Astiney Franklin and Zarina Meer

Friends and Winners: Two MCPHS Optometry Students among Five National Award Winners

Astiney Franklin and Zarina Meer

Astiney Franklin and Zarina Meer each received the 2020 Dr. Marvin R. Poston Leadership Award

Two MCPHS School of Optometry students were named among five nationwide recipients of a scholarship awarded by VSP Global and the National Optometric Association. Astiney Franklin O.D. ‘20 and Zarina Meer O.D. ‘22 each received the 2020 Dr. Marvin R. Poston Leadership Award, given to “outstanding optometry students in each cohort who uphold Dr. Poston’s commitment to leadership, service, and diversity.” Students are eligible for the award if they are an active member of the National Optometric Student Association (NOSA), demonstrate leadership and service in the optometry profession, and make a commitment to a future career in private practice. Winners of the award receive a $4,000 scholarship toward their education.

Dr. Poston was the first Black American admitted to the School of Optometry at the University of California, Berkeley. After graduating in 1939, he became the first Black American licensed to practice on the entire West Coast and was also the first Black American to be honored as Optometrist of the Year by the American Optometric Association. In 1955, Dr. Poston went on to help form VSP, the only national not-for-profit vision insurance company. Today VSP serves nearly 90 million members through a network of more than 40,000 doctors.

Astiney says it’s particularly special to receive the award with Zarina; not only do the two women know each other, but they’ve formed a close bond during their time at MCPHS. They share a special commitment to historically marginalized populations, and Astiney has served as a student mentor to Zarina. The fact that a total of five national winners would include them both is testament to their dedication to the values the Poston Award celebrates.

Though they now find themselves on similar paths, Astiney and Zarina come from very different backgrounds. Astiney Franklin grew up in Mobile, Alabama, born to a 15-year-old mother. As a Black female, she faced barrier after barrier in terms of both gender and race, right from the beginning. She's had to be a very resilient fighter, she says, to get to where she is today. After graduating from high school, Astiney matriculated to Xavier University of Louisiana, a small, liberal arts HBCU in New Orleans. It became clear to her that optometry was her passion. She applied to schools, but many of them were huge and seemed to offer an impersonal experience compared to what she was looking for. The MCPHS School of Optometry was different. Astiney liked the small class size MCPHS offered. She liked that it was a relatively new program with the latest technology, and she decided to enroll.

Zarina Meer grew up as the proud child of immigrants in the Washington, D.C. area. She says she loved “living amidst a giant melting pot of people in D.C.,” where a variety of communities are integrated and “we celebrated each other’s cultures.” In a world where race disparities are evident, she says “it is beautiful to see how a community can come together to support one another.” The experience is a huge part of who she is today. It’s one of the reasons why, although she always wanted to be a doctor of some sort, she chose optometry specifically: An optometrist sees people of all walks of life, all ages, all abilities. Plus, systemic diseases are often present in the eyes. So as an optometrist, Zarina says, “you’re the gateway for getting patients to go to the doctors they need to go to.” After graduating from St. John’s University in Queens, New York—another extremely diverse area—Zarina began applying to optometry schools. After visiting MCPHS, she was moved by the warm welcome she received, and remarked “this is where I wanted to be for my optometric training.” So Zarina, too, enrolled.

During her studies at MCPHS, Astiney took a year off from classes. But she did not stop contributing to the University during that time: she used that period to establish the school’s chapter of NOSA. NOSA is “an international service organization comprised of over 1,000 optometry students who are dedicated to increasing access to eyecare for minority and under-served communities,” the mission of which is “to advance the visual health of minority and underserved communities by investing in the success of compassionate students who are eager to serve these communities.”

“Starting the National Optometric Student Association at MCPHS was paramount,” Astiney says. “not only for me, but so that I could help create a community within optometry that turned its focus toward increasing diversity.” Astiney would later become the organization’s national president—she just completed her term in July 2020.

Her focus on diversity remains strong. Astiney believes that current events have amplified the desire to fight systemic racism and implicit bias in healthcare and all other areas, and that the conversation is open to turn things around for all underserved minorities.

Zarina’s focus is much the same. “I want to be a bridge between healthcare and the underrepresented, to help close the gap of healthcare inequity,” she says. Upon seeing the Poston scholarship, she immediately realized that it aligned with her dedication to healthcare equality in the community as a whole.

Zarina’s plans to complete a residency in ocular disease. When she’s finished with her education, she would love to return to her native D.C. area. A diversity of culture, socioeconomic status, and race provides her the opportunity to affect the community in multiple ways. “I am a representation of where I am from, and I’d love the opportunity to pour back into it.”

Astiney, meanwhile, is currently working at the VA in New Orleans. She sees patients with extremely serious eye problems. Her mother had severe, uncontrolled diabetes, and she says she can relate to her patient population. “Especially when I’m talking to minority patients, when they hear from me, it resonates.”

Learn more about the School of Optometry at MCPHS.