A ‘Mission’ to increase representation through high school work-study program

A work-study partnership between Mission Animal Hospital and Cristo Rey Jesuit High School is giving students from underrepresented backgrounds a jumpstart on vet med careers—and helping diversify the profession in the process.

By Kristen Green Seymour

At Mission Animal Hospital just outside Minneapolis, a successful work-study partnership with Cristo Rey Jesuit High School–Twin Cities has proven to be enormously beneficial—not just for the practice itself, but for the students who participated in the work-study program and, some optimists might say, for the veterinary profession at large.

Across the country, there are 37 Cristo Rey Corporate Work Study programs—but this is the first one in a veterinary clinic. The Mission Animal Hospital program came to be through a proposal from the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association’s (MVMA) Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Action Team, which saw an opportunity to take steps toward increasing representation and a sense of belonging in veterinary medicine by connecting with youth in diverse communities.

The Cristo Rey–Twin Cities student population was a good fit for this goal, with 86% of students identifying as Hispanic, 10% as African or African American, and 4% as multiracial; additionally 86% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch, and the average family income of Cristo Rey students is $44,933.

Another reason this work-study program was an excellent fit for a veterinary clinic is the fact that Cristo Rey students are highly motivated; the class of 2023 had a 100% college acceptance rate.

And, when it comes to achieving the MVMA’s DEI goal, Mission Animal Hospital was just as well-suited as the school: The practice’s mission is to make veterinary care available to everyone, regardless of circumstances, because, they believe,everyone has the right to have a relationship with a pet.

“Financial resources are perhaps the largest and most obvious barrier to pet care, which we address by tiered pricing and flexible payment options,” said Kellie Lager, SHRM-CP, Mission’s human resources director.

“However, there are many other barriers that keep people from seeking and receiving quality pet care. The veterinary industry is, historically, predominantly white and homogenous. It’s hard for clients—and employees—to walk into a space where they feel ‘othered,’” she said.

“By introducing veterinary medicine as a viable career option to young students of all identities, we can address the lack of diversity at its roots.”

This is important for a variety of reasons, according to Lager. “A diverse veterinary workforce can better understand and cater to the unique needs of a diverse clientele and their pets, actively considering cultural differences, language barriers, and varied socioeconomic backgrounds in decisionmaking,” she said.

“This should ultimately lead to more innovative and effective solutions in animal healthcare and enhance the industry’s capacity to provide compassionate and high-quality care to all pets and their owners.”

Part of the team

Four high school students participated in the work-study program, sharing a 40-hour work week throughout the academic year. These students performed duties like taking patient histories, running SNAP tests, entering charges and vaccines into medical records, and discussing vaccines with clients.

“Most of the duties remained the same over the year, but student knowledge and ability to carry them out greatly improved and expanded!” said Lager.

“For example, our students regularly stepped in to help the team take full patient histories; by the end of the term, some of our students were also frequently helping our teams translate for our Spanish-speaking clients! It was great to see them grow in confidence and step up to complete tasks without being asked.”

The staff at Mission made a point to help these students feel like they were truly part of the team; Ashley Lambert, Mission’s veterinary assistants’ manager, said that was often her top priority.

“Ultimately, I wanted each of the students to look forward to coming to Mission each week. On a human level, we all perform our best when we feel a sense of belonging and enjoy what we’re doing, which helps create that intrinsic motivation to succeed,” she said.

“Furthermore, it’s no secret that the veterinary field is struggling to meet demand. From a recruitment perspective, getting fresh minds in early and building a preliminary understanding of spectrum of care only benefits the field and the communities we serve.”

The training was designed to help that team spirit occur organically, too, Lambert said.

“In the beginning, each student was paired one-on-one with an assistant, and [then with] a different assistant each week. As the students gained confidence, they were then paired with teams, a team comprised of one assistant, one technician, and one veterinarian,” she said. “Having them work alongside a different group of people each week gave everyone the opportunity to get to know each other effortlessly.”

The right steps toward a warm welcome

Mission has a large staff that really thrives on welcoming and supporting one another, said Ashley Tradewell, CVT, veterinary technicians’ manager.

“This includes any mentees, veterinary students and veterinary technology students that are spending time with us whether for a short time or an extended time,” she said. “They become a part of our Mission family.”

Still, welcoming high school students with no previous training or experience was new, and Mission took steps to not only ensure the students felt welcome, but to help staff feel prepared and supported as well.

“Our human resources director (Lager) sent emails to staff ahead of time to inform them about this program and expectations,” said Katherine Nielsen, DVM, veterinarians’ manager.

That step was key, said Tradewell, but it wasn’t the end of Lager’s efforts to prepare employees.

“This email was the first step. The second step was having an all-staff meeting to discuss this further. This included more in-depth information such as how long they were with us and the skills that were permitted to complete plus answering any questions the staff had,” Tradewell said.

The last step, she said, was the reiteration of something Mission’s managers have worked with staff on doing with all new hires: making clear introductions and intentionally creating opportunities to engage with the new team members, whether it was through a simple conversation or by looping them in on a case or skill in which they’ve shown interest.

“Remember that you were once them. Make sure they have the great experience you had, or the experience you wished you had,” said Tradewell, who still remembers joining the Mission family over seven years ago as a new graduate.

“They sought out Mission for this opportunity, let’s show them every great thing about our establishment. Open and honest communication between all parties is essential for success.”

Lambert found that framing the students’ arrival in a way that was familiar to her team was helpful, instructing her staff to welcome and train the students as much as they would any new hire.

Once all the students elected to continue their learning with the medical team, she said, they developed a training plan.

“This training plan is a streamlined version of the typical assistant training plan, optimized for the student role,” she said. “It’s a physical document where the students achieve sign-offs from staff as they learn and demonstrate new skills, a clear and visual way of tracking progress.”

“Take the leap”

This program was a clear success for Mission, for the students, and for the MVMA, which recently received its first “Best in Business” award from the Veterinary Medical Association Executives for their work on this partnership. However, there are a few things that interested practices should consider before embarking on this type of work study program.

“I think it is important for a practice to have the resources and staff to partner staff members with students,” Nielsen said. “We are all busy, but if staff are unwilling to teach, this will not be successful. The practice must embrace a teaching mindset and staff must be welcoming to new people.”

And it’s important to remember that, as responsible and eager to assist as they may be, high school students are still high school students. “[T]hey are still minors, and there are additional safety considerations that may vary from hospital to hospital; and your staff may need reminding of this,” Lambert said.

“For example, students were not afforded the opportunity to participate in radiographic imaging, due to the radiation exposure.”

Overall, though, Mission hopes more veterinary hospitals will open their doors to programs like this.

“Honestly, take the leap into this partnership and indulge in the experience, even if it is only once,” recommended Tradewell. She acknowledged that welcoming students can be a daunting task, but insists it’s worth any initial discomfort.

“They are incredibly eager and ready to help in any way they are permitted to do not only to help your team, but to further their growth and success within this program.”

And she added, if your practice tries it out and finds it’s not quite the right fit, of course that’s absolutely okay.

“However, you will not know if you do not take the initial leap,” she said. “Gosh, you may even find, [like we did at] Mission, that y’all adore the experience, and become delighted watching them grow and succeed in their experience with you, and want to continue participating.”

Want more inspiration? Get an inside look at Mission’s work-study program in this video.

Photo credit:  © MicroStopHub E+ via Getty Images Plus

Disclaimer: The views expressed, and topics discussed, in any NEWStat column or article are intended to inform, educate, or entertain, and do not represent an official position by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) or its Board of Directors.




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