Texas Tech University

Getting the Third Degree and Loving It

Doug Hensley

August 5, 2023

Nathan Holtman will earn a third diploma from Texas Tech during August commencement – with a fourth one in his sights.

Nathan Holtman has this dream. He's walking across the commencement stage at Texas Tech University and pauses for the traditional handshake with University President Lawrence Schovanec, who looks at him, does a quick double-take and says something like:

“Haven't I seen you here before?”

Because he has. When Holtman takes his place among the August graduates as the banner bearer for the College of Arts & Sciences, it will be same song, third verse.

“Commencement never gets old,” he says with a smile. “The first time was during COVID-19, so it was 20 minutes in and out, but I always love the traditions of Texas Tech University and getting to hear and sing the ‘Matador Song.'”

Let's pause and do a quick recap of Holtman's amazing academic trajectory. Prepare to be dazzled. In December 2020, he graduated from the Davis College of Agricultural Sciences & Natural Resources with a degree in agricultural and applied economics. In May 2022, he completed his master's in the same field.

But wait, there's more.

As part of this August cohort of Texas Tech graduates, he will receive a bachelor's in mathematics, and next spring, he is tracking toward completing a master's in mathematics. He has maintained a 4.0 GPA all along the way. 

Ultimately, Holtman wants to earn a doctorate in general economics and land a gig as a university faculty researcher. His areas of interest in economics are international trade and industrial organization. In math, his focus is statistics, probability theory and dynamic programming.

“I enjoy learning new things and studying new topics,” he said of his affinity for absorbing knowledge in classrooms. “I've also been able to fund my education through scholarships, so I haven't needed to take out any loans. Because of that, I feel obligated to go to class every day and complete my work to the best of my abilities. I am incredibly grateful for and feel exponentially blessed by those who have invested in my education.

“I am thankful for the support of all my family and friends. They form a strong support system that I can turn to when times become difficult and a great audience to celebrate in my achievements. I like to break big projects down into small tasks, and I try my hardest because I know there are a lot of people who may not have the same opportunities I've received.”

Making the most of everything that's come his way has been Holtman's modus operandi since coming to Texas Tech after graduating from high school in Ropesville, a community nestled approximately 20 miles southwest of Lubbock.

“I graduated in 2017, and it seemed very natural to come to Texas Tech,” he said. “It was close, and I had played in the marching band in high school, so I wanted to continue to do that.”

It was in Ropesville where Holtman fully explored his twin passions: music and mathematics.

“Nathan is very talented and smart,” said Jay Sedberry, a Ropes faculty member who has known Holtman since he was a sixth grader. “As a student, he is very dedicated to always learning. As a person, he has a big heart that is always willing to help out a friend or neighbor. His quiet personality allowed him to be a friend to everyone.”

Music has been a constant companion during Holtman's Texas Tech life. He was a trumpet player in the Goin' Band from Raiderland during his undergraduate days and was part of the Court Jesters, the small volunteer band that plays at Red Raider basketball games. Even now, some six years and three walks across the stage later, Holtman remains tethered to the Court Jesters, which has provided an unforgettable bumper crop of memories.

“I love basketball,” he said, “so I was part of the Court Jesters, and we got to travel to all of the tournament games in 2019 when the men's team went to the national championship game. Those were fun trips with a lot of good memories.”

Sedberry recalled taking Holtman to join the Alumni Court Jesters, who play during holiday-break basketball games for the Red Raiders and Lady Raiders.

“It gave him to get a taste of how different college band is from high school,” he said. “It was amazing to see him fall in love with it and then pursue it by joining the Goin' Band.”

There was an especially memorable moment during that iconic 2019 postseason run when one of the charter jets wasn't properly balanced for takeoff and landing. It required some people to move toward the front, and a relocated Holtman found himself sitting next to one of the team's players.

And yes, he was able to surreptitiously snap a picture to document the moment.

“That was such a great experience,” he said, “and I have continued to play in the Court Jesters as I've done these degrees. I played in the Goin' Band for only four years because it was too much of a time commitment going into grad school.

“I have so many memories from my time in the band. Playing the pregame show was my absolute favorite thing to do in Goin' Band because even though physically it's harder, it's so exhilarating to play the fanfare, run out of the tunnel and onto the field and then, ‘boom, boom, boom,' the bass drum hits, and you start doing your high knees and playing the fight song. That's super fun.”

It would be impossible to overemphasize the meaningful impact Holtman's band activities had played in his life. Not only did he continue doing something he loved, but he also built connections and a sense of community. At Ropesville, his graduating class was 24 people. At Texas Tech, some of his classes contained hundreds of students.

A place to belong and be welcomed was important. For Holtman, the transition from small school to sprawling university was a huge change that could have been disruptive were it not for the warm embrace of the Goin' Band.

