Diversity Issues in Veterinary Medicine
A Student Perspective
February 10, 2016
by Ty Marshall-Blanche
What is it like to be in a room and see no one who looks like you? Can this have an affect on your veterinary education? Photo by Darren Hauck/AP Images for HSVMA
What’s it like to sit in a room full of people and be the only person of color? To look around and see no one who looks like you? This is a question that I have to explore on almost a daily basis. As a black woman in veterinary school, it is a normal occurrence to be either the only student of color or one of a select handful. Unfortunately, this occurrence is likely to repeat itself many times throughout my veterinary career. There’s a subtle isolation that occurs when you are a singularity, and until you’ve experienced it, it can be difficult to appreciate the feeling. I am in love with the profession of veterinary medicine and excited to build a future around it, but I often feel like an outsider. I will admit the foundation of this essay is not research. It is largely anecdotal and entirely from my personal perspective as a minority student. Too often I think we get distracted by statistics and take comfort in positive trends and forget to look at issues on an individual level. It is a known fact that veterinary medicine is one of the least diverse medical professions. Whether speaking of diversity in terms of ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation, we as a profession fall short. Many steps have been taken to change this, such as the AAVMC’s DiVersity Matters initiative, the Iverson Bell Symposium, and organizations such as Veterinary Students as One in Culture and Ethnicity (VOICE), but this fact remains true.
Socioeconomics Can Limit Access to a Veterinary Education
Diversity not only impacts the veterinary profession, but can also help improve animal welfare. Photo by Sandra Matrecitos
One of the issues that stands out most to me is lack of socioeconomic diversity within the field. The cost of a veterinary education is so high that even with loans, only a certain tier of people are able to attend. The financial burden of veterinary school is a major deterrent to underrepresented groups and if not addressed, will lead to veterinary medicine being a career for the “privileged”. There are many people that fully deserve a veterinary education and have the potential to make an impact in the field but are not able to manage the expense of veterinary school. This will be to the detriment of the veterinary profession. During my undergraduate career the focus was entirely on the academic challenge of getting into veterinary school and although this was important, I feel the financial undertaking should have been of equal importance. I sat through advising lectures on keeping my grades up, when what I really needed to know about was the debt load that lie ahead and how to manage my money. I didn’t fully realize the financial burden until I received my acceptance letter to veterinary school, and it was such a shock that I seriously considered not attending. I’m sure many other students, especially those from underprivileged backgrounds, find themselves in the same situation. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that what sets me apart even more than the color of my skin is my financial background I grew up dependent on government assistance in a single parent household, which often makes it difficult to relate to my classmate’s life experiences. As I have stated before, cost and debt management can be a roadblock to minority applicants and I certainly see that reflected in my peers. With effective financial counseling at an undergraduate level, we can show students feasible ways to finance their education and manage their debt which will, hopefully, diversify the applicant pool.
Mental Wellness May Be Another Factor
Another important issue to consider regarding underrepresented students is mental wellness. There is a rightful focus on the mental health of veterinarians and veterinary students. However, I would argue that underrepresented students are at greater risk for mental health issues. In addition to the inherent stress that is veterinary school, minority students may face additional stressors that include feelings of isolation, imposter syndrome, microaggressions, or even outright discrimination. I myself frequently experience disconcerting thoughts such as; “I only got into veterinary school because I’m black. There must have been a more qualified white applicant.” and “It’s not good enough to be in veterinary school, you need to be the best so you can prove that you deserve it.” It’s easy to see how these thoughts can spiral into a precarious mental state. Being watchful and aware of the unique issues facing minority students should be an integral part of any mental wellness program.
