Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging in Veterinary Education and Beyond

In an interview for Central Line: The AAHA Podcast, Tina Tran, DVM, associate professor and clinical relations lead veterinarian at the University of Arizona discusses how intertwined diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging are with her work in helping veterinary students enter the field as confident, empathic colleagues with the ability to handle conflict and to examine their own biases.

By Katie Berlin

An Interview with Tina Tran, DVM

When we asked Tina Tran, DVM, associate professor and clinical relations lead veterinarian at the University of Arizona, to chat with us for Central Line: The AAHA Podcast, we had a hard time narrowing down what to talk about. Besides being an educator, she’s a mom, a past president of the Multicultural Veterinary Medical Association (MCVMA), and a leader in veterinary telehealth. In the end, Tran discussed how intertwined diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) are with her work in helping veterinary students enter the field as confident, empathic colleagues with the ability to handle conflict and to examine their own biases.

Katie Berlin: When I suggested that we talk about DEIB and your work with the MCVMA, you said, “Well, that’s great. I’m happy to talk about that stuff. But I also want to make sure people know that I don’t just talk about DEIB.” And I was glad you said that, because DEIB is not a separate topic anyway.

Tina Tran: DEIB finds its way, quite honestly, into every part of veterinary medicine and outside of veterinary medicine. It may just not look exactly the same in every instance. If you think about client compliance, you have to consider the fact of access. Do they have the ability to do the things that you’re asking them to do as a veterinarian, as a technician?

“DEIB finds its way, quite honestly, into every part of veterinary medicine and outside of veterinary medicine.”

When I was very young in the profession, I thought, “Well, why are they not complying, why are they just flat out ignoring me?” I was working under the assumption that, “Well, if you want your dog’s eyes to get better, then you need to do this.” But I didn’t think about the fact that they don’t have the ability to go home every two hours to do that. Or in some cases, they physically can’t do that. Like elderly owners that are not able to manipulate their hands or restrain [pets] in order to do those things.

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When I came into the profession, I didn’t have kids. And then three or four years into the profession, we started our family, and it gave me a whole new perspective when families come in. You have a limited amount of time, so you have to decide what takes precedence. I think there are a lot of opportunities where we talk about DEIB, but maybe it doesn’t sound like that, right?

I have that conversation in veterinary conferences and then also with veterinarians that are working with our students out in practices to say, “This is how bias shows up; it’s a very natural thing to try to make order out of all the pieces of information coming in, and that is oftentimes based on your previous experiences.”

And sometimes there’s harm that’s caused in that—in the evaluation process, and in the way that you give feedback to people, and those types of things.

KB: What you said really resonates because if you have certain privilege and you are learning about people whose lived experience is different from yours, then you think, “Okay, DEIB is learning about other people.” But we all know the feeling of not belonging somewhere. Or of not being treated like we’re understood, and we’re heard. And one of the things that the focus on DEIB does is make us more empathetic to other people’s experience, whether it’s somebody who can’t get down on the floor and pill their dog, or somebody who is a single mom and has kids at home and just can’t do another thing that week.

So do you feel like people zoom in on you to talk about DEIB a lot and forget that you can talk about other things? Do you feel sort of pigeonholed?

TT: You know, I used to feel that way, particularly when I was still on the board for the Multicultural Vet Med Association. They knew that I was an officer and so they just assumed that’s my identity. [But] I can also talk to you about telemedicine. I can talk to you about nonclinical careers. I can talk to you about vet tech utilization. I can talk to you about what the current state of veterinary education looks like. And those things do have some intersection with DEIB. When you think about access to care, spectrum of care, how we’re evaluating [and] mentoring students, how we’re bringing people into the pipeline.

KB: I was wondering, in the distributive model of veterinary education, if students can choose hospitals where—say a student is Black, and they want to go to a hospital where they’re not going to be the only Black person—is there a way that you provide guidance for workplace education like that, or is that a roll of the dice?

