TV producer-turned-veterinary student now leading SAVMA

Published on May 02, 2016
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Matt Holland (Illinois ’17) had a quarter-life crisis. At least, that’s the best way he can explain why he left what many would consider a dream job producing sports television to become a veterinarian. As he’s gone through veterinary college, though, he’s learned that skills acquired in his early jobs continue to serve him well. In fact, Holland recently became the 2016-2017 Student AVMA president at the Student AVMA Symposium (see story). And he has his sights set on creating a big change in the profession. 

Holland’s first career grew from a love of sports and communication. He studied radio and television production at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where he also produced college sports shows, interned for the Iowa Cubs Triple-A minor league baseball team, and worked at local TV stations. After graduation, he moved back to the Chicago area and took a job with the Big Ten Network. Holland produced college basketball game coverage in a different city practically every weekend. Because sports was naturally seasonal work, and because he was always drawn to animals, he took a dog-walking job during his first off-season and ended up loving it. The next summer, he worked at the PAWS Chicago animal shelter.

“I had terrible hours and got ringworm and made less than $10 an hour, but I felt fulfilled,” Holland said. Later, he volunteered at a mixed animal practice in Monroe, Wisconsin, and at the Biologic Resources Laboratory at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“I got all this animal experience in the off-season and realized over time that I felt more connected doing that kind of work. Working in TV production felt like existing, and working with animals felt like living,” he said.

Initially, veterinary college seemed improbable, given his unrelated undergraduate studies as well as the expense and time commitment. But it became a greater reality as he took science prerequisites at Northwestern University for two years. Holland gained acceptance to Illinois and went in with an ambition to be a Dr. James Herriot–type practitioner. But fate, once again, had other plans.

Matt Holland (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

He was accepted into the joint-degree program leading to a master’s in public health from UIC and a DVM degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and took a policy elective that opened his eyes to the less traditional niches of the profession. In his first year, he also got involved in SAVMA as a delegate. Holland sat on the SAVMA Government Affairs Committee and became the AVMA Legislative Fly-in co-chair. Attending the 2015 fly-in showed him firsthand the intersection between veterinary medicine and policy, and attending the 2016 fly-in reinforced his passion for advocacy and shaping public policy. The event also showed Holland where he could play to his strengths.

“When I was making the decision to change careers, I thought I was going to have to let go the six years I spent producing TV and working on those skills. I figured it would be a sunk cost and did not realize how valuable those communication and writing skills would be,” Holland said about his time spent interviewing athletes, writing scripts, and editing media pieces.

He’s already used his communication and planning skills to synthesize what he’s learned from SAVMA meetings and fly-ins, then bring that information back to his fellow students at Illinois. Holland will do the same with the Economics of Veterinary Medical Education Summit held in late April at Michigan State University. He participated in the summit’s working group focusing on debt reduction.

One of his ambitions for the coming year is to create momentum for an advocacy day at each student chapter of the AVMA. Similar to the fly-in, but on a local scale, advocacy day would engage groups of students from each chapter with their state legislators.

Holland wants to be at the forefront of a shift in how advocacy is viewed and practiced in the profession. He likens it to how veterinary colleges have incorporated new treatments or diseases into the curriculum as they are introduced or gain in importance.

He continued, “Maybe something can happen with veterinary students at large, maybe some switch can be flipped in the profession to where advocacy is not only included and incorporated in the curriculum, but also is something every veterinarian feels they should be involved in. We should try to increase the awareness level with student advocacy.”

After earning his veterinary degree, Holland says he would also like to complete his MPH in 2018 and pursue veterinary public policy work in Washington, D.C. He’s been particularly passionate about food waste issues after interning with the Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service at a slaughter facility.

“When I learned how much food we produce goes to waste—about 40 percent—it inspired me to reduce that number. Food production is such a resource-intensive process; if we’re going to commit so much time, money, and energy into mass agriculture, we better at least be able to say that the end product is feeding a person instead of a landfill. It’s putting the cart before the horse to say that food production won’t be able to keep up with the growth in human population. Before we figure out how to make more, we first need to figure out how to use what we make.”

But for now, Holland is content to spend more than a fair amount of time on SAVMA activities. In fact, he says it’s easier to give time to SAVMA than to do anything else on his to-do list.

“In a selfish way, I love spending my time on something that feels good,” Holland said. “I draw energy from working with other students, and I feel like this is a great use of my time. The profession and SAVMA are my family.”