Courtney Park, U.S. Navy Ensign, Health Professions Scholarship Recipient for Optometry Class of 2021
Just little over a year ago I realized becoming a part of the U.S. Navy could be my reality. This reality was never fathomed or appreciated before I learned of the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP).
Even when I first learned of this scholarship, it seemed too good to be true, and so I discounted the application process as I simply did not see myself in the military. Well, I was obviously wrong and thank goodness.
Considering much of the buzz you hear about HPSP recipients being mostly students pursuing medicine and dentistry, I’d like to classify myself a unique candidate for HPSP. Not a lot of people talk about optometry, and perhaps it is a niche profession, but it is one worth mentioning especially when discussing the value of HPSP.
If you are like me and have always had some kind of fascination with the complexity of eyes and the visual system, you may be considering optometry. Maybe you are taking more concrete steps towards obtaining your goals to become an optometrist and soon you may be thinking about applying for optometry school. What a daunting, yet exciting task! And maybe like my past self, you’ve done a lot to show optometry programs that you’re a competitive applicant, but you have no idea how you’ll ever pay for school sans taking out loan after loan and paying off these loans until you’re well within your career.
Perhaps you can’t visualize your future other than knowing you’d like to become an optometrist, but you have no real plan after you graduate. This is all OK, but I’d like to offer those seeking optometric options some advice!
If you are dedicated to the optometry field, as a small handful of people truly are, apply for HPSP. Just do it, you won’t regret it. Worst case scenario, you won’t receive a scholarship, but there are other options and financial aid to help with school. Best case scenario, you will receive not only a full-ride scholarship, but limitless career opportunities throughout the duration of your participation in HPSP. You have nothing to lose!
So, what is this whole process like?
I’m not going to lie, the application process can be a little bit of a headache (at least in my experience as I had several hurdles to overcome before being selected for the scholarship). If you can persevere through, every step towards receiving HPSP is worth it.
To start the application process, get in touch with a recruiter.
I was fortunate because my recruiter initially contacted me. I was president of the pre-optometry club at my undergraduate university and a U.S. Navy Health Professions recruiter contacted me to see if he could set up a time to meet with my club to discuss scholarship and career opportunities through the Navy. I wasn’t particularly interested, but agreed to his presentation to benefit other members of the club. However, I am so glad I arranged his presentation, as it was truly eye-opening to me.
Not only would the Navy pay tuition in full, but they would provide a monthly stipend, reimbursement for school equipment, and provide you with a job straight out of school.
What was the catch? For every year you participate in HPSP (e.g. four years during optometry school), you must serve at least the same number of years active duty in the military. Although, this really isn’t a catch at all, in fact it’s a safeguard for your career. Four years of receiving HPSP during school means four years of working in the profession I love as I gain experience and develop as an excellent doctor of optometry.
My recruiter’s presentation didn’t completely sell me on the idea though, until I met an OD who participated in HPSP through the Navy. She said it was the best decision she ever made and encouraged me to do the same. This is when I decided I would contact my recruiter and get the ball rolling on the application process. Let me tell you, that ball was rolling for almost an entire year before I found out I was selected for HPSP.
The application is similar to any other scholarship application in a way:
- Motivational statement must be written
- Several letters of recommendation are required (I had five, two from professors that could attest to my character and academic ability, two from practicing optometrists, one of whom which was my employer, and a final letter from a school health professions advisor).
- Submit documents regarding your extracurricular activities
- Send transcripts, etc. What is arguably the most difficult component of the application process (if you are academically competitive and show strong involvement in school, extracurriculars and leadership roles) is obtaining medical clearance
- Go through a physical and medical screening before they are considered for selection. My advice would be to talk through every medical issue you have or ever have had with your recruiter to see if anything may be a disqualifier. Believe it or not, without a medical waiver I had to wait to receive even after I was initially supposed to be cleared for a physical, I would have been disqualified. Thankfully, my recruiter and I eventually got all our ducks (and paperwork) in a row and I eventually was medically cleared and fit to serve in the military. My recruiter informed me that some physicians are pickier than others depending on MEPS location, and overcoming medical is usually the hardest part for most applicants.
- Check out the following link for more information about the process of becoming medically cleared to serve: http://www.military.com/join-armed-forces/meps-process-requirements.html.
After my recruiter and I rejoiced over my medical clearance, we had another moment to rejoice over my acceptance to optometry school! My ultimate choice being the Southern California College of Optometry at Marshall B. Ketchum University.
Acceptance to professional school is obviously a crucial component for HPSP selection, and the sooner you apply, interview, and are accepted into optometry school the better. Throughout the HPSP application process, there are several Board meetings held to decide who receives the scholarship. Initially my recruiter and I thought I needed to have my application complete by December 2016 (I began applying in June 2016 – typically the application process will start about a year before you begin professional school). The Board meeting deciding on the optometry scholarship however, did not meet and select applicants until April 2017. Thus, I did not find out about my selection until much later than I originally anticipated. However, the wait was well worth it.
After selection, you learn much more about HPSP and what is required of you. An excellent resource to find out details and requirements of this scholarship (Navy HPSP) are through the following website: http://www.med.navy.mil/Accessions/Pages/default.aspx. This Website is my go-to as I am still new to all the benefits I am about to receive through my participation in HPSP!
If you feel apprehensive at all about joining the military, maybe I can give you some peace of mind (at least if you’re becoming a Naval Optometrist like myself). As a Naval optometrist, once I’m on active duty, I will serve on bases, I will never be stationed on a ship and I will never have to hold a gun or do anything other than my job as an optometrist. There may be other requirements as far as deployment in other branches or health professions, but I can attest to my own specialty.
You begin the HPSP journey at the rank of an officer which is truly an honor. There are also so many opportunities working in the military that go above and beyond being an optometrist. I’ve spoken with Naval Optometrists who’ve become honorably high in rank and participate in other career areas, even having the chance to go back to school or participate in service trips. HPSP opens a door for your future that no other scholarship or full ride could offer.
A couple more remarks to add: I chose the Navy simply because I met several members of the branch who encouraged me to apply to the Navy specifically, and I was comfortable in doing so. The Air Force and Army also offer the scholarship to optometry students, but I decided to stay the route of the Navy, and I am thoroughly happy with my decision. If you are interested at all in HPSP though, it doesn’t hurt being in contact with different recruiters to see what requirements look like through the different branches.
Don’t hesitate to talk with a recruiter about this amazing scholarship opportunity that many people don’t take advantage of. Seriously, HPSP could be a life changing process for you (as it certainly has been for me!) and can help you achieve your dreams in becoming a successful health care professional. Especially if you are interested in optometry, I encourage you to apply for this scholarship, because there is no other scholarship like it that will give you as much financial freedom and as many career opportunities straight out of optometry school. HPSP will allow you to pursue optometry in the most intelligent, inspiring way. Talk to a recruiter before you start optometry school, your future will thank you!