“A Long Trip Around the Block:” Francesca Crozier-Fitzgerald, MA, MEd
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“A Long Trip Around the Block:” Francesca Crozier-Fitzgerald, MA, MEd

Raised by a family whose optometric legacy has spanned generations, it’s easy to be influenced to follow in their footsteps, but for the Crozier-Fitzgerald family, that legacy isn’t necessarily to become an optometrist, it’s to commit yourself to serve others.

Crozier-Fitzgerald familyFor Francesca Crozier-Fitzgerald, MA, MEd ‘19, her family’s legacy within Salus University goes back four generations to the very beginning of its founding college, the Pennsylvania College of Optometry (PCO). Her great-grandfather, John E. Crozier, OD, FAAO worked alongside PCO founder Dr. Albert Fitch. Her great-uncle, John J. Crozier, OD had a long and distinguished career at PCO as vice president of Student Affairs, Registrar and director of Admissions. Her grandfather, George H. Crozier, ODserved as a faculty member for many years and associate dean of Academic Affairs in the ‘80s. Her grandmother, Gilda Coppola Crozier, OD taught ocular biology, introduced neural anatomy to PCO’s curriculum, and holds the rank of Professor Emeritus. Her mother, Georgia Crozier, OD, MS, completed her residency at The Eye Institute (TEI) and received her Master of Science in Vision Rehabilitation degree from PCO in 1987. Her father John J. Fitzgerald III, DO, FACOG, has held various positions within the University’s Physician Assistant (PA) Program over the last ten years including associate director, medical director, and director of clinical programs. Lastly, her sister, Catena Crozier-Fitzgerald, OD, and brother-in-law, Christopher Brightbill, OD, both graduated from PCO in 2014.

Last month, as a part of the University’s 118th Commencement, Crozier-Fitzgerald received her Master of Education (MEd) in Blindness and Visual Impairment degree and set forward in continuing her family’s legacy.

Crozier-Fitzgerald family“Growing up, it was clear that PCO, to my family, was a very special community of colleagues and dear friends,” Crozier-Fitzgerald said. “It was also obvious to me that the members of my family did not simply practice optometry, but loved getting to know their patients and understanding how they could improve their quality of life through eye care.”

With a passion for literary journalism and cultural reporting, Crozier-Fitzgerald received a bachelor’s in English from Columbia University in 2010 and a master’s degree in journalism the following year. For nearly a decade after, she wrote for alt-weeklies, digital magazines, scientific publications, non-profit organizations, and worked as a ghostwriter for a handful of personal memoirs. “I loved the connections I was able to make with my clients, but writing people’s stories was not quite enough,” she said. “I wanted to know that my work would have a more tangible impact on the lives of others.”

On one of her last book projects, she worked on a memoir, which charted a mother’s challenging, and eventually triumphant, journey toward understanding her daughter’s autism. Seeing how critical a role a child’s service “team” played in the process, Crozier-Fitzgerald felt drawn to working with kids with special needs and she began looking into various programs in the University’s College of Education and Rehabilitation (CER).

“I was never pushed by family to attend Salus or become an optometrist,” she said. “But after exploring the programs within CER, it was apparent how the programs at Salus could perfectly compliment my personality and mission to serve others.” A long trip around the block, in ways.

Torn between the Teacher of Visually Impaired (TVI) and Orientation & Mobility (O&M) programs, she shadowed several professionals in the field before it clicked for her that TVI was where she belonged. “I was observing a braille literacy lesson and it clicked – literacy, literature, and communication,” she said. “I could blend my two seemingly separate life paths in a way that made sense for these kids and their own literacy development and communication modes, both in writing, social interactions and public speaking.”

