Graduation inspiration for veterinarians at every stage of their careers

Seek mentors, cautiously embrace technology, lean on your team—and other insights from 2023 veterinary school commencement and white coat ceremony speakers.

By Kristen Green Seymour

There’s nothing quite like graduation season to get folks thinking about what advice they’d most like to offer new graduates as they prepare to enter the workforce—and that’s especially true for individuals who are invited to speak at veterinary school ceremonies.  

We asked a few of the folks who spoke at commencements and white coat ceremonies this year to share what they believe was the most important takeaway from their speeches. And trust us when we tell you that these insights will be useful for new grads and established professionals alike. 

Bonnie Smith spoke at 2023 commencement for the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine

Bonnie Smith, DVM: Self-care is crucial

Smith has always considered herself a teacher at heart—she’s happiest when she’s amidst her “brood” of students—and so she was understandably pleased to be this year’s commencement speaker at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, where she’s been a veterinary educator since 1991.  

Among the important points from her speech: “I pointed out that they got through vet school by using teamwork and [stressed] the importance of keeping on with that through their careers,” she said. “I mentioned the importance of remembering the entire experience—both good and bad—and using it as a basis to help them remember that it’s never all roses or all gloom. Most importantly, I stressed that the new graduates must always remember to take care of themselves, as well as their patients and clients—that, to be their best to everyone, they must first be best to themselves, and not to lose their individuality and precious souls to their work.” 

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Vernard Hodges, DVM: Don’t go it alone 

Along with Terrance Ferguson, DVM, his business partner and co-star of Nat Geo’s Critter Fixers: Country Vets, Hodges spoke to the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine’s Class of 2023 about the importance of finding the right support in a career that can be as challenging as it is rewarding. 

“Find the right mentor throughout your whole vet career,” he said. “Twenty-five years in, I still have mentors, people I can call on, because there are always going to be difficult cases, outcomes we can’t control, and clients we have to deal with in different ways.” 

Additionally, he told the new grads to embrace an attitude of gratitude, especially when it’s not easy to do so. “Just like in vet school, we’re all stressed – but remember to be grateful to be there. Sometimes, stressing is a blessing.” 


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 Justine Lee, DACVECC, DABT: Know when to use (and when to lose) technology

As the co-founder and owner of a veterinary technology company (the online veterinary CE company VETgirl), Lee offered a few words of wisdom regarding technology to the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine’s Class of 2023 in her commencement address. 

“Embrace technology, yet be aware of it,” she said.You all have been born into a technologically advanced age in veterinary medicine—from online learning, electronic medical records and electronic ICU treatment sheets, telemedicine, wearables, 3-D printing, advanced diagnostics, artificial intelligence, Google glasses and more! Embrace technology in that it may make you more efficient in daily veterinary practice, which can then help better your work-life balance.” But, she noted, there’s a flip side. 

“That said, the loss of human connection, despite social media apps that attempt to connect us, have created one of the largest generations of lonely. Learn to break up with your phone and truly connect. Take the time to be bored without reaching for your phone, as through boredom comes creativity.” 

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Carl Southern, DVM: Don’t forget your why

Southern, who spoke at the University of Florida School of Veterinary Medicine’s commencement for the second year in a row, encouraged the class of 2023 to be mindful of what it took to get where they are as they grow into their careers—and to remain ready to provide the same inspiration that drove them to become doctors. 

“Remember where you came from, remember how hard you worked, how hard you studied, and how much you learned, all the early mornings, the never-ending long nights. All the sacrifices you made, all the birthdays, holidays, family events, and celebrations that you missed—it was all worth it because your time to celebrate you has arrived,” he said.  

He also urged the audience to remember that with their degree comes a new duty. “Don’t forget that even if you don’t want this responsibility, you will soon be someone’s role model and you will have a multitude of aspiring young veterinarians picking your brain apart, trying to emulate you, trying to get where you are. Keep it real with them and reflect back on all the people, mentors, parents, friends, teachers, and classmates that helped you reach your goals.” 

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A’ndrea Van Schoick, DVM: Find a system that works for you

Van Schoick addressed the Cornell School of Veterinary Medicine as the White Coat Ceremony speaker this year, and in her speech to students entering their fourth year of vet school, she covered some varied ground—starting with the importance of steering clear of the comparison trap. 

