UW Launches New Ophthalmology Assistant Apprenticeship Program

The smile on Theo Harelimana’s face is visible from across the classroom. For the Rawandan native, the opportunity to learn valuable new skills—on paid work time—is a dream come true.  

In October 2023, UW Health launched a new Ophthalmology Assistant (OA) Apprenticeship program, which provided eight employees, including Harelimana, the life-changing opportunity to receive on-the-job training and classroom instruction, while still receiving their full salaries and benefits.  

man in black scrubs in a classroom

“I was always fascinated by ophthalmology,” said Harelimana, who has been employed at UW Health since 2019. “I always wondered how I could become involved in the field. Then, one day, I found an article about the new program while browsing UW Health’s intranet. And it happened. My dream is happening.”  

Working under the supervision of an ophthalmologist or optometrist, ophthalmology assistants support the diagnosis evaluation, treatment and management, and care of patients with deficiencies and abnormalities in their vision.  

“Ophthalmic assistants play a vital role in the patient experience by providing compassionate care,” said Program Manager Morgan Laufenberg. “They see a wide variety of patients with a range of eye care needs. Taking a person from being unable to work or drive due to their low vision, to allowing them to keep their job and have their quality of life restored is an incredibly rewarding experience.”  

Eye care, like many areas of the health sector, is facing an ongoing personnel shortage. UW Health is hoping to address the challenge through this program by recruiting, growing, and training its own, and allowing participants to remain employed, while being able to concentrate on coursework. The UW Health OA Apprenticeship Program allows the participants to be registered apprentices through the state of Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.  

“Participants also receive course materials at no cost,” said Laufenberg, who, as a certified optometric technician, has been seeing patients at UW Health since 2011. “Upon completion of the program, the apprentices are eligible to sit for their first-level certification exam through the nationally recognized accrediting body at no cost. And, they are guaranteed a position as an ophthalmic assistant with UW Health.”   

“Not only am I enjoying getting more knowledge and skills, which will make my dream come true,” said Harelimana, “But this program serves as a pathway to excellent job opportunities— all while it enables me to continue serving UW Health and the greater community.” 

man in black scrubs talks to a patient in a blue shirt

Hayley Eaton, who has been employed by UW Health for two years, loves the fact that the program allows her to help people. And, as a busy mother of two, she appreciates that the program enables her to maintain balance in her life.  

“I’ve always known I wanted to go back to school,” Eaton said. “But I kept wondering how I was going to be able to do that, be a mom, and work full time. I’m so glad I found this program and jumped in. It’s a great opportunity for anyone who has a family or who has other financial debts. Plus, it’s very rewarding when you see patients who go from having very low vision to, two weeks later, seeing significantly better.”  

a woman with long pink hair examines a woman's eyes

Eaton says she feels happier and more confident as her skills have grown, and, as a result, she is already planning to pursue the next level of certification—to become an optometric technician like Laufenberg— once this training is complete.  

“Morgan (Laufenberg) is very helpful and supportive,” Eaton said. “She is always here for us, and having an instructor like her makes all the difference. She is not going to let us fail. At UW Health, they are setting us up for success.” 

large group of students in surgical scrubs against a blue wall