UMSL Optometry recruits and admits top quality students into the program, and each year several apply for the Health Professions Scholarship Program for the U.S. Army.  This year two students received the scholarship:  (left) Kyle Carnahan (’21) and (right) Stephen Wells (’21).

These two students are part of an elite group; there are only four spots available for this scholarship, which covers the cost of tuition, books and supplies, and a monthly living stipend while in school.   In the past two years, four 3-year scholarships were given to optometry students nationwide, and UMSL Optometry received two each year.   This year out of 15 applicants, Carnahan and Wells were able to earn the scholarship after a lengthy application process.

The application process is one that requires dedication, time, and effort.  From these applications, applicants are reviewed based on several factors.  St. Louis Medical Recruiting officer Captain Duy Pham explains, “It’s a combination of everything. The board values their academic accomplishments, undergrad GPA and school they attended, as well as their performance in their first semester of optometry school, OAT score, community involvement and potential for leadership in the Army.”   Not only do they have to be strong academically, but they also need to be able to pass additional requirements. “Students must show that they meet all physical military standards and must pass a background investigation that would qualify them for a Secret Security Clearance (no arrests),” said Pham. The board also reviews the student’s undergraduate program to evaluate how well the institution prepares them for optometry school, as well as the optometry school’s graduation rate.

Pham attributes UMSL’s strong showing to the students’ performance, letters of recommendation, and a great personal statement as to why they want to be an optometrist with the U.S. Army. “Key takeaways of their personal statements showed a desire to serve their country and the ability to lead soldiers that need mentorship and development,” Pham comments.

Kyle and Stephen are high-achieving optometry students after their first year of school. Both earned Dean’s list with honors and are actively engaged in academic and extracurricular events through the college. Military service is not for everyone, but for Kyle and Stephen they both had a calling to be a part of something greater. Carnahan explains why he was driven to apply for the scholarship: “I was inspired to apply for the Army scholarship because I love helping people, which is why so many people get into optometry in the first place. But I thought this was a special opportunity to get to work with the men and women who are serving our country and their families on a daily basis. I felt that this was a great way in which I could serve them while also taking advantage of all of the benefits that the Army has to offer.”   Carnahan sees this as a new adventure and one that will provide him with opportunities in the future.

The motivation from Wells was similar, but his desire was family focused and even follows in the footsteps of other family members who also served their country.  “Growing up I had five brothers. We were always running around outside playing sports, rolling around in the dirt, and pushing each other to be stronger, faster, and better. Combine that with my family’s strong sense of patriotism and you have the perfect storm. Since I can remember, I have always been enthralled by WWII heroes and the miracle of the Revolutionary War. All of this slowly developed in me a sense of pride and patriotism that I hoped to honor someday. Additionally, both of my grandpas served in the military, and I have an uncle who has made a career out of being a nurse in the Army. Seeing his satisfaction in serving his country helped push me to do all I could to apply for and receive the scholarship,” commented Wells.

Wells thought about joining the military well before optometry school, but a job as a scribe set him on a different path—the medical field. Attending college in Utah and marrying the love of his life, they have two small children who Wells feels are most important in his life.  Supporting them is a priority, and the military gives him the ability to provide for his family and also leave optometry school with little to no debt. “It will provide a steady income to be able to support my family in a way that I probably would not be able to without the scholarship. It will also allow me to practice full scope optometry while serving my brothers and sisters who have committed to serve our country. What could be better than that?” said Wells.

Carnahan attended college in Kansas, where he played collegiate baseball. Carnahan married his soulmate in June 2018, and he knew that he wanted the stability and opportunity that the military could provide him. “I feel that the Army is going to make me a better optometrist. It takes away the stress of having to worry about finding a job right after graduation, and it will provide me with a lot of experience immediately out of school. Along with that, I believe that I will grow as a leader. It will teach me how to train/work with a staff of my own that will be valuable further down the line no matter how I decide to continue practicing after the Army. It will also give me a few years to practice in different settings and in different locations to really get a feel for how I would like to practice for the remainder of my career,” said Carnahan.

Both students exemplify the ideal student at UMSL: passion, drive, ambition, goals, and dedication. Director of Student and Alumni Services Nick Palisch feels both these individuals will serve the U.S. Army well. “These two students are not only actively involved in the program, but they also emulate what a well-rounded and well-developed student looks like.  Both of them are awesome, and we are glad they are part of the UMSL family,” Palisch said.   What else could be behind the success our students have had?  “I believe the relationship that we have with the St. Louis recruiting office, the accessibility to speak with our students, and our academically strong students all help in receiving these scholarships,” Palisch said.

Both Carnahan and Wells have been commissioned as a second lieutenant while attending optometry school. When they graduate in 2021, they will be a Doctor of Optometry and will hold the rank of captain in the U.S. Army.

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