“It was one of those journeys I didn’t expect, but it has been perfect.”
When Jean Sander, DVM 1987, decided to switch careers and pursue veterinary medicine, she had no idea that her new path would lead her to one day become the dean of the Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Every step along the way, it was Sander’s willingness to take risks, keep an open mind, and constantly challenge herself that finally led her to where she is today.
That first risk started with trusting a new, untested school. “A friend of mine had heard about a new veterinary school that had opened up in Wisconsin,” said Sander. “She was adamant that I apply.” Sander took a leap of faith and moved to Madison, Wisconsin, eagerly awaiting the final decision on her admission. When she received her offer, she accepted without hesitation, and the decision paid off. “It completely changed my life,” said Sander.
The environment at the new UW School of Veterinary Medicine had a strong impact on Sander. “I was in the first class. That created a really interesting dynamic,” said Sander. “We had the whole school to ourselves. We were able to develop relationships with our faculty and staff that were really unique.”
Sander explained that because the school was still creating much of its formal infrastructure, she and the other students could be more hands-on in their own education. “I was really gratified when I went to my advisors and they said, ‘Why don’t you come up with a program that you think will fit your needs?’” Sander said. “We really created everything from the ground up.”
When Sander graduated in 1987, she went on to graduate school at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, intending to work in the poultry industry. However, by the end of her studies, Sander found her career taking another turn as she started looking for a job in academia instead.
When she took a faculty position at Georgia, Sander recalled the lessons she had learned at the SVM and sought to give students the same experience that her mentors had given her. “They were more willing to think outside the box than other schools,” said Sander. “It taught me not to be a barrier to students.”
Sander settled easily into academia. But, with the constant drive to challenge herself, she couldn’t help but look for the next step. “Being in academia is like being a student,” Sander explained. “As a student, you get the next test, the next grade. As a faculty member, it’s the next grant, the next promotion. I just kept thinking, ‘What’s the next test for me?’”
This attitude, combined with her concern for keeping students’ needs at the forefront, kept Sander rising steadily through the academic ranks. She became coordinator of the graduate program at Georgia, and then in 2003 she took a position at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine where she became the associate dean of student affairs. But what was the next challenge?
“I started looking at deanships,” said Sander.
Sander was patient; she knew this was a big decision. When she was offered the deanship at the Oklahoma State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2011, Sander knew it would be the right place for her. “It was the perfect fit,” she said.
That’s not to say that the move wouldn’t be challenging. This was the next test, after all. “I came with a lot of different ideas,” said Sander. “Change is difficult for people. It can send the message that what they have been doing is bad, but I don’t believe that.” Sander explained that, just as she learned at the SVM in those early years, keeping an open mind can be crucial.
One of Sander’s new ideas involves helping veterinarians refresh their image. “I don’t think we do a particularly good job of showing our value to people outside the profession,” said Sander. “Sure, we are great companion animal practitioners, but that’s just one piece of the puzzle.” According to Sander, veterinarians tend to be caring, compassionate, and humble. Although this is great for animals, it means they are hesitant to brag and often sell themselves short. “We are highly trained doctors,” said Sander. “Let’s go out there and show people how great we are.”
In connection with this, Sander’s advice to future veterinarians, and even to current ones, is to learn how to connect with people outside of your profession. “If you talk amongst yourselves, then word never gets out,” said Sander. “But once you make a connection, then you have somebody’s ear. Then you can make a difference.”