MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) has joined 12 other U.S. veterinary schools and colleges to inspire future veterinarians through This Is How We Role, a program for children in kindergarten through fourth grade who are educationally disadvantaged due to socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity.
This Is How We Role provides training and materials to help veterinarians and veterinary students introduce children to the range of careers in the veterinary profession, with the long-term goal of diversifying the veterinarian-scientist workforce. The after-school science program is designed to increase awareness of the important role veterinarians play in keeping people and their pets healthy. The Science Education Partnership Award program of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences of the National Institutes of Health supplies funding for This Is How We Role.
“It’s a very low budget program, but I think it will be very high impact,” says Dusty Nagy, an associate teaching professor in the CVM’s Food Animal Medicine and Surgery Service. “It’s a great opportunity to pull sciences into the lives of young kids who may or may not actually have interest, scope, skill or experience in those arenas. No one learns much about anatomy and physiology in that kindergarten-to-fourth-grade timespan, but I think it’s a good time to expose kids, because that’s when you can be anything. ”
CVM Dean Carolyn J. Henry tabbed Nagy, DVM, MS, PhD, to lead the program implementation at Lee Elementary School in Columbia. A pilot program was developed at Purdue University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 2016, with the nationwide expansion announced in November 2017.
Diversity, a primary goal of the program, will also be a tool of the CVM effort.
“When Dean Henry brought this program to my attention, I thought, ‘This is awesome. What a great thing to do,’” Nagy says. “I think this is a great program to kind of get in, work with younger kids, and expose them to something they likely haven’t seen before, as well as people they haven’t seen before. We’re going to use VOICE — Veterinary Students as One in Culture and Ethnicity — as the student group that will help administer this program. They are kind of the cornerstone club for diversity at the vet school. VOICE members are not all minority students, which I think is great, so the kids will see that our participants — at both the student and faculty levels — are also diverse.
“It will give us the opportunity to expose some kids to something that’s a little bit different,” Nagy says. “It gives us an opportunity to give back, to meet some kids who could probably use some mentorship, some guidance, and to expose them to something they may never have had the opportunity to see. I love programs like this.”
Nagy gives programs of this nature an A simply for effort.
“For kids, regardless of what they choose to do, I think the more experience they have in that arena, the more they know if it is — or is not — what they want to do,” Nagy says. “Even if kids come to a program like this and say, ‘Yuck, that’s gross and I never want to do that again,’ that’s a benefit, too. They’ve had that exposure and they know it’s not a path they want to go down. I think that’s important. I think everybody has an ideal job, they just have to find it.”
Reflecting on her upbringing in Columbia, Maryland, Nagy recalls identifying her ideal job at an early age.
“I was one of those kids who, from the age of 7, was saying, ‘I will be a veterinarian!’ I never had any interest in doing anything other than driving around and taking care of cows.”
For children who do not see an early career path, Nagy views This Is How We Role and the CVM’s annual Open House in a similar light.
“This is an exciting opportunity, much like our Open House, to bring kids in to see what we do and experience what we do,” she says. “Sometimes at Open House the adults are just as excited as the kids are about what’s going on here. I think those are all really neat opportunities for the people who attend and good exposure for the people who host these events.”
Faculty and students participating in the mentoring program will have to get some schooling of their own, successfully completing several online training modules, before they can begin the program in the fall. Nagy is confident the Mizzou mentors, even with their hectic schedules, will be ready to go when public schools re-open.
“This is a fully set program. It’s a proven structure, not a jam session,” Nagy says. “But, even when you put prepared materials into the hands of individuals who have been trained the exact same way, they all bring their own little spice to it.
“I think I’m going to enjoy participating in this,” Nagy continues. “The faculty that are involved are all very interested. Our students, generally speaking, love to teach. They always seem gung-ho to work with kids. So, I’m happy that our people — not just the kids — will get the chance to do something a little bit different.”
Nagy wants to emphasize the experience, not expectations, for the Lee School students in the program.
“I’m going to work the program and see what happens,” she states. “Honestly, I set a low bar for things like this. I don’t have lofty goals. I think high expectations can be overwhelming to small children. I like programs that have minimal expectations on kids, programs that just present experiences that expose them to the world. This program is one of those things.
“If the kids come and enjoy what they’ve done, whether they ever make a decision based on this program or not, I’m OK with that,” Nagy says. “If it changes somebody’s life, fantastic. I think just the experience and the exposure to a whole new set of people, a different type of curriculum, will be a great opportunity. I hope this will be fun for them. I don’t care if any of them go to vet school or not, but at least they will have had some degree of exposure to something different.
“Programs like this — or art programs, music programs — can spark a lifelong interest for a child, whether as a profession or just something to make them happy in their personal lives,” Nagy says. “This is fantastic for kids. This is one of those things you do because it’s good to do and right to do, not because it’s going to get you some money.”
Exposure to the profession may be of pivotal importance to increasing minority representation in veterinary medicine. Once attributed to shortcomings in college recruitment, it appears now that cultural ideals and differences may play a large role in nonwhite students not entering the veterinary field.
Nagy, who is African-American, was raised with pets.
“A lot of minority households don’t have pets in the home. We almost always had a dog. A lot of my friends and family were like, ‘Why do you have that thing in the house?’ But, for me, it was a good thing.”
Data from American Demographics indicates that, compared to an average American household, African-American families are 57 percent less likely to own a pet, Asian households are 28 percent less likely, and Hispanic families are 20 percent less likely. If children grow up without interactions and relationships with pets, they probably will not value animals in the same way as children who do have pet relationships and responsibilities.
It is worth noting; however, that veterinary education enrollment is beginning to follow population trends. The Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) reported in 2003 that less than 10 percent of U.S. veterinary students claimed nonwhite status. In 2013, 97.3 percent of veterinarians in the workforce were white.
In its 2017-18 report, the AAVMC found that students identifying as African-American/Black, Asian, Hispanic/Latin, or Multi-racial/Multi-ethnic comprise approximately 20 percent of the national class of 2021 in U.S. veterinary schools and colleges.