When I reflect on the pivotal moments of my life, it is common to think about my marriage and the birth of my children. But truthfully, getting accepted into veterinary college is probably what changed the trajectory of my life.
At the young age of 19 years old, I decided to commit my youth to eight intense years of studies and decades of my working life to helping animals. I do not regret my decision to become a veterinarian and believe it is my life’s calling and purpose. After all, I am grateful to the men and women who have helped guide my career.
The first time I applied to veterinary school, I was very naïve and believed that telling stories about why I loved animals was enough to differentiate me from the other candidates. Sadly, it was not, and I received a rejection letter that was so critical, I can still remember it verbatim 25 years later.
At the time, I was participating in a research study working with sturgeon fish and I remember the researcher brought in a veterinarian to look at a few of the sick fish. Clearly, I could not hide my defeat because this stranger immediately asked me why I was so depressed. I had already bottomed out so telling my woeful tale was certainly not going to make me feel worse. I shared that I had been rejected from veterinary school. The veterinarian asked to see my application and after reading it, he said that he could see why I was rejected, but he was willing to help me.
I was skeptical and asked why he would help me. I was a stranger he had just met. He told me that 20 years ago, someone helped him, and he was simply returning the favor. And one year later, he was the first person I called when I was accepted into veterinary school. And I have shared that story with each of the 12 students I have mentored into veterinary school with the hope and expectation they will carry on the revolutionary work that was started by a random veterinarian over forty years ago.
I have found that the term “mentoring” has become a buzzword that has intimidated many of my colleagues. There is a frightening vision that mentoring consists of weekly training sessions, endless paperwork, and extra liability insurance. During the pandemic, we were all stretched so thin that the thought of adding mentoring to our task list felt overwhelming. But I am here to tell you that mentoring will energize and rejuvenate your love for veterinary medicine and animals. Mentoring can take so many forms that you may discover that you are already a mentor and did not even know it!
Here are some ways that I have supported the future generation of veterinarians:
Make Mentoring a Family Activity
When my children were very young, the term “veterinarian” was long and complicated to say, let alone understand! So, I simply told them I was an animal doctor. They told their friends and teachers that “mommy was an animal doctor” and suddenly, I was the most popular parent around (until a firefighter showed up). The preschool frequently hosted special guests’ and I was invited to speak to the class. I introduced myself as an animal doctor and asked the students who had a pet or knew a pet.
Every child loves to talk about the special furry friend in their life and they were so proud to tell me a story about their pet. I made a quick powerpoint presentation to show pictures of veterinarians with elephants, fish, and companion animals. The best part of the presentation was playing “Guess what Fluffy ate” where I showed x-rays of things dogs had eaten including spoons, toys, and fishing hooks. It was fun for the kids to guess each item but was also very educational as it reminded kids of why they should clean up their toys! For about a week after my guest session, I was mobbed each time I went to pick up my kids. If you don’t have children, there are many schools that ask for special guest visits and may even bring therapy dogs in to help make your presentation more interactive and dynamic.
Perhaps in 20 years, I will encounter one of these young students in a veterinary clinic and wonder if my talk started them on the journey to becoming an “animal doctor”.
Give a High School Student a Break!
I think we can all remember the tedium and monotony of high school and the excitement when a substitute teacher or special guest arrived. I have been asked to present for high school classes on several occasions and have found that age group to be curious and often desperate for someone to provide guidance on academics and careers. These presentations are often more intense and detail-oriented than my sessions with kindergartners and I can highlight the different aspects of our profession.
I usually start by sharing some of my background, which includes being a mediocre high school student! I share that I only started to excel in academics at university when I became laser-focused on becoming a veterinarian. When I was in high school, you either became a teacher, or lawyer, or joined the human-medical profession. Programs such as agriculture, animal husbandry, and livestock production were not discussed or offered.