One day, Crozier-Fitzgerald remembered reading that 70% of working-age adults with visual impairments are not employed full time. A shocking and deplorable statistic, she felt immediately triggered to work toward changing that trend. Her program reinforced how developing skills for career development, job readiness, daily independence and community involvement start from a young age, and we all deserve the opportunity to develop and sharpen those skills. “I’m committed to being a part of the push to alter the stigma around blindness and visual impairment in our nation and on the international scale,” she said. “I believe we’ll see a significant change in our lifetime, and I’m fully dedicated to that mission.”

Francesca at St LucysCrozier-Fitzgerald described her fieldwork experiences and months as a student teacher as the most exciting and dynamic stage of her program. Those months were filled with challenging, hectic, sometimes uncomfortable, but always enlightening learning experiences.  Without previous teaching experience, she ensured her student teaching schedule was exposure to as many different service delivery models, teaching styles, age-groups, and learning environments possible.

One of her mentors, and now dear friend, Sr. Judith Moeller, a seasoned principal and educator in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, taught her the importance of pausing the daily agenda, whenever necessary, to teach the life skills that our students will not receive incidentally like their sighted peers.

Sr. Lisa Lettiere, principal of St. Lucy’s School for the Blind and the University’s 2018 Blindness and Low Vision Studies (BLVS) Alumnus of the Year, also served as a role model for Crozier-Fitzgerald. “As everyone had always said, I know I will take the moments from my first year of teaching at St. Lucy’s with me forever.”

Additionally, CER adjunct professor, Barbara Lhotka, MA, played a key role in Francesca’s progress. She not only taught her braille, she instilled a love for the code. Through her professionalism and sincerity, Lhotka taught her students how critical it is to teach braille effectively in order for students with visual impairments to develop literacy and reading speed alongside their sighted peers. “She reminded us that if we were going to be teaching braille, we were responsible for finding the time, each day, to practice; we needed to breathe the code if we were going to push them to their highest potential. There’s no slacking with Barb,” Crozier-Fitzgerald said.

Fabiana Perla, EdD, COMS, CLVR, has also served as one of Crozier-Fitzgerald’s mentors during her time at Salus. Over the last two years, they have been conducting an exploratory study of the current landscape of education and rehabilitation services available to incarcerated individuals with visual impairments in the United States, and the personal experiences of professionals who provide such services. They presented their findings at this year’s Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER) Conference.

Of the many things she has learned from her family, her grandmother and father’s profound love for teaching has left an indelible mark. “‘Getting to see something 'click' for a student, and knowing it might change their practice, well there's nothing more rewarding than that,’ my Nanna used to say. I hear that repeating in my mind every day,” she said.

Crozier-Fitzgerald familyWhen asked what it meant to her to be a member of a legacy family she said, “Growing up, I may have been too young to fully grasp the magnitude of my family’s impact, so one of my greatest gifts of being at Salus has been running into friends, students, and colleagues of my Nanna, Gilda;  my grandfather, George;  Great Uncle, John;  and mother, Georgia, and relive those stories with them,” she said. “Those memories mean so much to me.”

When looking to the future, Crozier-Fitzgerald has big plans. One of her many goals is to continue using writing as a tool to advocate for her students’ right to fair education, employment, and community involvement. She is also dedicated to build upon her understanding of Cortical Visual Impairment (CVI) through direct assessment and data-driven interventions. As the leading cause of visual impairment in the developed world, CVI is expected to increase in our lifetime. "As a TVI,” Crozier-Fitzgerald said, “I plan to devote my time and energy to better understand and creatively approach the assessment process so I can intervene appropriately and report on the progress our kiddos are making each day.”

As she moves forward with her career, she said, “The ongoing support of my mother, Georgia, and sister, Catena, who are deeply immersed and dynamic members of the optometric and low vision fields, serves as an invaluable resource. They have taught me that our field is anything but static; take risks, try new things, and ask questions, constantly. My family dedicated their lives to rebuilding the independence and quality of life of each of their patients and I plan to do the same with my students.”

To learn more about the work being done to appropriately assess and intervene with our students with CVI, check out Perkins CVI Hub and #startseeingCVI