When Claudia Hernandez moved more than a thousand miles from Texas to Indiana, participating in pageants wasn't part of her vision. And she definitely never thought she would spend 12 months of optometry school as Miss Indiana University.
Now, with her year of service ending in early 2020, the third-year IU School of Optometry student said the experience has been one of the best parts of her time in Bloomington.
"Before Miss IU, I felt like I didn’t go past the Optometry Building on Atwater," Hernandez said. "I was kind of stuck in my own little world, so stressed out about every little grade. It’s been extremely nice to know people outside of optometry and get more involved with the local community."
Hernandez, a native of Lubbock, Texas, chose IU from the 23 optometry schools around the country because of its history and prestige. She was impressed by the amount of widely referenced research that came from IU, like that done by Henry Hofstetter to establish the Hofstetter's equation used for optics. She was also drawn to IU by current research happening in the school, like the study measuring the effectiveness of vision training for baseball and softball players that Hernandez has participated in.
The Miss Indiana University pageant wasn't on Hernandez's radar until her second year, though. As an undergraduate, Hernandez was a baton twirler with the marching band, and many of her fellow twirlers participated in pageants. Her coach had urged her to compete in the local Miss America pageant, but she had never really been interested.
Last year, Hernandez realized Miss IU may be her last shot to compete in the Miss America organization. Miss America participants must be no older than 25, and she'd be too busy with rotations the following year to take part. She registered to compete three weeks before the February pageant, got her twirling batons out after two years of retirement for her talent portion and dusted off the gown she'd bought for the School of Optometry's annual Eye Ball for her evening look.
She never anticipated winning, but she soon found herself throwing a first pitch at an IU baseball game, participating in Little 500 ceremonies, appearing in the homecoming parade and competing for the Miss Indiana title as Miss IU. What she did expect, though, was to use her title as an avenue for service, something she has long been dedicated to.
Hernandez's platform focuses on health -- specifically visual health, bringing school and service together. She'll be making Miss IU appearances at a trunk-or-treat for visually impaired children hosted by Visually Impaired Preschool Services and the Kiwanis Club of Bloomington's Operation Chili for Children fundraiser.
"I'm trying to use my platform to help people be more aware of how important our vision is," Hernandez said. "A lot of people think if they can see fine, they don't need to get an eye exam, but it's very important to go every year, especially after the age of 40. Our eyes reflect the overall health of our bodies."
Before she participated in pageants, Hernandez used the skills she was learning in optometry school to give back. During her second year at IU, she traveled with the Fellowship of Christian Optometrists to El Salvador to perform eye exams and provide glasses and medical eyer care for locals. While performing eye exams on public basketball courts for hours in the hot sun wasn't easy, Hernandez said that seeing the impact her work can have made it worthwhile.
The feeling she gets from helping others is what drew Hernandez to optometry in the first place. She always knew she wanted to work in health care, but she was particularly drawn to optometry because of the instant gratification of helping someone see more clearly.
"In optometry, you can make a huge impact on someone's life in 10 minutes or less if you have the right knowledge," Hernandez said. "And it's so much more than just giving people glasses. Doctors are saving lives by catching brain tumors, diabetes and hypertension in their patients before it's too late."
Hernandez will find out her rotation assignment for the next academic year over Thanksgiving break. After graduation, she plans to return to Lubbock and work for her optometrist, who runs one of the largest practices in West Texas. She's also interested in re-establishing the Miss Lubbock pageant, which disbanded when the Miss America organization revamped the competition to focus more on talent and eliminate the swimsuit portion.
"I truly never thought I’d be so invested in the Miss America organization, but it's provided me with so many great experiences," Hernandez said. "I want to make sure that young women in Lubbock have access to the same fulfilling opportunities."
On Oct. 30, join us as we follow Claudia Hernandez through her day as an IU student as part of our One Day/One Hoosier series. Look for her story through @IUBloomington on Twitter, @iubloomington on Instagram and iu_bloomington on Snapchat as it happens live starting around 8 a.m. EDT.