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Your gift to the future

Underrepresented and low-income students are determined to earn admission to veterinary school and thrive afterward. You can help them achieve their dreams.

Your gift to the future
Poverty severely limits choice, and those limited choices result in a potential loss of talent for veterinary medicine.

Last fall, young people from all over the United States applied to veterinary school. Their applications represented a significant step toward their lifelong goal of becoming a veterinarian.

At the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, where I work, we survey applicants and use the data collected to recommend recruiting and admissions practices. The veterinary school applicant pool is much more diverse than ever before thanks to changes in U.S. demographics as well as the efforts of AAVMC and its member institutions.

But much more can be done to create the kind of pipeline that would reflect the country’s demographics, attract the desired talent and sustain a constantly evolving profession. You can help.

What the Numbers Show

More than 8,000 individuals applied to veterinary school for matriculation in 2019. The applicants remained overwhelmingly white (75 percent) and female (86.8 percent). Nearly 30 percent were first-generation college attendees or from low-income backgrounds, and nearly 20 percent of the entire pool were both. Applicants from rural backgrounds made up 22 percent of all applicants.

Racial minority, rural and urban applicants tend to have more in common than not. They are more likely to be first generation, come from low-income backgrounds, work full time while attending college, take a little longer to finish their degrees and accumulate a bit more undergraduate debt than their peers.

These applicants work hard, earning average GPAs of 3.4 to 3.6, and they have profiles that demonstrate high levels of resilience and persistence. Veterinary school applicants are notoriously hardworking and high performing, but the trends seen among applicants from underrepresented backgrounds suggest a meaningful level of grit and doggedness honed from scaling many barriers just to get to the application phase.

Resilience and doggedness should be highly desired characteristics; they tell us how applicants work under pressure, in the face of adversity and in response to hearing “no.” Demonstrations of grit and persistence tell us that students who, by virtue of circumstance — racism, poverty or low access due to geography — have learned to creatively problem solve, maneuver around barriers and figure out how to get to “yes.”

Overcoming Barriers

Now, certainly all veterinary applicants work hard and persevere to get to the application process, and many will eventually earn admission to veterinary school and become veterinarians. But the reality is that as much as 30 percent of the applicant pool show evidence of having more barriers to that very first step: the application process.

Some people will say that these applicants are not special, that they do not have anything substantively different to add to the profession, or even that they are fighting for positions that should go to more deserving candidates. The reality is that U.S. demographics are rapidly changing, and those changes directly impact the future of the veterinary profession. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that non-white populations will effectively become a minority in the mid-2040s, just over 20 years from now.

As I wrote in a previous article — “Hidden Talent,” April/May 2018 — linguistic diversity is growing, raising concerns about language accessibility in medical care. Widening income equality raises issues about access to health care for humans and animals. Finally, what we understand to be small-town rural America is vanishing as young people move to more urban areas, leaving communities brain-drained, economically marginalized and aging.

Ultimately, the short-version response is that the profession’s willingness and commitment to consider, foster and recruit more diversity in the veterinary profession is the first line of defense in making sure the profession remains relevant and responsive to the communities it serves. There is a great old adage that says, “If you don’t, someone else will.”

The good news is that veterinarians across all practice areas can play important roles in helping applicants from more diverse backgrounds scale the barriers and move toward a successful application process. Here are three ways:

1. Experience

As often as possible, offer prospective veterinary students paid experiential opportunities. Students from minority and low-income backgrounds are less likely to have family support and resources that allow for many volunteer opportunities in your clinics and laboratories. These students are more likely to work full time, take a little longer to complete their undergraduate education and accumulate educational debt before veterinary school. They cannot afford to gain animal and veterinary experience for free, and those experiences are critical to becoming a competitive veterinary school applicant.

More than half of the veterinary school applicants to the Class of 2023 reported accumulating nearly 1,200 veterinary experience hours. Applicants from underrepresented backgrounds were able to acquire similar hours, but because they often worked full time, the diversity of the experiences was more limited. Whenever possible, please offer paid experiences so that a wider array of prospective students are able to work toward competitiveness.

2. Mentoring

Actively seeking opportunities to mentor students from different backgrounds is a tangible way of helping to broaden diversity within the applicant pool. Minority and first-generation applicants report having fewer veterinary mentors than their peers, and just over half of the applicants from minority and low-income backgrounds rated the veterinary mentoring received as “far above average.”

Creating quality relationships with these prospective applicants is important in developing a diverse applicant pool. Mentoring should include shadowing time with you and your colleagues.

Also:

  • Connect students with your professional circles.
  • Introduce them to veterinarians in other kinds of practice.
  • Refer them to individuals who can help them develop an interesting set of experiences that will add to their understanding of the profession and their competitiveness.
  • Share your profession with students who might not otherwise get a peek at it.
  • When the time comes, commit to writing letters of recommendation.

Your mentoring commitment will not end there. Be sure to check in with them throughout their veterinary school years. These are the students whom you might look to hire years from now. Continue the relationship and continue to encourage them.

3. Scholarship Support

As I noted, students from underrepresented and marginalized backgrounds often have economic struggles that persist through their higher education pursuits. AAVMC’s most recent data show that applicants from low-income backgrounds accumulate as much as two times the undergraduate debt of their more affluent peers. Current discussions across the profession highlight major concerns about health and well-being, professional satisfaction and limited professional choices due to the need to service high amounts of debt.

While the educational debt of all students should concern us, applicants and students from low-income backgrounds are in the unenviable positions of suffering the economic impacts early and longer. To be blunt, poverty severely limits choice, and those limited choices result in a potential loss of talent for veterinary medicine.

Colleges of veterinary medicine are eager to increase scholarship aid to help minimize debt accumulation. Your contributions to need-based scholarship programs help to sustain a more diverse talent pool. Merit-based aid is important, and we have a responsibility to reward high-achieving students. Research across higher education shows that merit-based aid is disproportionately awarded to students from affluent backgrounds. Exclusively merit-based aid supports students who often have economic and educational supports that drive higher achievement. By targeting your scholarship contributions to need-based programs, you open a door for hardworking and often high-achieving students for whom money equates to access.

Veterinary professionals can do numerous other things to recruit and support a diverse applicant pool. These are simply three things you can start doing today.

Diversity Toolbox columnist Dr. Lisa M. Greenhill is senior director for institutional research and diversity at the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. AAVMC’s “Diversity & Inclusion” podcasts are available at http://bit.ly/2APLtk4.

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