The world is a very diverse place and those that serve it must reflect that. There should be a breadth of veterinarians of all ages, races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. The lack of diversity in our profession is doing harm not only to our clients, but more importantly, to the patients we treat. This is a multifaceted issue that will require a multifaceted solution. Despite this, I am confident that the continued implementation of diversity initiatives, a determination for forward change, and an ongoing open conversation will help lead us in the right direction.
|Lack of Diversity Also Affects Animals|
Lack of diversity in veterinary school impacts animals too. There are segments of the pet-owning population largely going untouched by animal service providers. Socioeconomic status and race and ethnicity are intimately intertwined. African American, Native American, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawaiian families are more likely than Caucasian and Asian families to live in poverty. Sadly, children living in poverty often do not have the same advantages as their wealthier peers, making it difficult for them to achieve the academic success necessary to gain admission to veterinary school.
High tuition rates can also be a barrier for students coming from low-income households. Since veterinary school graduates may return home, when students from racially-diverse communities do not attend veterinary school, there are no trained professionals returning to remedy or advocate for these veterinary-care “deserts.”
Recognizing that people’s love for their pets transcends socioeconomic circumstances and cultural differences, HSVMA’s Rural Area Veterinary Services and The Humane Society of the United States' Pets For Life programs have been working to provide access to care in low-income communities.
To learn more about these critical programs and how you can get involved, visit hsvma.org/ravs and humanesociety.org/petsforlife.
Ty Marshall-Blanche is a second year student at Western University of Health Sciences (Class of 2018). She serves as co-president of Students of Color and Allies Outreach Retention and Education (SCORE) club. SCORE is dedicated to pioneering outreach programs for underrepresented students as well as improving climate and inclusion for current minority students. Ty is also very active in other extracurricular activities. She is the current veterinary liaison for the Pomona Homeless Outreach Program, the vice-president of the Student Chapter of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, and the secretary of the Student Chapter of Bovine Practitioners. After graduating she hopes to pursue a career in mixed animal medicine.
The Medical School Diversity Essay
Now that you’ve turned in your AMCAS (phew!), you’re probably wondering how to tackle the monster of secondaries coming your way. One of the most common questions asked in one form or another is the diversity essay for medical school. Have you ever wondered why diversity is such an important component of the medical school admission process? I’ve heard a lot of pre-med students eager to write this off as a political move on the behalf of medical schools, without taking the time to truly consider its value.
Of course, in the US we have a powerful tradition of diversity in higher education. Diversity in the classroom (and on campus) allows students to produce a “creative friction,” thereby improving the educational experience for all.
However, in the medical school context, diversity has an additional, more utilitarian purpose: it is crucial to the quality of medical care provided by these soon-to-be physicians. An ability to understand your patients — regardless of background — is an integral part of your life as a doctor.
So, now that we have solved the great admissions diversity mystery, we can get started on the actual essays. First, what does a “diversity essay” actually look like? Let’s take an example from one of Stanford Med School’s recent secondary applications:
“The Committee on Admissions regards the diversity (broadly defined) of an entering class as an important factor in serving the educational mission of the school. The Committee on Admissions strongly encourages you to share unique, personally important, and/or challenging factors in your background, such as the quality of your early educational environment, socioeconomic status, culture, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, and life or work experiences. Please discuss how such factors have influenced your goals and preparation for a career in medicine.”
Or this question from Wake Forest School of Medicine:
“The Committee on Admissions values diversity as an important factor in the educational mission of the Wake Forest School of Medicine. How will you contribute to the diversity of your medical school class and to the medical community in general?”
Ultimately, these medical school diversity essays are all variations on the same question, “How are you different from other applicants, and how does that difference impact your ability to contribute in medical school and beyond?”
This prompt brings us to our first action point:
1. “Diversity” and “Underrepresented Minority” are not synonymous.
Have you ever heard someone lament, “[sigh]…I’m not a minority so I’m not diverse.” I have. Many times. Most frequently, this lamentation originates from a lack of creativity and fundamental understanding about what diversity means. As we’ve already discussed, diversity serves two purposes: 1) varying perspectives in a classroom and on campus so as to produce more comprehensive learning, and 2) Improving patient care once these applicants become newly-minted MDs.
Thus, while ethno-cultural, religious, or socioeconomic backgrounds are all forms of diversity, they are by no means the only forms of diversity. Indeed, diversity is anything about you which is special and which will allow you to satisfy the objectives of diversity as described above.
