Animal Health Matters: Finding the hook for future veterinarians

Dr. Jessie Juarez
Special to the Farm Forum
Dr. Jessie Juarez, Director of Professional Program in Veterinary Medicine

Editor's note: Russ Daly, the writer of Animal Health Matters, is currently on vacation until May 2023. Guests columnists from the region will be writing this bi-weekly publication during his absence.

When did you know that your chosen career was right for you? How did you gain exposure or knowledge of your career path?

For me, it was a failed ninth grade science career day assignment that led me to veterinary medicine. I was all set to shadow my next-door neighbor who was a nurse in the ER department at a local hospital. Unfortunately, due to rules and regulations, I was unable to shadow as planned.

A quick phone call to the local veterinarian provided me with an opportunity to shadow a mixed animal veterinarian for the day. By 9 a.m. as the second canine patient of the day was prepared for surgery (removal of a mass on the dog’s shoulder), I was hooked. The combination of medicine, surgery, diagnostics and serving the community was intriguing and challenging to me, and I set forth on my journey to becoming a veterinarian.

After eight years at Iowa State University and earning three degrees, I was off as a newly minted veterinarian to a town in Wisconsin to be a dairy veterinarian. Little did I know at that time the decision to become a veterinarian would lead me on many adventures across the world and provide an opportunity to educate the next generation of veterinarians.

As the Director of the South Dakota State University (SDSU) Professional Program in Veterinary Medicine (PPVM) I have conversations with prospective veterinary students frequently to provide information and insight into the veterinary profession. Often the starting point is curiosity into what it takes to become a veterinarian.

Although a bachelor’s degree is not required for SDSU PPVM, most students applying to veterinary school have completed most or all of a bachelor’s degree. Each school has a set of pre-requisite coursework that is required for admission. At SDSU, courses in biology, general chemistry, organic chemistry, physics, genetics, biochemistry, English and other coursework is required.

Once students have completed coursework, they will apply to veterinary school. The application process takes months to complete the required essays, obtain letters of recommendation and complete the necessary information. Most schools require applications to be completed in the fall, and it takes time to evaluate the transcripts for grade point (GPA) assign the application to a panel of reviewers from the admissions committee, complete interviews and make decisions regarding admissions of the next class of veterinarians.

Veterinary school is an intense four years of school, that requires students to take a multitude of coursework to prepare them as veterinarians. At SDSU, first year students spend most of their days learning about what “normal” animals should look like and how they should function. Coursework in anatomy, physiology, genetics, and immunology dominate the first-year curriculum. Second year is focused on learning what is considered “abnormal” in animals, learning more about diseases, pathology and how that translates to treating the animals (medicine and surgery courses).

Because the SDSU PPVM is a “2+2” program, the first two years will be completed at SDSU and the final two years of veterinary school is completed at the University of Minnesota St. Paul Campus. Our program is focused on educating the next generation of rural veterinarians to return to the Midwest.

Many hands-on opportunities exist for our students starting day one in the Clinical Skills curriculum, where they can learn skills such as suturing, wound care and bandaging. We are also very fortunate to have a full-size cow OB model where a life-size calf can be placed inside in various malpresentations and students can work to identify the malpresentation, correct the malpresentation and pull the calf.

Opportunities to take what is learned in the classroom and translate to real-world needs is what allows our students to be engaged in the curriculum from the start. Another feature of our program is the small class size, with 20 students in each year’s cohort. As an instructor, the ability to engage and interact with the small class size has been one of the most fun aspects of starting the new program.

This fall our first class (Class of 2025) will be transitioning to the University of Minnesota for year three and four of the DVM curriculum. After graduation, some students choose to pursue further education in the form of internship and residencies in specific areas of veterinary medicine. However, most students choose to enter the workforce as veterinarians. We are excited for the future of our students and to see where they make contributions as veterinarians.

Dr. Jessie Juarez is the Director of the South Dakota State University Professional Program in Veterinary Medicine.