Paying It Forward

Innovative youth outreach and scholarship programs support students to diversify and strengthen the veterinary profession.

By Jen Reeder

Youth Outreach Programs Diversify and Strengthen the Veterinary Profession

The “Critter Fixers” love veterinary medicine, and it shows. Vernard L. Hodges, DVM, and Terrence Ferguson, DVM—both graduates of Tuskegee University’s School of Veterinary Medicine—are the stars of National Geographic Wild’s “Critter Fixers: Country Vets,” which premiered in 2020 and is now in its sixth season. On the show, the two vets showcase their skills, humor, and compassion while treating a wide variety of pets at Critter Fixer Animal Hospital in Bonaire, Georgia.

“We’ve always been very interested in trying to increase diversity because we know what it feels like not to have a mentor,” Hodges said. “As our platform increased with ‘Critter Fixers: Country Vets,’ we found that more moms and dads and uncles and aunties were calling and saying, ‘How can my kid become you?’”

So in 2021, they launched the Critter Fixers Vet for a Day program to help educate and inspire the next generation of veterinary professionals. For the first event, over 50 students shadowed the veterinary team at their practice in rural Georgia. Some participants said they’d never seen a Black veterinarian before.

It is very important to us to find those mentors and introduce kids to the field of veterinary medicine because we feel like this is one of the best professions there is. Terrence Ferguson, DVM
Co-Star of National Geographic Wild’s “Critter Fixers: Country Vets”

With sponsorship from Zoetis, Vet for a Day expanded in 2022 to include events with volunteer veterinary mentors in six cities. That grew even more to 15 stops in 2023 with support from veterinary schools at universities like Cornell, Auburn, and Texas A&M. Over 1,000 students aged 12 through 16 have participated in the free program, which also provides free stethoscopes and bookbags and travel scholarships to some participants. In 2024, they aim to reach 3,000 students across the country.

In addition to working with Hodges to create Vet for a Day, Ferguson wrote a children’s book titled C Is for Critter Fixers to show even younger children that “it doesn’t matter what color you are, it doesn’t matter where you grew up, it doesn’t matter your economic or social background. If it’s something that you want to do, you can achieve it,” he said.

“When Hodges and I were in school, there were less than 2% of veterinarians who were Black, and sadly we’re still at that same number,” he said. “It is very important to us to find those mentors and introduce kids to the field of veterinary medicine because we feel like this is one of the best professions there is.”

Both men hope other veterinary professionals will volunteer at future events, said Hodges.

“It doesn’t matter what color you are. If you love this profession and you want to help kids, we would love to have you be a part of Vet for a Day,” he said.

Can Diversity Help the Vet Shortage?

Over 90% of US veterinarians are White, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, research from Mars Veterinary Health projects a shortage of roughly 24,000 veterinarians by 2030. So efforts to diversify the veterinary profession through youth outreach and scholarships can go a long way toward strengthening the profession in vitally important ways.

Last year at AAHA Con in San Diego, AAHA partnered with the nonprofit blendVET to offer a youth program called “Believe & Belong in Veterinary Medicine” to provide hands-on training to local students at the conference. blendVET, which offers Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) training and certifications for animal hospitals and individuals, organizes numerous events across the country each year as part of its Veterinary Pathway Program for underrepresented students.

“blendVET is very intentional about trying to help diversify the profession,” said Niccole Bruno, DVM, the nonprofit’s founder and CEO.

In a profession that’s so burnt out, sometimes we have to remember what our ‘why’ is. We forget when we first said we wanted to enter this career, but sometimes these children remind us of that ‘why.’ Niccole Bruno, DVM
CEO, blendVET

Sometimes veterinarians and support staff volunteer to participate in Pathway events at schools; in other instances, sponsors transport students to conferences. BlendVET offers resources in English and Spanish for parents of children interested in pursuing a career in veterinary medicine at both in-person events and online, such as the virtual mentorship platform Pawsibilities for kids 13 and up.

