Nick Holtzman is inaugural recipient of Dr. Frank D. Fontana Memorial Scholarship

by | Jun 26, 2020

The award included a $4,250 scholarship and a $750 travel grant to attend the Heart of America Eye Care Congress' annual conference next February in Kansas City.
Nick Holtzman

Optometry student Nick Holtzman had a deep connection with the scholarship’s namesake, Dr. Frank Fontana. The award included a $4,250 scholarship and a $750 travel grant. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Nick Holtzman first met Dr. Frank Fontana – fondly known as Uncle Frank in the optometry community – while working as an optometric technician in his future father-in-law’s practice.

There’s no way that Holtzman could have known the extent to which his life would be changed by that meeting.

Fontana served as the final push for Holtzman to apply to the University of Missouri–St. Louis College of Optometry and wrote him a letter of recommendation. Fontana attended Holtzman’s wedding and advised him to get involved with the American Optometric Student Association, which kicked off Holtzman’s involvement in the optometric student community.

One could reasonably assume that when Fontana passed away in October 2018 that would be the end of his influence on Holtzman’s life. But that’s not how things turned out.

This year, Fontana has provided yet again – in the form of a scholarship named in his honor. In February, VSP Global and the Heart of America Eye Care Congress announced Holtzman as the inaugural recipient of the Dr. Frank D. Fontana Memorial Scholarship. The award included a $4,250 scholarship and a $750 travel grant to attend the Heart of America Eye Care Congress’ annual conference next February in Kansas City.

Holtzman is extremely grateful for the award and says it has helped give him the final financial push to finish out optometry school strong.

“I was pretty elated to find out,” he said. “It relieves the financial burden of finishing up my third year. It really took a lot off of us, especially when coronavirus came around and my wife, who was a teacher, was sent home. We were worried about whether we were going to be able to make ends meet. With the money from the scholarship, we knew that we had something we could fall back on if we needed to.”

Holtzman is now in his fourth year of the program, but his path to this moment wasn’t always clear. Previously, he’d earned an MS in kinesiology and worked as an exercise specialist and then a clinical allergy specialist before enrolling in school to become a physician’s assistant.

Then – in a moment straight out of a Disney movie – Holtzman let his dog off the leash at a park to play with a woman’s pup, and the rest is history. The two are now married with a 2-year-old son. During their courtship, Holtzman’s wife suggested he shadow her father, an optometrist.

The first day wasn’t that enthralling, but the second day of shadowing piqued Holtzman’s interest. He was hooked and soon started working there as an optometric technician.

The first time Holtzman helped someone see better sealed his career choice.

“She said, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s so clear. I can see everything. Thank you,’” Holtzman recalled. “I did that. I made somebody see better. You know what, I could see myself doing this.”

Meeting Fontana around the same time helped Holtzman see how enjoyable the work could be throughout a long career.

“When I met Uncle Frank, and he was still practicing optometry when he was 90, that was an a-ha moment,” Holtzman said. “He’s doing this because he loves it. That’s what I’ve been looking for.”

While in school, Holtzman quickly found a plethora of support from mentors such as fellow students Patrick Fiddler and Maria Nguyen and Professor Edward Bennett. That along, support from Holtzman’s wife, Courtney Holtzman, have made juggling the requirements of the demanding program possible.

“It has hasn’t been easy,” Holtzman said. “But if it was easy, everybody would be doing it. So yeah, it’s been hard, but I wouldn’t trade it. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything else that I’ve done. “

Holtzman believes that being a nontraditional student and having a wide swath of experiences in the medical fields has helped him during school.

“It’s given me a lot of different perspectives on when working with patients,” he said. “How to interact with people is just one of those things that you can’t teach in school. It’s something that I got from experience, working in cardiac rehabilitation and, working with people who are going through cancer treatment in the Strong Survivors program, as a clinical allergy specialist, teaching patients how to poke themselves with needles.

“My previous experiences have taught me how to foster empathy and to really put myself into their shoes and to listen to what it is that they’re dealing with.”

He’s already started to give back to the profession. Throughout his three years at UMSL, Holtzman has been deeply involved with optometry outside and within school.

In addition to being a trustee of the AOSA, Holtzman has been the assistant student body representative, a student ambassador and a teaching assistant for Assistant Clinical Professor Erin Brook’s Anatomy and Physiology classes and is a member of the Private Practice Club. Of those experiences, being the trustee of the AOSA and getting to go to Denver for the meeting stands out.

This summer he is doing an externship at Mulqueeny Eye Centers – the first of his fourth-year rotations that are intended to help students discover what type of working environment suits them best.

However, Holtzman already knows where he’ll end up after graduation. He’ll be joining his father in law’s practice, Dr. Becherer & Associates, in Illinois, where Holtzman will be focusing on contact lens and vision therapy.

“It’s a family practice,” Holtzman said. “It was his wife’s father’s practice. Before that it was his father’s practice, so it’s been in the family for three generations. Now, I’ll get the opportunity to continue that tradition.”

Jessica Rogen

Jessica Rogen