CROOKSTON, Minn. - When she was two years old, a daycare provider noticed Marlee Steffes’ right eye was turning in.
“I have known since I was little I wanted to be an optometrist,” Steffes stated. “My parents brought me in and I have something called strabismus, or the turning in of the eye."
The condition and the various eye appointments, and surgeries, would help guide the path Steffes is on today.
"When I was six I had eye surgery and then I did vision therapy and eye patching. It sparked my interest right away. I have seen so many doctors and surgeons and therapists, so it is just kind of in my blood. I feel like it was kind of a no-brainer for me. I have never wanted to do anything else.”
The native of Fertile, Minn., who will graduate with a degree in health sciences and a minor in chemistry in May, now begins her journey as an optometrist. She has been accepted into graduate school, the University of Indiana School of Optometry in Bloomington, Ind.
The first decision that led her on her current path was her decision to attend UMN Crookston. Steffes’ mom, Bridget, is employed at Minnesota Crookston as the compliance director in the athletic department after a previous role in human resources. Despite her mom’s connection to UMN Crookston, Steffes swore she was not going to be a Golden Eagle. It was the decision to take a visit to "get out of school" with friend Camryn Larson that ultimately led Steffes to Minnesota Crookston.
“I was not coming to UMC,” Steffes stated emphatically. “It was not in the picture at all, especially because my mom worked here. My senior year of high school, Camryn Larson asked me if I wanted to come tour with her. I said, ‘well I will get out of school for a day.’ I came with her and I left and I said, ‘I am going here.’ Everything was just small, close-knit and everyone was welcoming. ...”
During her time at UMN Crookston, Steffes has been aided by the help of her professors, especially her advisor, Tony Schroeder, Ph.D. Schroeder has helped answer questions, guide her, and has helped make Minnesota Crookston feel comfortable to Steffes.
“With Tony being my advisor I got to know him and he made my classes a little less intimidating to ask questions and participate,” Steffes remarked. “Also Kelsey Torgerson has been very helpful. I have only had her for physics but she was also my chemistry tutor. She became someone I could go to for anything, not just class. She has been one that has really helped me feel comfortable here. Everybody has been so helpful and helps you to push yourself to reach your goals. They are super supportive.”
One of the most memorable experiences for Steffes during her time in Crookston has been the opportunity to compete for the women’s golf team. Steffes had not golfed competitively in her life but through her friends, she realized UMN Crookston and Head Coach Bryant Friskop was in need of a fifth golfer her freshman season. While it was something new and different, she embraced the challenge and it has become one of the best decisions she has made.
“I have been able to meet a lot of people that I wouldn’t have met and go to a lot of places I wouldn’t have gone and obtain a lifelong skill,” Steffes said. “ It isn’t really a skill for me, but something I will be able to do the rest of my life. Before I had maybe golfed one or two times for fun. It has actually become something I really enjoy to do. It has been a big highlight for me.”
The next challenge for Steffes will be leaving the place she knows and loves to move to Bloomington, Ind., for optometry school. Steffes first started her application process for optometry school this summer. She had applied to programs at Pacific University College of Optometry in Forest Grove, Ore., Southern College of Optometry in Memphis, Tenn., Michigan College of Optometry at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Mich., Ohio State University College of Optometry in Columbus, Ohio, and Indiana University College of Optometry. Steffes had originally hoped to attend Pacific University, where several doctors she has worked for attended, but she is very happy she will be attending Indiana University starting the fall of 2021.
“I started my application this summer using something called OptomCAS,” Steffes stated. “It honestly came down to the standardized test. Indiana didn’t require it and I am horrible at standardized tests. I interviewed at Indiana and Ferris State in Michigan. When I got into Indiana, which was my second choice, I was like ‘why would I retake the test to try anything else.’”
Steffes interviewed over Zoom, and was unsure about how her interview went at first. However, three days later she received notification she was accepted and it was off to the races from there.
“I was like, OK let’s do it,” Steffes said. “My parents were like ‘hold on, let’s think about this.’ And I was like, ‘no, I am going.’ We visited about a month ago. I drove down with my parents. It was a long 14-hour drive. I didn’t have to do any of the driving. The campus is huge. ... I think it is going to be a good fit. It seems like a place I can make home for a while.”
Steffes has also reached out to UMN Crookston graduate Kari Torkelson, an optometrist at Lifetime Vision Center who also attended the University of Indiana School of Optometry.
“My mom has been telling me for years to reach out to Kari Torkelson,” Steffes said. “I never did. Right before we went to Indiana, she got her email and I have been emailing her for a little bit.”
Steffes has already been getting field experience within optometry working at the Crookston Eye Clinic. It has been a valuable experience for her, and it has helped her to realize that she is making the right choice for her career path.
“I work at the Crookston Eye Clinic in town,” Steffes said. “That has given me a really good experience to get into the field and actually know I want to do this as a career.”
She is scared of the next challenge, but is also very excited for her next chapter.
“I hate change,” Steffes remarked. “My brother just moved Wednesday to North Carolina. I will be eight hours from him and 14 from here. He went farther. If he can do it, I can do it. I am nervous, excited, scared, happy, a little bit of everything.”
Change can be scary, but it will be an exciting step for Steffes as she continues to pursue a career she has wanted to get into since she was a young child. She has made choices and taken on the unknown in her past, whether it was attending UMN Crookston or choosing to play golf. She has found great experiences and once-in-a-lifetime experiences. The next chapter for Steffes is sure to be an amazing one.