We all know that optometry school is a long and arduous journey, but starting this journey after a major career change can make it all the more challenging. After being pushed into taking over her parents’ optical store, Jana Widell shares her tale of defying her destiny to pursue her dream of becoming an actress, only to find out that her real passion was waiting for her at home the whole time. Her hard work, dedication, and inspiring path to optometry has earned Jana the spotlight as this month’s Student in Focus!
What do you miss most from home?
That’s a good question. I grew up in Orange County, New York, but moved to New York City about ten years ago (because that’s what you do when you’re young and feel unstoppable, of course). Since then, my parents passed away and we sold our family house. I miss spending time with them, as well as my two brothers in the old house. Not having to pay rent when I lived at home was nice too.
Growing up, what was your first job?
My first job was as a camp counselor, and that was when I was thirteen. When I was fifteen, I started working with my dad in the family optical store. I began filing and cleaning for the most part, but eventually I helped people choose their frames, which I loved.
What made you want to pursue an optometry career?
I was weighing my options about which direction I wanted to go in. I knew that I was interested in the optical field and working with patients. I saw optometrists on a daily basis, witnessing their patient interactions, and I knew that it was something I wanted to do. Not only that, it was something I could see myself actually enjoying. After my father passed away, it was also important to me that I worked toward something stable that would help take care of my mother and brothers.
What decisions resulted in you choosing your optometry school?
Living in New York City, it made the most sense, but I also know a lot of the SUNY alumni and they are brilliant at what they do. Their knowledge and clinical skills motivate me to reach that level of professionalism.
What has been a great memory for you from optometry school so far?
Being able to work with the optometric equipment as opposed to just learning/reading about it has been the most fun and rewarding experience so far.
How has optometry school been different from undergrad?
The main difference between optometry school and undergrad is optometry school is more like having a full time job, rather than simply taking courses. We have standards and a dress code to adhere to. In undergrad, I woke up fifteen minutes before class; that’s not the case now. Even though we’re still students, we must conduct ourselves in a professional manner. Another main difference between optometry school and undergrad is that everything we learn is directly related to the career we are pursuing. Sometimes it feels more like we’re taking one cumulative course directing us to where we need to be to succeed as optometrists. The volume of the course load is also much greater. Lastly, my bachelor’s degree is in Theatre Arts, so the curriculum in this program is quite different, to say the least.
Even before the schooling began, the process itself had given me so much confidence. Going through the application and interview process to ultimately being accepted made me feel as though I was capable of turning my goals into realities, and also that I was going down the correct career path. There’s no denying that the workload has minimized my social time, but I know what I’m working for and that it will all be worthwhile in the end.
What is your best advice for people considering an optometry career?
Study until your eyes bleed, no pun intended. Really just keep your main goal in mind and always find answers to questions you’re unsure of. If I don’t understand something – even something that seems small – I always pursue it. You never know if it will come up again to throw you off, but chances are it will.
How do you motivate yourself to succeed?
I’d say I’m pretty firm with myself. Whenever I feel like I can’t look at one more practice problem or read one more section, I just do it. I know that I have to and I want to be the best that I can be. That requires discipline. I also don’t let myself eat ice cream until I’m done with what I have to do.
What has been your greatest reward so far from optometry school?
Other than the ice cream rewards? The amount of knowledge that I’ve gained in such a relatively short amount of time has felt like an award for the work that I’m putting in.
Our entire class just wore red for Heart Health Awareness and that meant a lot to me because heart disease runs in my family. I do look forward to VisionWalk and Vision Expo. I hope to be involved in vision screenings through the Lions Club as well.
Who is your mentor?
My parents definitely are my biggest mentors. I wouldn’t know anything about optometry if it were not for my father, and my mother always supported and believed in me. That being said, since they’ve passed, my grandmother has been an incredible and endless source of strength and inspiration for our family. Another mentor is one of my science teachers, Professor Metlitsky. He is my trusted advisor and has helped me tremendously throughout this journey.
How do you stay positive and focused?
Meticulous time management keeps me focused, but I’m not afraid to admit that I do actually enjoy working to accomplish a goal. It’s easy to stay positive when I step back and look how far I’ve come.
How do you handle stress?
If something feels too stressful, I take a break from it. I know that if anxieties are keeping me from being productive, it’s time to do something for myself. This way I can go back to it with a clear head at a later point.
Name something you’re looking forward to in the coming year career-related or otherwise.
I’m looking forward to learning more, especially when it comes to clinical skills (I think next week we’re beginning to learn slit lamp techniques). I am looking forward to resting over the summer, catching up on Broadway plays and TV shows. I am also very excited to spend time with my family and friends. When the summer ends, I will definitely look forward to what lies ahead in my second year at school.