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TT: We don’t have a formalized system where students can search for people that have similar identities at the practice regarding race and ethnicity, or even gender identity. Those things are not searchable within our database. I have been fortunate enough to build my network over time, and so I know that within our network, there are veterinarians and technicians at some of these hospitals that are Black, indigenous, and people of color.

In every class of students [at U of Arizona], we have more than 30% that identify as underrepresented in veterinary medicine with respect to race and ethnicity. I’ve had individual students reach out to me—they want to see representation; they want to be able to be in community with and mentored by somebody who looks like them. If I know that is one of their interests, then I will do my best to pair them with someone of a similar race or ethnicity.

“I can talk to you about vet tech utilization. I can talk to you about what the current state of veterinary education looks like. And those things do have some intersection with DEIB.”

That being said, there’s an interesting conversation around the idea of “does a mentor have to look like you?” Because I think to a certain extent, that can be misleading, and in the worst case, harmful. Just because you and I are Asian does not mean that we approach things the same, does not mean that we align around DEIB. I think that’s where it gets a little bit tricky to make this database, because at the end of the day, that won’t necessarily help a student. If [a Black student] gets into a situation where they’re being microaggressed and they turn to the Black veterinarian, the Black veterinarian might be like, “What’s the problem?”

KB: That’s a really good point. And when I asked that question, I was thinking about, say, if I went to a hospital where I was the only person who identified as female, and it would be hard for me to focus on my education if I felt like everyone was looking at me as a representative of an entire community because they’re not used to seeing somebody like me. So I was thinking about it more from that point of view versus a mentor, but obviously having a mentor who understands that your experience might be different because of your background or how you identify is helpful. But you’re right. We can’t assume based on how someone looks that they’re going to understand that.

TT: Yeah, and that their views are going to align with yours, whether it’s around gender identity or race and ethnicity. I’m sure that there’s a population of women veterinarians that will tell you that they went into a practice where there was another woman veterinarian [who] did not support them the way that they needed to be supported. At the end of the day, representation is important, and there are other things that are also important in order to support a student in that clinical setting.

GettyImages-469951511.pngKB: I’ve seen discussions where people feel like you can’t get a consistent education, [or] the same level of education, in a distributive model where you are going out into real world clinics and not at a teaching hospital. I wanted to ask what your thoughts are on that and what you see that says otherwise.

TT: I guess one of the things I will point out is, if you think about it, vet tech education is oftentimes utilizing the distributive model, and they have been from the jump. There are very few instances where tech students are actually working in a teaching hospital as part of their education. And that’s why I thought it was really interesting when I came to a DVM program as faculty and people said, “Oh no, this can’t happen, we can’t let people out into practices, they can’t learn stuff.” But we do it for vet tech students all the time.

I can only speak for our model. The way that we do distributive is that, yes, there are opportunities for the students to learn in general practice and shelter, and there are also opportunities for them to learn in specialty settings alongside boarded specialists, internists, orthopedic surgeons, equine internists, you name it. I always encourage the students, even if they think they know what they want to do, to get a breadth of experience. I do get a little bit soapboxy with students that say, “I’m doing small animal, I don’t want to do any equine. No large animal, nothing. I’m not doing any of it, Dr. Tran.” And I’m like, “But are you sure? Because how do you even know? Maybe there’s a piece of large animal that is your jam.” It’s not a job, you’re not signing a contract saying, “I’m working here, I’m moving here indefinitely.” It’s four weeks.

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At the end of the day, representation is important, and there are other things that are also important in order to support a student in that clinical setting.

Particularly in a teaching hospital setting, oftentimes there are a lot more required rotations you have to complete. And that’s one of the real benefits of being in our distributive model. We don’t track [the students] per se, but they have the ability to make decisions about, “Do I want to spend more time in small? Do [I] want to spend more time in large or with equine, or do [I] want to try a research rotation or something like that?” It gives them the flexibility to pursue the types of rotations that they think are going to be most meaningful for their education—within guardrails, obviously, because they have to be within our network.

