commission itself.
What is the biggest change you’ve seen in the industry since starting to work with the CPC certification programs?
The biggest change I have personally seen (and been involved with) is the transition from paper and pencil testing to computer-based testing. I’m not going to lie, at first some of our candidates resisted that change. And it was a challenge on our part to convince some in the optometric community that testing via computer was a better way of doing things. They had gotten used to being able to offer testing whenever they wanted during the year and at local venues of their choosing. Some of them still struggle with this even though we started offering computer-based testing several years ago. Overall though, I believe candidates now have a better and more fair testing experience, and I think most candidates agree with that. As technology has improved, so has the candidate experience.