Multlingual? That’s diversity.
Been in the military? That’s diversity.
Had a rare disease as a child? That’s diversity.
Have a special personal quality (such as being a talented connector, or unusually high EQ)? Diversity.
Have a very specific and innovative career path in mind (e.g., using robotics to improve prosthetics)? Diversity.
Worked as a personal trainer or a nutritionist?….you see where I’m going with this. The key is not to narrowly define diversity, but instead to broadly construe how your “diverse elements” will allow you to contribute something unique to your prospective school and ultimately, your profession.
This brings us to our second action point:
2. Your “diversity” means nothing if it isn’t clearly connected to your potential contribution.
Sometimes, applicants get too caught up in the ways they are different, that they forget that being different is not an end, but a means to an end. These differences and unique qualities/experiences have to accomplish something. They have to help prove that you are deserving of a seat at the med school roundtable.
For example, being a chronic truant or two-time felon are certainly unique qualities and experiences for an applicant to medical school. Will they help you get in? Almost certainly not, and for obvious reasons. Best to focus on some other topic for your medical school diversity essay.
The point is simple: once you have identified what makes you unique, your primary task is to explain how that uniqueness will allow you to contribute something special in school and beyond.
This brings us to our third action point:
3. Diversity, as with all other parts of your application, requires evidence.
“I am the smartest person in the world.”
Really!? Are you actually the smartest person in the world? Prove it.
“I have unique insight into the needs of immigrant populations.”
Oh do you? And what, pray tell, gives you this incredible insight?
“I have always dreamed of being part of Doctors Without Borders, and helping to save the world one person at a time.”
Is that so? Because I don’t see a single international community service experience on your application…
…see where I’m going with this? Diversity, though it may be an intangible concept or quality, still requires tangible evidence. A diversity essay for medical school is not complete without a clear explanation of how your “diversity” relates to your experiences.
For example, if you are a first generation college student and the son/daughter of immigrants, you cannot just baldly state that this background gives you some crucial insight into the needs of immigrant populations. Although it seems plausible that you would know more than others who are from affluent, non-immigrant backgrounds, you still need to prove it. Make the connections explicit.
You could do this by providing anecdotes about your communication skills with immigrant families during your time with Habitat for Humanity. Or you could explain how you used your special insights and cross-cultural communication skills in becoming a leader in La Raza.
Ultimately, if what makes you diverse is that you have a very high capacity for empathy, you don’t need to have an activity on your AMCAS experiences section called “the society for people who empathize good and want to learn to do other things good too.” You just need to explain how your diverse element(s) have affected or motivated your activities, even if they seem totally unrelated.
E.g., “I am a motivator. I love motivating people to better their lives. That is why I worked as a nutritionist. Moreover, as a writing instructor at Dartmouth’s RWIT program, I had the opportunity not only to help students with their writing, but also to show them how exciting and fun it could be.” Please note: this is not from an actual essay, and if it was, it would not be especially good. This is just to demonstrate a point.
Thus, if you do decide to focus on ethnic, cultural, or religious diversity, the best approach is not to hammer the adcom with how significant your minority status is. Rather, a strong essay might focus on your activities which were committed to diversity and social justice issues; or on your pursuits which address health disparities between minority and non-minority populations; or experiences which provide tangible evidence of your cross-cultural competence during patient or client interactions. Of course, these three topics are not exhaustive, but might be a good place to start.
This brings us to our final, and most succinct point:
4. Using buzzwords doesn’t convince anyone
This is a common mistake among applicants who think that repeating buzzwords such as “diverse,” “multicultural,” “cross-cultural,” “underrepresented,” etc. will automatically convince an adcom that they are those things. It won’t. In fact, it is no more likely to convince them of your diversity credentials than if I tried to convince you of the quality of this article by simply repeating “this article is super informative and comprehensive, and it is likely the best thing you’ve read all week.”
In short: let your evidence and experience do the talking.