All of the distributive models have some checks and balances in place to say, “Here’s what our expectations are for you to be a practice in our network, and here’s how we’re going to check in and look at feedback from the students, consider what our communications have been like, all those things, to decide moving forward if you stay in the network or not.”

KB: I’m one of those people who loved clinics. But then when I got out into practice, it was a little bit of a shock because you can’t just go around the corner and be like, “Hey, Derm, can you look at this?” No, Derm could not look at it. I was Derm.

TT: You were Derm!

KB: I was Derm, yes. In general practice in upstate New York, you are always Derm! I could have used more time in a different atmosphere where I learned different ways to do things and that not everybody was going to draw blood the same way, and not everybody was going to do this procedure set up the same way. That would probably have lessened the shock of launch.

TT: One of the things that our model does in Arizona, which I think is fantastic, is we have a group of veterinarians that are called Clinical Year Mentors. Essentially, they are remote veterinarians that have multiple years of practice, oftentimes are either boarded or have gone through internship and residency, and oftentimes are very active in organized veterinary medicine, that serve as another layer of support for our students when they’re in rotation.

So they’ve got their on-site veterinarian who is serving as their physical mentor when they’re in the clinic setting, then they’ve got us at the college full time. And then to have these Clinical Year Mentors has been great because it gives them a sounding board to say, “Okay, Dr. Berlin, I don’t know if this is okay, but I saw one of the doctors here doing X today.”

Clinical Year Mentors [are] helping to reinforce this idea that there’s not one way to do everything. And [they are] also validating some of their concerns and serve as the advocate for the student if they’re in challenging situations where they don’t necessarily feel comfortable asking that on-site veterinarian or addressing it directly with them.

I was in charge of the search where we hired probably 35 or so veterinarians to do this. I had no idea so many people wanted to do this part-time.

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KB: That’s really encouraging. That makes me feel very hopeful. I would have loved a person I [could have called] because I was freaked out by something that happened or I needed encouragement or they told me to do something and then they all went to lunch and I didn’t know what to do. And those nights where you’re just like, “Did I do the right thing?”

TT: Yeah, I think it’s a very common thing for our veterinary students to put so much pressure on themselves to be perfect and to know how to do the right thing in every situation. And one of the things I tell them is, “I don’t want to burst your bubble, but veterinary school is actually more about learning how to learn and how to communicate with people.”

I guess the other thing I’ll add about the distributive model is those practices are opting in; we are not forcing them to take students. They have had conversations with us to say, “These are our expectations of what’s happening in four weeks.” They get to decide which rotations they want to have students; they get to decide the maximum number of students they host in any one rotation. They have a lot of say in that part of it.

And I think a lot of the veterinarians love it. They love the opportunity to influence that next generation of veterinarians and to get up close to some of their soon-to-be colleagues. I think that’s a way to keep them on their toes and to keep them really excited about being in the profession too.

KB: Do you have any last thoughts you’d like to leave us with?

TT: I’m a big Winnie the Pooh fan. I want to leave everybody with one of those quotes, which is, “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.” Because there is some version of that that I tell my students on a regular basis, when they’re doubting their abilities, when they’re feeling scared. And the same thing with new grads and quite honestly, anyone who’s in the profession—you have these moments of doubt. Just realize, you can do it. You can do it. You might not be able to do it alone all the time, but you can do it. 

Catch a new episode of Central Line: The AAHA Podcast every Tuesday on all major podcast platforms, YouTube, and aaha.org/podcast. Send us feedback or questions anytime at podcast@aaha.org.

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Tina Tran, DVM, is associate professor and clinical relations lead veterinarian at the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine. After completing her undergraduate studies at University of California, Davis, Tran earned her veterinary degree from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She has spent more than half her career working with small animals in private practice, shelter medicine, and as a house call practice owner.

Photo credits: Vladimir Vladimirov/E+ via Getty Images, SDI Productions/E+ via Getty Images, DenGuy/iStock via Getty Images Plus, SeventyFour/iStock via Getty Images Plus, Phynart Studio/E+ via Getty Images

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