“I think it's incredibly important to find some sort of extracurricular group, especially for first-generation students like me,” he said. “I was in the Goin' Band, and I was in Kappa Kappa Psi, the band fraternity, and that was an absolute lifesaver. If I hadn't done those things, I don't know that I would have continued because I made so many good friends there.

“In high school, you have your friend group, but the thing you have in common is you live close together. At the university, you have common interests, and that helped me make connections when I started at Texas Tech in the Goin' Band. You make some great friends when you're standing out in the sun practicing every day for hours.”

Additionally, as part of the band fraternity, Holtman had the opportunity to serve others and give back.

“We were able to raise quite a bit of money for a smaller organization,” he said. “Some of what we raised was during the pandemic years and so instead of spending it on some of our expenses, we ended up donating money to a number of high school, middle school and elementary music programs in the area.”

It's his sense of drive and determination that has served Holtman well in an academic career overflowing with success. 

“I had participated in FFA activities in high school, and I really enjoyed math, so I decided I wanted to study agricultural and applied economics,” he said. “In my next-to-last semester, I decided on the graduate program.”

Thanks to Stephen Devadoss, the Emabeth Thompson Endowed Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, Holtman found his graduate studies path.

“I was taking Dr. Devadoss' international trade class, and I really enjoyed learning about agricultural trade and international trade and wanted to continue to do that,” he said. “At that point I really started thinking about becoming a professor and researcher.”

Devadoss noticed Holtman's commitment to academic excellence and became his encourager.

“Nathan is bright, hard-working, thoughtful, diligent and all around a good human being,” he said. “He has the complete package to be successful academically. Within the first few days of the semester, I realized Nathan is an excellent student, and I encouraged him to come to graduate school.”

Holtman completed that master's degree in three semesters, finishing in spring 2022, and his thesis, “The Effects of Domestic and Trade Policy Interventions on Global Agricultural Trade,” has earned significant recognition. It placed first in the outstanding thesis competition in the Texas Tech Graduate School. Likewise, it has been similarly recognized by the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association, the Southern Agricultural Economics Association and the Western Agricultural Economics Association.

“Getting these four thesis awards is a monumental accomplishment,” Devadoss said. “He is the best student I have advised in my 40-year career in academics. Nathan has a bright future and will be a very successful academician.”

He's come a long way, but only through the kind of attention to detail you might expect from a mathematics student.

“My first semester, I was a little bit overwhelmed,” he says, before rethinking it. “Well, maybe not overwhelmed. The way I approach any daunting situation is I like to think of myself as an underdog, and I really want to give everything I can. That's the attitude I have in my mind. I see the test or task as my opponent, and I want to do the best I can and then move on to the next thing.

“I may have felt a little overwhelmed that first semester, but everything went well. I came out of it unscathed and learned a lot. That gave me confidence.”

Even with those first two degrees secured, Holtman knew he would need even more education to achieve his career aspirations.

“To make the shift from applied economics to general economics, there is a huge gap in math,” he said. “You don't get it in applied economics, but you have to have it in general economics. To fill that gap, I started taking undergraduate math classes while working on my applied economics degree.

“I took so many of them, I wound up accumulating enough undergraduate credits to get a math degree, minus two Spanish classes.”

No hay problema. 

Holtman spent the summer fulfilling those foreign language requirements, putting the finishing touches on his math degree. He is tracking toward completing his master's in mathematics next May, when he expects to complete an elusive grand slam of sorts, a fourth handshake moment with Schovanec.

“The only way I have been able to do this is to have a routine,” he said. “I know everyone has their own way of doing things, but for me having a good and healthy routine has been great.”

As he closes in on his second master's degree, the routine this fall will also include teaching a statistics class. Rest assured, he will be right at home.

“I definitely do not like ambiguous answers,” he said. “I took a class when I was a freshman where we gave our opinions on things, and the instructor gave their opinion on our opinions. I was like, ‘I don't see the rubric on this; I don't see where that was an incorrect answer.' I enjoy a good, concrete answer, and math often provides that.

“I'm teaching my first class where I am the instructor of record this fall, so anyone who wants to do statistics at 8 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, shockingly, there are still seats available.”

As he reflects on his total college experience, Holtman remembers how the pandemic has been part of life for so many students. Like everything else, though, he's learned a lot now that he's on the other side of shutdowns and capacity restrictions.

“You just had to extend a lot of grace to everybody during that time because everyone had a lot of things going on,” he said. “Whenever I got frustrated about something during that time, I tried to extend grace and leniency to everybody. That was the best way I could handle it. Otherwise, I would get frustrated or irritated, and that is never good to keep inside you.”

That's a good word from Holtman, a self-proclaimed “Star Trek” nerd, which also seems somewhat appropriate as he continues to boldly go where few have gone before, collecting presidential handshakes and Texas Tech diplomas with impressive frequency.

“I am excited to see what all Nathan accomplishes in his career,” Sedberry said. “He is going to inspire so many people throughout his life.”