The Veterinary Profession’s Diversity Pipeline
‘Journeys of consequence reflect an ongoing investment.’
Veterinary clinics working on diversity understand the task before them. They may have a set of guidelines for staff, such as: Checking microaggressions at the door. Inventory your biases. Watch the jokes. Take advantage of the brave space. Treat everyone with respect!
For diversity to take hold, all these things are necessary. But diversity in the workforce doesn’t start in the clinic, according to those committed to expanding it. Instead, it starts with grade school children imagining what they might do and be when they grow up, they say. With support and encouragement, those children nurture their dream through high school and college, all the way through graduation from a veterinary school of medicine.
Role models help along the way. But finding role models with shared backgrounds and experiences can be difficult for many people. After all, the veterinary workforce is only about 2.1% Black and 6.9% Hispanic, according to American Veterinary Medical Association survey data.
That’s why advocates of diversity believe in continually reaching out to primary and secondary schools, as well as colleges and veterinary medical schools, to reinforce young people’s dreams. Annie Daniel, Ph.D., founder of the National Association for Black Veterinarians, calls it a pipeline approach. And Latonia Craig, Ed.D., chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer for AVMA, says that “the K-16 pathway will be a critical focus” in that organization’s efforts to promote diversity.
“Veterinary medicine has been largely racially homogenous in the U.S. for the profession’s existence,” said Ruby Perry, DVM, Ph.D., Diplomate-ACVR, dean and professor of veterinary radiology, Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine. “Efforts to increase racial and ethnic diversity really began with the creation of the Tuskegee School of Veterinary Medicine in 1945. It would be many years before legacy institutions were barred from legally discriminating on the basis of race. The AAVMC [American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges] began working on these issues in the 1970s, and a diversity staff role was not created until 2004,” said Dr. Perry, who is president-elect of the AAVMC. “I say all this to say that reaching parity within the profession will take decades, and that is being optimistic.”
Dr. Craig assumed her role as the AVMA’s first DEI chief in September 2022, about a year and a half after the AVMA and AAVMC created the Commission for a Diverse, Equitable, and Inclusive Veterinary Profession. Before joining the AVMA, she was assistant dean for inclusive excellence at Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
In October 2021, the AVMA/AAVMC Commission announced strategic recommendations with short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals. Each of those stages called for outreach to young students. For short-term goals, the Committee called for:
- Promoting and expanding awareness among diverse primary and secondary school students about career options and opportunities in the veterinary profession.
- Elevating the profile of veterinary medicine as a STEM career.
- Identifying and evaluating those offering pipeline programs as potential partners.
Medium-term activities call for developing a model for pilot pipeline programs for state and local communities to distribute to veterinary medical associations and creating or identifying outreach resources for veterinarians and schools. In the long term, the Commission intends to work on identifying additional partners, such as pre-K/day care establishments, school superintendents, and guidance counselors.
Dr. Perry, who was a co-chair of the Commission, said, “It is critical that we reach out to young people with identities that are unrepresented in veterinary medicine to encourage and help sustain their interest in the profession. Within the colleges, we have been working on understanding ways in which our admissions requirements and practices may unintentionally disadvantage these students. I am looking forward to AAVMC’s work dovetailing nicely with the recommendations for primary and secondary-school-aged children and those recommendations specific to academic veterinary medicine. We all have a lot of work to do.”
College and vet school
Dr. Daniel founded the Institute for Healthcare Education Leadership and Professionals (iHELP) to increase the number of Black people in healthcare education, leadership, and professions. Its first initiative, chartered in 2016, was the National Association for Black Veterinarians.
Writing in Today’s Veterinary Practice (an NAVC publication) in 2021, Dr. Daniel explained that 20 years of experience in teaching and management in higher education, along with a Ph.D., led her to an opportunity to work on diversity and inclusion in the School of Veterinary Medicine at Louisiana State University. Her role, she said, was to work with faculty and administrators to improve the DVM curriculum.
Among her duties, she taught a lecture on cultural awareness to incoming first-year veterinary students to raise awareness of diversity and inclusion in veterinary medicine. “Upon entering the lecture hall for the first time, I was confronted by the fact that I was the only Black person in the room – I felt my own singularity acutely,” she wrote. In fact, there were only three Black students in the entire program. Yet 30% of Louisiana’s population is Black, and the state has six Historically Black Colleges/Universities (HBCUs), she pointed out.
“After a couple of years, I asked, ‘Why aren’t there more Black students?’’’ she told Vet-Advantage. She heard things like, “The pre-vet programs at HCBUs are weak,” “Their students don’t fare well in veterinary school,” and “There just isn’t that much interest on the part of Black students in pursuing veterinary medicine.” “But I’m a persistent person, and I kept pushing,” she said. After visiting several HCBUs, she found plenty of interest among students majoring in pre-veterinary medicine or animal science.
Today NABV has 15 chapters whose members mentor elementary and high school students interested in veterinary medicine and who encourage college students to start their student chapters. The association strives to provide internships and clinical experiences for pre-professional students, scholarships for pre-vet students and vet students, and career planning and advice to professionals and pre-professionals. NABV distributes sponsor-supported student travel awards to students interested in attending the association’s annual conference.
“It’s pipeline-building,” she said. “There are a lot of students who want to be veterinarians, who love animals, and who want to enter the profession.” NABV’s goal is to help them do so.