One mom emailed, “I am grateful for programs like this because I’ve always learned information that I don’t necessarily see online. I never feel judged.” Another told Bruno that because she told parents that being a pet owner can help children learn how to take care of animals, she allowed her son to use his allowance to buy a ball python.

“I think parents are the secret sauce when it comes to helping children,” Bruno said.

Her own mother found a way to help both Bruno and her sister become veterinarians, so she’s passionate about providing mentorship to parents and children, as well as creating volunteer opportunities for time-strapped veterinarians so they can just show up to Pathway events instead of organizing them.

“In a profession that’s so burnt out, sometimes we have to remember what our ‘why’ is,” she said. “We forget when we first said we wanted to enter this career, but sometimes these children remind us of that ‘why.’”

Children and their families can learn about veterinary medicine for free Monday through Friday and every second Saturday at the Dumb Friends League Veterinary Hospital at CSU Spur in Denver, Colorado. Colorado State University partnered with the 114-year-old animal shelter Dumb Friends League to create the educational facility, where visitors can observe—from behind a glass wall—veterinary teams perform surgeries on dogs and cats from low-income families. Bilingual guides and veterinary staff explain procedures and answer questions in English and Spanish via headsets.

Children participating in a mock vet clinic at the Dumb Friends League Veterinary Hospital at CSU Spur in Denver, Colorado to introduce them to the veterinary profession
Children can participate in a mock vet clinic at the Dumb Friends League Veterinary Hospital at CSU Spur in Denver, Colorado.

All signage appears in both languages, and videos offer captioning in Spanish. Bilingual employees receive a higher pay grade, according to Kathryn Venzor, director of education at CSU Spur.

“We really are trying to be as inclusive as we can and make our facility as accessible as we can,” she said. “The community that we are neighboring in our zip code is a historically marginalized community.”

Families who need help financing their pets’ veterinary care are not required to allow their dog or cat to be treated publicly, she noted, but most opt to allow their pets to participate in the “on-show veterinary clinic experience.”

The facility has hosted over 150,000 visitors—including over 13,000 pre-K to 12th grade students and chaperones on field trips—since opening its doors in January of 2022.

Young people also learn about veterinary medicine at the facility’s mock veterinary clinic, where students join a veterinary team and “treat” and “diagnose” stuffed animals. Additionally, there’s a virtual reality room to learn about anatomy in species like horses, cows, dogs, cats, and sheep.

Students who live in or attend school in the neighborhood’s zip code of 80216 qualify for $10,000 scholarships to any CSU campus, including to study veterinary medicine.

Vernard Hodges, DVM, (far left) helps to hold a chinchilla while a student listens to its heart.
Vernard Hodges, DVM, (far left) mentors a student during Vet for a Day.

“The first year, we had four students who enrolled and went to one of our campuses,” Venzor said. “This year, we have 50 applicants.”

Offering scholarships for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) college students is a priority for Companions and Animals for Reform and Equity (CARE), a nonprofit that works to increase DEIB in animal rescue and veterinary medicine, according to James Evans, the organization’s founder and CEO.

CARE created the Jodie G. Blackwell Scholarship Fund for BIPOC veterinary students and has donated nearly $250,000 in the past two years. They partnered with the BlackDVM Network and other groups to support the program and sustain funding. CARE plans to announce a scholarship fund for Indigenous students later in 2024.

The nonprofit also produces music videos to change perceptions of Black pet owners, like “That’s My Dog” by rapper DDm, and offers mentorship to start-up groups like Natives in VetMed, which supports Indigenous veterinary students and professionals. Earlier this year, CARE launched VetREDI, a self-paced course that focuses on the benefits to the veterinary industry when biases are removed.

“We are doing a lot because we don’t have the luxury of time,” Evans said. “We have a lot of things we have to do at the same time.”

One goal of VetREDI is to help anyone on a veterinary team understand the importance of making BIPOC clients feel welcome. For instance, people from marginalized Black communities often distrust medical professionals because of historical abuse, from the infamous Tuskegee experiment involving syphilis to testing the early chainsaw on Black mothers during childbirth, according to Evans.