“Please try not to compare your learning or career trajectory to that of another. We all get to be where we need to be in our own way and our own time. Be grateful for where you are in the moment and don’t let others’ experiences, perceived experiences, or highlight reels on social media pull you down,” she said. 

She went on to talk about the importance of community, comparing one’s network of trusted colleagues to the Diamond Dogs of Ted Lasso. “We do not need to have all the answers. But we do need to know how to find them, so we need to know who and what our resources are and how to access them. Therefore, start thinking about your resources. For your veterinary medical life, this could be mentors, clinicians and faculty members, study groups and classmates, apps on your phone, and more. It can be any of the members of your veterinary practice team: technicians, receptionists, kennel attendants. Everyone has something to contribute,” she said. “Part of the continuous learning mindset that is critical to our long-term success as veterinarians, as partners, and as people is learning about ourselves and continued personal development. Asking for feedback is a part of that. Your Diamond Dogs are your go-to group for this. Ask for help. There is no shame in that. But remember—you know more than you think. Do have faith in that.” 

Van Schoick also shared the system that helps her avoid internalizing her mistakes. “Step 1: Leave it at work.” If, by the end of her commute home, she’s still worrying about an outcome, a nasty client, a perceived slight, etc., she said, “I move to step 2 and consult one or two of my Diamond Dogs, and I’ll either be buoyed by their reassurance, or have plenty to consider for how to approach things differently.” And if that doesn’t do the trick, it’s on to step 3. “I will write it down on a scrap of paper and either shred it, toss it in the trash, or do some other ceremonial destruction of the offending idea.” Her specific system might not be right for everyone, but, she said, “Find a system that works for you to process your days, learn from them, then let them go.” 

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Francisco Conrado, DVM, MSc, DACVP: Realize that nobody knows it all

As the faculty speaker for the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine’s Class of 2023, Conrado approached his speech by asking himself what he wished he’d known at his own graduation, and what lessons he’d found most helpful in the 14 years since. With that in mind, he focused on three concepts. 

The more you know, the less you know. “Think of all you have accumulated in that big brain of yours for the past four years. Now, that doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of what is out there to be known,” he said. “As you move onto the next step in your career, you will notice something that can be very disturbing at first, which is: The more you know, the less you know. If anything, I hope we taught you how to say, ‘I don’t know,’ with confidence, and how to look up answers with your chin up. You have to be able to find the right answers, even if it means phoning a friend . . . or a former pathology professor.”  

Don’t miss the important things in life for the minor inconveniences. “Don’t miss the Aelurostrongylus abstrusus larvae for the neutrophilic inflammation, metaphorically speaking,“ he said. 

Be your own person and don’t compare yourself to others. “Listen to that inner voice that hums inside your head. Don’t compare yourself to the next veterinarian. Don’t set your pace based on someone else’s,” he said. “You are all so unique, and so interesting, and so talented. I can’t wait to see where life is going to take you, and the humans you are going to become.” 

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Mathew Gerard, BVSc, PhD, DACVS: Don’t neglect your social fitness

Gerard, who was selected as the faculty speaker by the North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine Class of 2023, focused on the critical importance of mental health, and he began by recommending three books he’d recently read: 

  • Breath: The New Science of a Lost Art by James Nestor 
  • The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World by Joe Keohane 
  • The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness by Robert Waldinger and Mark Schulz 

To paraphrase The Good Life, he said, “If you are going to make that single decision, that one choice, that could best ensure your own health and happiness, the science says your choice should be to cultivate meaningful relationships. We often consider our diet, our physical fitness, how much sleep we are getting, and we neglect to think about and check in on our social fitness. Our social fitness rises to the top of the most important factors for health and happiness. And it is never too late to work on our social fitness! It is never too late to make a meaningful connection and reap the benefits of doing so. 

Although the books provide sound advice, Gerard acknowledges that reading the books isn’t the same thing as doing the work. 

“Were it all so easy!” he said. “None of what these books enlighten us to do comes without purposeful effort and a good measure of discomfort at times. But I do believe, if we learn to breathe, if we connect with each other, and if we cultivate and nurture relationships, we will thrive. We will live the good life.” 


Photos courtesy of those interviewed.  

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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