Dr. Perry said, “There is probably not just one significant impediment, but multiple factors that hinder veterinary medical schools from attracting a larger number of diverse students, especially underrepresented minorities. One of the factors surrounds the debt load that many minority students attain throughout their veterinary medical education path. Carrying a huge debt load is stressful and burdensome, often playing a role in sustaining the health and well-being of students as well as keeping them enrolled in order to graduate.
“We are fortunate here at Tuskegee University that our industry partners are stepping up and playing a much larger role in providing significant scholarships to our veterinary students and even providing funding for a veterinary medical social worker who helps address the health and well-being of our students. However, more financial support is needed and desired by more industry partners to support veterinary medical education.”
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) may not be quite as hot a topic among all industries as it was a few years back, according to McLean & Company’s 2023 HR Trends Report. DEI currently ranks sixth in HR priorities, falling one level in each of the past two years. Fifty-nine percent of survey respondents said the top barrier to DEI progress is dedicated time for DEI work.
Survey findings like that are all the more reason for implementing a pipeline approach to diversity, according to proponents. Dr. Latonia Craig quotes Immediate Past AVMA President Dr. Jose Arce, who said, “Journeys of consequence reflect an ongoing investment. They are a marathon, not a sprint. They require drive, desire, endurance, and teamwork.”
Dr. Annie Daniel said, “NABV is available to support students as they go through veterinary school. We try to encourage them to stay focused on their studies. They’re not there to educate people about who they are and why they’re there. Their focus should be on getting the grades and education they need to become highly qualified veterinarians.” Dr. Daniel said from time to time, she feels compelled to remind veterinary school deans of racism in their schools they might not be aware of. “I don’t mind writing and informing them that students are having issues and asking them how the school will address those issues,” she said.
Racism must be addressed in the workplace as well, she added. “We have developed relationships with large veterinary clinics and hospitals. I work with their DEI people or vice presidents of human resources to share the experiences of their Black veterinarians – though I am sworn to secrecy. I let them know, ‘You need to do a check on your environment; it may not be as inclusive as you think it is.’
“People need to work in an environment where they’re respected and appreciated and where co-workers understand they have the same level of intelligence as any other person who has gone through vet school. Some people have views of Black people that you’re not going to change. In those cases, I encourage them to move on for their own physical and mental well-being.
“As NABV, we tell them they’re not alone.”
Conversation on Diversity
‘You do what you see.’
In an interview published in December 2022, Dr. Mike McFarland, chief medical officer at Zoetis, spoke to Dr. Vernard Hodges and Dr. Terrence Ferguson, co-founders of Critter Fixer Veterinary Hospital in Bonaire, Georgia. Dr. Hodges is the founder and executive director of the It Takes a Village Foundation, helping kids from diverse backgrounds learn about veterinary medicine. Their Vet for a Day program – now offered in cities and veterinary schools across the country – was created to give future veterinarians an immersive look into the world of veterinary medicine. During the day, students:
- Meet recruiters who speak about the classes students should take, activities in which they should partake, and possible college majors.
- Hear from a panel of veterinarians who talk about their professional experiences and provide insight into their day-to-day work life.
- Experience hands-on learning where they observe surgeries, treatments, lab workups, X-rays, and more.
Below is an excerpt from the Zoetis Foundation interview. (The Zoetis Foundation provided a grant to It Takes a Village in 2022 to support their Vet for a Day program.)
Dr. McFarland: Why did you create the It Takes a Village Foundation and the Vet for a Day programs?
Dr. Ferguson: The Vet for a Day program was something we were basically already doing, just not in a formal way. Our doors have always been open, so we get kids coming in daily. Their mother or grandmother might say, ‘My kid is interested in being a veterinarian, but we don’t know what to do.’ So, we bring them in, talk to them, become their mentors, and show them around the clinic. A lot of times, they end up becoming volunteers or being employed at the Critter Fixer Veterinary Hospital.
Then we got together one day and said, ‘Look, we do this every day. Why don’t we just get this group of kids together and be a little formal about how we approach them?’
Dr. Hodges: Yeah, you do what you see. I will challenge anybody to come down south of the Mason-Dixon line and find a Black kid who wants to play professional hockey. It doesn’t happen because they don’t have access to or see it. Everybody isn’t gearing up for hockey on Saturday mornings. It’s football because that’s what they see.
The beautiful thing about our partnership with the Zoetis Foundation is that we’re able to show kids different avenues they can take as a veterinarian, whether it’s in the animal health industry, research, the military, or working for the government. There are so many different avenues they can take in this profession.
I’ve also found that socioeconomics tends to translate into the jobs people choose. So, we started “It Takes a Village Foundation” to show kids that by creating a business, by creating commerce, or by creating a place for them and giving them a chance to win, they can change their lives and their families’ lives.
What is the most important thing you want students to walk away with from the program?
Dr. Hodges: I want people to know they should keep dreaming because their dreams can come true. We’re living it every day.
Dr. Ferguson: I want the kids to walk away knowing wholeheartedly that the field of veterinary medicine, in some way, is an option for them. If they leave the program knowing that, I think we’ve done a good justice.
Editor’s note: The original interview may be found at https://zoetis.com/our-company/zoetis-foundation/foundation-news/advancing-diversity-in-the-veterinary-profession-by-inspiring-the-next-generation-of-black-veterinarians
Photo credit: Photography courtesy of Zoetis
Photo credit: istockphoto.com/AnnaStills