Veterinary Schools Engage Diverse Youth to Inspire Veterinarians of the Future

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Many children who love animals dream of becoming veterinarians. Although not all of these young people will realize that goal, there is general agreement in the profession that it is important to encourage youth, starting from an early age, to pursue careers in veterinary medicine — especially those who are underrepresented in the field.

[Above: Elementary school students participate in Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine’s This is How We Role program.]

A 2004 article titled “Clarifying the World of Work for Our Youth: Vocations, Careers, and Jobs,” published by the University of California, cites early research indicating that vocational development begins during childhood and continues into adolescence, with the early years of adolescence especially crucial to “the development of skills, knowledge, and values for the world of work.” The authors also stress the importance of programs that expose youth to collaborative experiences with diverse groups of people to prepare them for a diverse workforce — something that veterinary medicine, one of the whitest professions in America, is still striving to achieve.

In spite of efforts to diversify the veterinary workforce, as well as veterinary school student bodies, the field is still considered one of the least diverse medical professions. Of the 92,000 veterinarians today, only 10 percent are people of color, and just 13 percent of students enrolled in U.S. veterinary schools are from underrepresented groups, according to the 2013 book Navigating Diversity and Inclusion in Veterinary Medicine, published by Purdue University Press.

Purdue University
In response, schools like the Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine are leading the way in teaching underserved youth about animals and the veterinary profession. Supported by the Science Education Partnership Award (SEPA) Program at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), This is How We Role is an after-school role-modeling program for children in kindergarten through fourth grade who are educationally disadvantaged due to socioeconomic status, race, or ethnicity. Held at the Hanna Community Center in Lafayette, Ind., the weekly program exposes participants to a culturally responsive curriculum and activities related to veterinary care and medicine, with Purdue veterinary students and faculty serving as role models. All program facilitators are expected to complete professional development modules to learn about culturally responsive practices to aid them in their work with these children.

Sandy San Miguel teaches elementary school students about animal anatomy as part of Purdue’s This is How We Role program. (photo by Ed Lausch)

The program’s curriculum and materials are designed with diversity in mind. “Our children’s books and lesson materials feature characters and real people of various genders, races, and ethnicities,” says Associate Dean for Engagement Sandy San Miguel, PhD, DVM, the leader of the initiative. “We encourage our role models to tell their personal stories and build upon the various types of experiences the children have had with animals.”

Through a variety of fun and interactive workshops and lessons, students learn about aquatic medicine, basic husbandry, math, diabetes, anatomy, and more. San Miguel says she is often struck by how much the children learn and retain from the program and is touched by their enthusiasm for animals, science, and veterinary medicine.

“I am always surprised and pleased when the kids bring up content from past lessons to answer questions,” she says. The interactive learning and experiences offered generate an early interest in veterinary medicine and “help the children gain the confidence … to be successful in any career they choose,” San Miguel adds. “They learn that veterinarians have many career options, including research, that impact the health of animals and the public.”

This is How We Role is an ongoing, collaborative effort to inspire future veterinarians, and San Miguel says the ultimate goal is national distribution of the program to other veterinary schools. With the support of the NIH SEPA award, she and her team will provide funding to four or five colleges each year to launch and assess similar programs in their communities.

High school students in UW-Madison’s PEOPLE program learn about cows and their veterinary needs. (photo by Andy Manis)

University of Wisconsin-Madison
The University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) is involved in the Pre-college Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence (PEOPLE), a pipeline program for low-income and minority students from the state of Wisconsin that is sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison). PEOPLE provides opportunities for youth to build study skills, explore academic and career interests, and experience campus life, with the goal of encouraging minority students to apply to and enroll at UW-Madison. The SVM offers two iterations of the program each summer, one for middle school students and one for those in high school.

Both programs take place on campus at the SVM, with current veterinary students and faculty members serving as instructors. An average of 15 middle schoolers participate each summer, whereas the high school program is smaller and more intensive, with only three to five students.

The three-week middle school program is set up to give students “a taste of veterinary medicine and the different careers in the profession,” says Carmen E. Reamer, student services program manager. Participants learn about small, large, and wildlife animals; basic anatomy; animal behavior; and common health problems in different species. In addition, they participate in field trips and activities.

The six-week high school program provides a more detailed, in-depth knowledge of different species and specialized topics, such as proper restraint techniques, comparative anatomy, and infectious diseases. Participants attend lectures and labs and are taught about the role veterinarians play in research and public health. They also engage in a clinical experience to give them a real-world view of the profession.

“We hope that, over time, exposing these students to a career in veterinary medicine will increase the number of diverse candidates in the [field],” says Reamer. “We want these programs to offer a more in-depth awareness of this profession that students can take with them and share with others.”

Oregon State University
Oregon State University (OSU) College of Veterinary Medicine also offers an interactive, hands-on summer program for high school students called the OSU Summer Veterinary Experience. Notably, the college provides eight full-tuition scholarships to participants each year. Awards are distributed to those who demonstrate financial need, are first-generation, or are from a racial or ethnic group that is underrepresented in the profession.

Susan J. Tornquist

With current OSU veterinary students serving as mentors, high school students from underserved minority populations get to experience “varied facets of the veterinary profession as well as veterinary education,” says Susan J. Tornquist, PhD, DVM, a veterinarian and the Lois Bates Acheson Dean of the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine. Students in the summer program take classes in anatomy, radiology, and pathology; attend labs; and interact with live animals.

Some of the popular activities at the summer camp have included a surgical skills lab, where participants gain hands-on experience; an acupuncture workshop; a demonstration of an equine treadmill; and an ultrasound workshop with a live dog. Participants can also attend an admissions presentation on how to prepare to be a successful applicant for college and veterinary school.

“[Students] may or may not choose to go into veterinary medicine,” says Tornquist, “but they end the week with more knowledge of the profession and what it is like to be at a university.”

High school students in the OSU Summer Veterinary Experience work on projects in the school’s ultrasound and suturing lab.

Tornquist and public information specialist Lyn Smith-Gloria recall one student who attended the OSU Summer Veterinary Experience and went on to begin his undergraduate education at OSU this past summer. This student, who is from an underserved rural community in Oregon, became the first man accepted into OSU’s Pre-Veterinary Scholars Program — an important success story for an increasingly female profession. Indeed, a 2013 study by the American Veterinary Medical Association determined that by 2030, women will constitute 71 percent of the veterinary workforce; currently, 78 percent of new veterinary school graduates are women. Some, like Harvard professor Claudia Goldin, argue that this is due to veterinarians’ flexible hours, allowing for a better work-life balance.

Tornquist and Smith-Gloria hope OSU’s program will continue to serve as a pipeline for others. “By exposing [youth] from underrepresented backgrounds to the veterinary profession at a young age, it is our hope that many of them will be inspired to pursue a career in this field,” Tornquist says.

Veterinary schools like those at Purdue, the University of Wisconsin, and Oregon State are working to make this hope a reality — that youth of all races, genders, ethnicities, and backgrounds will become the diverse and dedicated veterinary workforce
of tomorrow.●

Kim Beauchamp is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.