“We’re not trying to overwhelm folks,” he said. “But we are trying to get them to understand that there’s a certain level of thoughtfulness that needs to happen if you want compliance—if you want people to show up (to your animal hospital), and then comply to the things you’re recommending. It’s all based on trust, and trust requires compassion.”

So increasing trust with clients to boost compliance and awareness of preventive care can benefit everyone involved—from current pet owners and future veterinary professionals to staff at animal hospitals and the pets themselves, he noted.

“When you walk through the world with an appreciation of what other people are going through, it makes for a richer life,” he said. “If you have entered the veterinary profession because you have compassion for animals, then you are going to be able to help more animals by understanding the people they’re connected to.”

If you have entered the veterinary profession because you have compassion for animals, then you are going to be able to help more animals by understanding the people they’re connected to. James Evans
Founder, Companions and Animals for Reform and Equity (CARE)

Alea Harrison, DVM, chief medical officer of Banfield Pet Hospital, which has over 1,000 locations in the United States, also feels strongly about the importance of DEIB in veterinary medicine and youth outreach. She’s participated in many school career days and other student events through Banfield Pet Academy, which launched 15 years ago to inspire future veterinary professionals. (Banfield offers a free curriculum for student events to the entire industry on Banfield Exchange.)

She’s still affected by the chance to speak about veterinary medicine at an inner-city school in Charlotte, North Carolina, years ago, where she met students who were experiencing homelessness.

“It changed my world,” she said. “Some of them, even living in shelters, had pets. That’s the only thing they owned and truly could express love for. To be able to sit and speak with this group of amazing children has been a lifelong lesson of appreciation.”

In 2021, Banfield launched NextVet paid internships for high school students to intern at Banfield practices around the country. Kenan Thompson, who played a veterinarian in the film “Clifford the Big Red Dog,” made a surprise appearance at a Boys and Girls Club in California to announce the program.

So far, 45 student interns have participated, and the organization plans to host another 30 students in 14 states this summer.

A high school student listens to a dog's heart.
High school students can intern at Banfield practices around the country through the NextVet program.

Harrison is grateful to the veterinary professionals who help inspire the next generation.

“It’s always important that we create time and space to make sure that we’re giving back,” she said. “We have a responsibility to develop future leaders.”

AAHA’s Inclusive Learning Programs

A young student listening to a golden retriever's heart
A student at work during the Believe & Belong in Veterinary Medicine event at 2023 AAHA Con.

The response to the Pathway youth outreach events organized by the nonprofit blendVET at AAHA’s last two annual conferences has been overwhelmingly positive, according to Judy Rose Lanier, CVPM, CVA, DES, VEMM and AAHA’s Learning Programs Manager.

“The volunteers talk about how it’s such a wonderful experience to bond with the kids and see the kids’ faces light up as they realize, ‘Hey, I could do this. I could be in vet med,’” she said. “The children each get a surgery gown to get prepared to go into ‘surgery,’ and some of the kids don’t want to take their surgery gown off afterward . . . .We’re hoping to be able to bring this on at every AAHA conference each year.”

Increasing diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) in the veterinary industry is important to AAHA and the increase in learning programs reflects that commitment, Lanier said. She credits James Heard, AAHA’s CFO, as the driving force behind DEIB initiatives, from having speakers who are neurodiverse educate the DEIB committee to encouraging conference attendees to share their pronouns on their name badges.

“Everybody wants to feel included, and everybody wants to have not only a safe space where they can bring up their ideas or feel comfortable, but a brave space where they feel empowered to be a part of what’s going on,” she said. “Our goal is to hopefully teach others how to do that within their practice.”

Learn more about AAHA Learning Programs at: pathlms.com/aaha

Photo credits: Critter Fixers Vet for a Day, CSU Spur, blendVET, and Banfield Pet Hospital

Advertisement

Close

Subscribe to NEWStat