There is a bit more work that goes into preparing a presentation for a high school class, but I have found that every veterinarian can share a story or two about how they decided to become a veterinarian and the journey they took to becoming accepted into veterinary college. There have been times when I have looked at the faces of bored high-school students and wondered why I came to present. Then, a shy student bravely puts up their hand to ask about my job or waits after class to discuss their future career goals. Many students rarely get the chance to interact with professionals and your impact can shape someone’s future.
Remember When You Were a “Pre-Vet” Student?
Even though I am almost 50 years old, I still vividly remember being a university pre-veterinary student and the pressure to get exceptional grades and also relevant veterinary experience. Those were probably the most stressful years of my life as I contemplated my career choices and the long academic commitment. One of the greatest difficulties was finding meaningful veterinary experiences in the field. I was very fortunate as I was able to find veterinarians in several facets of our profession, including small, large, and aquatic medicine. It was a struggle, so I spent so much time mentoring pre-veterinary students.
What I have found to be easy and effective when working with pre-veterinary students is to have them in the exam room with me, primarily to hear me interact with pet parents and record my digital medical records. Our clinic had a poster up to advise owners that we are an educational clinic and they may encounter students during their visit.
I am strategic in planning the days and appointments I choose to have students and always advise the owner in advance that I would like to bring in a student, but only if the owner is comfortable. It can seem awkward at first to have a student listening to my discussions, but I have found that owners are very excited to meet the next generation of veterinarians. This also helps pre-veterinary students see the veterinarian–client–patient relationship in action and why effective communication is so important. By having the student record the history, it helps develop their cognitive skills as we discuss relevant history, physical exam findings, and next steps. I always advise the student to bring in a notebook or recording device to take notes of remarkable cases we may see and how we created a plan. Many of these students quickly moved from volunteers to assistants and later on, veterinarians.
Supporting the New Veterinarian
When I was in my first month of veterinary school, a professor told us we would graduate with “20% of the knowledge we needed to become a competent veterinarian”. Not even a good veterinarian! Looking back, I think that was a generous estimate.
The first few years as a veterinarian can be brutal to navigate. Because of this, I feel we have a responsibility to our profession to support the next generation of veterinarians. Mentoring does not have to mean daily rounds, reviewing paperwork, and auditing bills. I love working with new graduates as they bring in new information, new skills, and an enthusiasm that I may be lacking! I routinely ask the new graduates if I can pick their brain about a case and this opens a great dialogue on complicated cases within the hospital. Certainly, you can formalize a mentoring process with frequent check-ins or reviews, but mentoring can even be a simple “how are things going and how can I help?”.
For new graduates who are interested in being mentored, I simply ask “what does mentoring look like for you”. Often, it just means assurance that they can discuss a case or seek a second opinion. I have found that I have become a veterinarian by simply working beside newer graduates and discussing cases. In addition, I also feel that the newer graduates have become more confident veterinarians by knowing that even I don’t have an answer for all the cases.
I have accomplished a lot in my career, but nothing compares to the joy and satisfaction of welcoming a student I mentored into our profession and watching them grow into their skills. 25 years ago, a veterinarian saw my potential and changed the course of my life. Thus, I am hopeful that I have returned the favour.
Dr Jane Vermeulen
Dr Vermeulen graduated from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in 2002 and her education is varied and includes a Bachelor of Science (Agriculture) and a Master of Public Administration. She has mentored over ten pre-veterinary students who became practicing veterinarians.
She is a small animal practitioner working as an associate in emergency, specialty and general practice with an interest in feline medicine, dermatology, nutrition and practice management. She spent part of her career within the veterinary nutrition field, including positions with Royal Canin Canada and Purina Pro Plan Veterinary Diets. She is the founder of Vets for Pets Victoria, a non-profit organization that provides free preventative veterinary care to the pets of homeless and low-income pet owners in downtown Victoria. In March 2018, she was recognized nationally as a L’Oréal Paris Canada Woman of Worth for her dedication to helping pets and strengthening the bond between pet parents and their pets.
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