Optometry students’ push for new facilities results in Patient Care Center

College of Optometry at UMSL

Ed Bennett, professor of optometry, observes Leah Wiedemann, a fourth-year optometry student, who practices an eye exam on Sarah Kelley, a fourth-year optometry student. UMSL optometry students will soon have a new place to practice patient care. The Patient Care Center has been approved by the Curators of the University of Missouri System. The building is in the design phase with construction expected to be complete in summer 2016. (Photo by August Jennewein)

When the first College of Optometry students matriculated at the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 1980, Marillac Hall housed their classes and teaching laboratories. It was to be a short-term home for the college. Thirty-four years later, Marillac is still where the entire college resides, but that will soon change thanks in large part to the current optometry students.

The Curators of the University of Missouri System recently approved phase one of a proposed three-phase project that will result in a new South Campus building co-inhabited by the optometry and nursing colleges. The approval included the board signing off on a supplemental student fee that will contribute to funding phase one, the UMSL Patient Care Center.

Last October, 99 percent of eligible optometry students voted with 79 percent in favor of a $450 fee each semester that would increase to $900 per semester once construction begins. Fourth-year students were not allowed to vote because they would have graduated prior to the first semester when the fee is assessed.

Larry Davis, dean of the College of Optometry, said he was inspired by the commitment of the students to the proposal.

“They recognized the lack of facilities designed with health-care and health profession education in mind and were willing to share the costs necessary to improve the situation for generations to come,” Davis said. “They deserve a lot of credit for their unselfish and mature response to our longstanding challenges.”

The new facility will ensure that the college remains competitive for the best students who choose to pursue a career in optometry, Davis said.

Marillac Hall was built circa 1955. It was designed as a dormitory, not for health profession education or patient care. A pair of planning studies concluded the current space to be inadequate and that renovation would not be cost effective or provide suitable space.

Praise by past students has been long on the education received from the College of Optometry and the familial feeling among faculty, students and staff, but short on acclaim for the facilities. And survey results of students that chose another optometry school over UMSL revealed an overarching theme of concerns about the age and suitability of facilities.

One student upon graduating best summed up the sentiment.

“Our faculty and education received at school are superb,” the student said in a survey. “The only thing lacking is the facility to go along with the high standards set elsewhere in the college.”

College of Optometry group photos

Optometry students and administrators photographed at the Curators of the University of Missouri System meeting are (from left) Assistant Dean Edward Bennett, first-year student Nicholas Zahn, first-year student Michael Roberts, first-year student Ellen Sanders, third-year student Devin Sasser, University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe, second-year student Nicole Ethridge, second-year student Amanda Rickher, second-year student Laurie Thompson, first-year student Yousef Ibrahim, first-year student Ethan Brilley, first-year student Katie Loock, first-year student Kelsey Haugen, third-year student Jenna Osseck, Dean Larry Davis and UMSL Chancellor Tom George. (Click image to enlarge.)

Nicole Ethridge, a second-year optometry student, voted in favor of the student fee. She pointed out that many competing Midwest optometry schools have developed brand-new facilities. With the College of Optometry lacking similar updates to its existing facilities, she said, UMSL would find it difficult to recruit competitive optometry students. That could have an impact on Missouri where one out of every two optometrists earned an OD from UMSL.

“It is very gratifying to know that I attend a school where the students feel passionate enough about their school and its future to take a personal financial hit to give back,” Ethridge said.

The Patient Care Center will feature about 48,000 square feet of space and cost $17 million to complete. It will be primarily dedicated to clinical education and research for residents and students and provide comprehensive eye and vision care. About 13,000 square feet of leasable shell space will be available for possible partnership opportunities such as a walk-in clinic and dental-care services.

In addition to the student-fee increase, internal reallocations within the college and campus reserves will fund the project. Reallocations will include a reduction in departmental funds used for scholarships and the elimination of two unfilled faculty positions. The college does not expect the reallocations to impact student recruitment or instruction.

Many students, including Mike Roberts, a first-year optometry student, voiced concern that the future of the college would be in jeopardy without the facilities to attract new students. He applauded the college leadership for its role in helping the project move forward.

“Their passion for optometry and their desire for improvements to the profession help to inspire the students to want something better, thus the beginning of a long process to rejuvenate the college,” Roberts said.

Hellmuth Obata Kassabaum, commonly known as HOK, will serve as the architect for the Patient Care Center. The college anticipates the design to be completed by fall with construction to wrap by summer 2016.

Future phases of construction will include an additional 95,000 square feet for the College of Optometry and an additional 110,000 square feet for the College of Nursing. Those phases currently remain in preliminary planning stages.

Laurie Thompson, a second-year optometry student, expressed satisfaction and relief at the Patient Care Center finally receiving approval. But she acknowledged there is still a long road ahead.

“We are now entering the planning stages of the building and are also working on fundraising to equip the new clinic with the tools needed to provide excellent patient care,” Thompson said. “The approval came with mixed emotions – excitement for the step forward and resolve to ensure that the best decisions are made in the planning and building of the new patient care facility.”

Read more about the optometry expansion on the website for St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon.

Click here or below to view a video about the College of Optometry at UMSL.

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