2020 Optometry Student Ambassador of the Year finds passion for optometric service at UMSL

by | Nov 1, 2021

Putting on a pair of glasses for the first time and realizing what he'd been missing out on fostered an early interest in optometry for Josh Dudek.
Josh Dudek

The College of Optometry recognized Josh Dudek’s efforts as an Optometry Ambassador by naming him the recipient of the 2020 Student Ambassador of the Year Award. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Initially, Josh Dudek’s plan was to leave the Midwest. After all, he’d grown up in southern Illinois and gone to college at University of Southern Indiana.

It was time to experience something different.

So when Dudek started looking at optometry schools, he didn’t plan to even apply to the University of Missouri–St. Louis. But after his mother pleaded with him to stay in the area, Dudek visited the UMSL College of Optometry to humor her.

“The Patient Care Center was about to start seeing patients, so we weren’t going to be able to tour it because of HIPAA,” he said. “One of the professors, Dr. Erin Brooks, it was her day off, but she was driving by and saw us. She was like, ‘I’ll give you a private tour, and I’ll make sure we avoid the patients.

“Immediately, I felt that they already thought of me as more than just a prospective student. I already felt like I was a part of the family at that point. It was like already hitting me like, ‘This is a real contender.’”

Since then, Dudek has made his optometric home at UMSL. Now a second-year student, he’s flourished in the program and has devoted himself to giving back through optometric service. At the end of the last academic year, the College of Optometry recognized Dudek’s efforts by naming him the recipient of the 2020 Student Ambassador of the Year Award.

Receiving the award helped validate Dudek’s decision to pursue a career in optometry.

“It was really nice,” he said. “It showed that all my hard work had paid off.”

Dudek’s interest in the profession started before he can remember.

“I always knew I liked health,” he said, explaining that he got into science in school.

He’d pick up extra science classes whenever they were available. That meant everything offered in his school but also those outside, such as a community college anatomy and physiology course that included cadaver dissection, a certified nurse assistant class and a medical shadowing class.

Dudek had an idea that he’d like to do something with eyes and asked to be paired with an optometrist or an ophthalmologist. That, working as an optician after college, and remembering the experience of putting on his first pair of glasses in sixth grade, helped Dudek realize he’d found his profession.

“When I finally got them, it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is what I’ve been missing,” he said. “I didn’t realize I couldn’t see. Giving patients their first pair of glasses and seeing them have that same aha moment really reassured me that I wanted to become an optometrist, so I can impact their lives like that.”

The assurance that he’d found his passion combined with the College of Optometry’s close-knit community helped Dudek during his first year of school, which he started during the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite having never taken online classes before, he excelled and earned Dean’s List honors both semesters.

Initially wary of committing himself to too many nonacademic activities, Dudek decided to start giving back by getting involved. He’s become a tutor for neuroanatomy, which actually was the class he found the most difficult during his first year.

“While you’re in it, you think you’re not going to remember this stuff; it’s so far above the knowledge that I’m able to retain and understand,” Dudek said. “Then, as we progressed through the class, while it was hard, it just started clicking and making more and more sense.”

That type of progress and the chance to begin experiencing the clinical side of the profession has been Dudek’s favorite part of school so far. He’s also discovered an interest in contact lenses and got to try Ortho-K, a unique lens that reshapes the cornea overnight.

Dudek has also gotten involved in the service and advocacy side of optometry. He serves as American Optometry Student Association vice president for UMSL and has gotten interested in the legislative aspects of the profession.

In addition, Dudek has joined the UMSL Optometry Student Ambassadors program, giving about 30 tours and approximately the same number of interviews his first year. Many inside the college noticed Dudek’s commitment to the program and selected him for the Student Ambassador of the Year Award.

“I’ve always had a passion to help others, which is one of the reasons that led me to the medical field anyway,” Dudek said. “I remember how excited and nervous I was on my interview day, and I like helping to reassure them. I love talking to them, and it’s been really rewarding.”

Juggling those varied responsibilities and interests alongside school can be a lot at times. But Dudek says he can’t imagine things being any other way.

“I always like to be busy,” he said. “I like to be constantly doing stuff. I don’t know what to do with free time a lot of times when I do have it. While it is a struggle, I like to see that what I’m doing is making a difference, and I can see that so it makes it worth it.”

Jessica Rogen

Jessica Rogen