In 2022, Elder became the nation’s first African American female to lead a school of optometry 

Keshia Sims Elder’s Clemson story began as a high school student in the Snelsire, Sawyer, & Robinson Clemson Career Workshop, a summer program designed to support high-achieving students from diverse populations and ready them for college.

“After my first summer in the Clemson Career Workshop, I was sold on Clemson,” Elder remembers. “And then when I went back for the second summer, I was hooked. I just knew I was going to Clemson.”

As the daughter of two teachers from Columbia, South Carolina, she graduated from Clemson with a degree in science teaching — mathematics emphasis, but she wasn’t completely committed to the classroom. Thanks to a summer in the health sciences track of the Clemson Career Workshop, she decided to take a spur-of-the-moment road trip to the University of Alabama at Birmingham and visit its optometry school. She found the next step she was looking for.

“My first year in optometry school, I attended the American Optometric Student Association Conference,” Elder says. “The Navy and Air Force had tables with information on military scholarships.”

As an optometry student, Elder applied for a Navy scholarship, and after she graduated from UAB with a Doctor of Optometry in 1998, she was stationed in a clinic at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, for three years before moving to the Navy Annex near the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia. 

“When you’re in the Navy, it’s your job, but it’s also a lifestyle,” Elder says. “The Navy helped solidify my work ethic and my approach to engaging with people. As a Navy officer, you take care of your people.”

Elder left the Navy and moved with her husband and growing family, ultimately joining the University of South Carolina’s Department of Ophthalmology. Thus began her career in higher education. In the years following, Elder held multiple faculty positions at UAB as well as a stint at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. So when the role of dean opened up at UMSL’s College of Optometry, she couldn’t resist applying.

“To be somewhere as a faculty member and then to come back and be accepted in the role as dean — that lets you know the people trust in you and your ability to lead,” Elder says. “When I interviewed, it was very important for me to be my authentic self, to laugh when I normally laugh or joke if I normally joke. When I was offered the position, I knew they wanted me for me.”

As dean, Elder is focused on providing the best possible student experience, including innovative education and training. But most of all, she wants to provide an environment where students can be their most authentic selves as they study and graduate. The field of optometry, she says, needs them.

“As eye doctors, we help people see better. But beyond that, we are the primary eyecare gatekeepers for a lot of people,” Elder explains. “Many people don’t go to the doctor on a regular basis, but they will go to the eye doctor. Through eye exams, we can determine if someone has high blood pressure, if they have signs of diabetes, if they are at risk of a stroke or, in certain cases, if they have a brain tumor.

“We help people stay healthy.” 

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