College of Optometry’s graduating class features 4 second-generation students

by | May 16, 2022

They have faced countless challenges, including a life-changing global pandemic, but they all remained committed to their professional goals.
Four graduates stand in their caps and gowns.

(From left to right) Graduates Adam Greene, Alaina Altenbernd, Brendan Mulqueeny and Elizabeth Voss at the 2022 UMSL School of Optometry graduation. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Brendan Mulqueeny always wanted to be in medicine and for a long time thought he’d become an emergency room doctor. He even worked at Mercy Hospital as a scribe in the emergency room after earning a bachelor’s degree at Texas Christian University.

But somewhere along the way Mulqueeny decided to choose a familiar and familial path.

Though he enjoyed the fast pace of the emergency room, he didn’t have the opportunity to get to know patients – something he realized he wanted from observing his father Dr. Sean P. Mulqueeny’s optometry practice growing up and while working there over the summers. So, he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and enrolled in the University of Missouri–St. Louis College of Optometry.

“It was always something that was part of my life growing up,” Brendan said. “There’s a lot to know about the eye. It’s such a complicated organ and it just seemed very intriguing.”

Out of the 23 optometry schools in the U.S., Brendan chose UMSL because it was not only close to his family but also offered a small class size that allowed him more access to his professors and the chance to know his classmates better.

Brendan’s experience over the past four years exceeded his expectations, and it culminated with Friday’s commencement ceremony at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center, where Dr. Sean P. Mulqueeny served as the commencement speaker.

“I was extremely honored to give this year’s commencement address at my alma mater and, most importantly, to my son Brendan and his classmates,” Sean said. “I’ve had the privilege of working with many in the class of 2022. They have faced countless challenges, including a life-changing global pandemic, but they all remained committed to their professional goals.  Their strength, resilience and perseverance are to be commended. As a parent, I’m very proud of my son Brendan, and as an optometrist, I’m also very proud of this impressive class of 2022.”

Brendan, who will be joining his father’s practice, isn’t the only student in the College of Optometry related to an UMSL alum who also graduated from the program. Three other students in the graduating class had familial ties to the school as well.

Elizabeth Voss also graduated with an optometry degree and her mother, Dr. Vinita Allee Henry, is a College of Optometry alumna and director of clinical operations at UMSL Eye Care.

Like Brendan, her initial plans didn’t include becoming an optometrist, but her interest in the medical field eventually led her in that direction.

“Even though I grew up with my mom being an optometrist, I didn’t consider it until my senior year of high school,” Voss said. “I started getting more interested in the medical field, and then I looked at her career and how she was able to have a really good work and family balance. It looked like a really great career. I thought I should look into that, and I’ve never really looked back.”

Dr. Henry never pushed her, but she was pleasantly surprised when her daughter chose optometry.

“She was excited about it, even though she wanted me to do whatever would make me happy,” Voss said.  “She was really proud of me. But she would have been proud no matter what I did.”

Voss pointed to some of the same factors as Brendan in her decision to choose UMSL’s College of Optometry. During the course of her studies, she took her mother’s class, which could have felt odd. But she doesn’t feel she received any special consideration and believes she was treated like any other student in the optometry program, something she preferred.

“Being there and wanting to live up to the standard she’s already set really drove me to work harder and just try to do my best and learn the most that I could,” Voss said. “I never wanted to take the easy path. I didn’t see going into optometry or UMSL as the easy path. I’m very happy with my choice and I’ve learned so much from this experience.”

Voss will be applying her experience in a practice in St. Charles.

Recent College of Optometry graduate Adam Greene also took up the family trade and will be joining his mother, Dr. Lisa Greene, an optometrist and UMSL School of Optometry graduate, in her practice when he returns home to North Carolina.

Adam initially entered school in North Carolina as a business major, and after some short-lived roles such as financial advisor and a district manager at a linen delivery service, he realized he wasn’t fulfilled. His mother, Dr. Lisa Greene, asked him to consider optometry. He remembered pleasant experiences growing up and observing his mother’s interactions with patients in her practice and the welcoming nature of the office.

“I would go with her to the office and kind of hang out for the day,” he said. “I obviously never interacted with the patients too much. But just kind of seeing what that day-to-day looked like and getting to know the people in the office – it’s always just been a really welcoming and inviting environment that I’ve always enjoyed being around.”

He started working with her, helping with patients with contact lenses, and decided optometry could be a good fit.

Adam’s decision was also influenced by the mission work he’d done with his mother at her nonprofit, which provides resources and support to girls in orphanages, those who are homeless and teens transitioning out of foster care in countries such as El Salvador. He wanted a career that allowed him to give back in meaningful ways.

The attentive nature of faculty and staff helped convince him UMSL was the perfect choice for him. His introduction to the college came in an interview with Dr. Patrick Stark and Dr. Edward Bennett, who taught his mother.

“I was very impressed with my interview day,” he said. “They certainly did a great job, and seeing the UEC – the new clinic that we have – and just some of the resources really did make the school stand out. But it certainly also had something to do with the fact that I’d be close to my dad for four years as well.”

By the time Adam and his mom had gotten to the parking lot after his interview, he’d already been notified that he’d been accepted to the program.

“I literally got an email,” he said. “We were hardly out of the parking lot, and we were in the car together and she was super excited for me.”

Alaina Altenbernd will also share an alma mater with her father, UMSL alumnus Dr. James Altenbernd.

While growing up, Alaina’s mother worked as an optician in her father’s practice, giving her constant exposure to the industry. In observing her father’s practice, she knew she wanted to go into the medical field and landed in optometry partly because she wanted to have patient interaction and the ability to offer patients immediate solutions.

“You’re finding a diagnosis right away, and you’re able to give someone glasses immediately,” she said. “With other specialties, you’re finding a diagnosis and then there’s no treatment for years or sometimes not ever. It happens in optometry too, but if glasses are the issue, there’s an instant fix to it. And you get to see that on people’s face instantly.”

Though Alaina always did well in science classes in school, demonstrated an interest in the medical field and even worked at her uncle’s optometry practice in high school, it was still a surprise to her family that she chose optometry as a career. They never pushed her in that direction. After Alaina told her father she wanted to be an optometrist, his response was one of love.

“OK, if that makes you happy then do it,” he said. “I want you to do whatever makes you happy.”

With the support of her family and vast interest in the field, she set out to find an optometry school. She chose UMSL for her bachelor’s degree as well as optometry school and, again, was attracted to the small class size which over time, created connection and camaraderie.

“We all know each other,” Alaina said. “We know about each other’s personal lives – their spouses. A lot of people when they get married invite the whole class to the wedding. We’re all very involved in each other’s lives.”

Alaina’s experience during optometry school included rotations in a nursing home and on a Native American reservation. She enjoyed working with underserved and vulnerable communities, something that’s stuck with her.

Her rotation at the reservation was her favorite. She loved the people, and with the unfortunate high rate of eye disease in the Native American community – particularly diabetic retinopathy – she got an eye education she may not have experienced in a more typical setting.

“It was  awesome,” Alaina said. “I just I like the cultural difference down there, and everyone’s super friendly. I also got to see a lot of different things that you wouldn’t see in private practice because I was at a hospital.”

Alaina is ready to start working after completing the journey through optometry school. She’s secured a position in a private practice as well as with a company that contracts optometrists out to nursing homes, matching her interest in assisting vulnerable communities.

“I’m very excited,” Alaina said. “I did undergrad in three years instead of four. It’s been seven very long years for me. I’m ready to start actually working. I feel like I have all the knowledge, and I’ve been practicing for so long. I’m ready to have my own patients.”

Wendy Todd

Wendy Todd

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