Committed to Inclusion

Diverse Multiracial and Multicultural People of Different Ages and Gender

From the perspective of Richard Barajas, diversity, equity, and inclusion are crucial for both the current and long-term success of the School of Veterinary Medicine.

“Ultimately, we are preparing students to go out and be the most successful people they can be in serving Wisconsin and the world,” he says. “As professionals, we work with people from a variety of backgrounds. To be successful, we have to know how to engage with individuals who have had different experiences from our own.”

No matter if students or alumni are interacting with multicultural clients or colleagues, creating a welcoming and inclusive community, or addressing access to veterinary medical care, diversity must be lived as a value in the profession, he says. The same is true for the school — diversity needs to infuse the SVM’s curriculum, decision-making, and more. This includes acknowledging and incorporating the many ways that a variety of identities, cultures, backgrounds, and experiences enrich the school’s teaching, research, clinical care, and outreach.

Richard Barajas, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine
Richard Barajas, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at the UW School of Veterinary Medicine.

“In every decision, every day-to-day activity, we are thinking about these things,” Barajas says. “It brings value to everything that we do. We all have a role to play in this work, and we will all benefit from an increased focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

Barajas joined the school in September as director of diversity, equity, and inclusion. He brings more than a decade of experience in the field through previous roles with Iowa State University and the University of Iowa.

In line with the School of Veterinary Medicine’s larger commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, in 2019 the school made the decision to create this new position. The wave of racial unrest and resulting national dialogue across America this spring made the importance of the role — and the need to address longstanding racial disparities in veterinary medicine — all the more clear. More than 90 percent of veterinarians in the United States are white, and veterinary medicine remains one of the least diverse professions.

“My passion has always been to pursue equity, inclusion, and access,” Barajas says. “Making sure faculty, staff, and students feel included, feel safe, and feel like we’re listening to what they’re experiencing is important.”

Below, Barajas shares what drives his work and some of his hopes for the school.

ON CALL: Tell us a bit about yourself. What would you want the SVM community to know about you?

BARAJAS: I was born and raised in Sterling, Illinois, so not far from Madison. My mom was from Mexico

City and most of my mom’s side of the family is still in Mexico City. We would go back every summer — I spent all my summers growing up in Mexico City, so I really had a rather unique experience. I consider myself bicultural.

What led you to focus your career on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and what continues to motivate you?

Growing up in the Latinx community, as a Latino Mexican American, it’s always something you think about. I wasn’t an immigrant myself, but my mom was. I grew up in our household speaking Spanish and kind of grew up in an immigrant experience — especially the connection with Mexico. Issues of class disparities and other things you see growing up, you wonder why this is. Then once I got to college, my community and the people I most related to were the Latinx students, student organizations, and faculty. Having that connection, I wanted to help students that didn’t have the opportunities that I had. I was a first-generation college student.

As I got into work, I saw there was a need to reduce the barriers that exist for students. Then you take the next steps — as those students become professionals, what barriers exist in the professional world? And how do we create models of success for the next generation?

“The greatest outcome we can have is that people feel listened to, included, and that we’re concerned about what they’re concerned about. It ultimately leads to better outcomes for everybody.”

The other thing that’s joined in is how do we get students who haven’t had the experiences of growing up in a diverse setting or as a minoritized population the tools they need. We want to train our students to have the biggest impact possible and to serve all communities.

The U.S. is diversifying, so no matter what area of veterinary medicine our graduates go into, they are going to see clients from diverse populations. How can you best serve their needs? Because that’s everyone’s goal, to serve the needs of clients and their patients the best way we can.

What’s one of the biggest takeaways from your work so far in this field?

There are always nuances and things to balance, but knowing that the work is important for everyone and trying to build partnerships is one of the biggest things I’ve taken away. It’s all of us together.

Moving Ahead

Among the diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives advanced recently at the School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM):

  • This spring, the Veterinarians as One Inclusive Community for Empowerment (VOICE) and Veterinary Medical Outreach Organization (VMOO) student groups, with faculty and staff support, began implementing the How We Role lesson plan with students at the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. This national program for children in grades K-4 aims to increase outreach to diverse communities and inspire young people toward veterinary medicine.
  • Beginning this summer, all SVM faculty and staff are required annually to participate in an experience that enhances their understanding of diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-racism, and share the experience during their performance review.
  • Announced in October, the SVM will pay the cost of registration for any faculty, staff, or student interested in completing Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine’s certificate in diversity and inclusion.
  • Key questions related to diversity, equity, and inclusion were incorporated into the biannual SVM climate survey distributed in the fall, designed to identify how employees and students feel about working and learning at the school.
  • The school’s Equity, Inclusion and Diversity Committee began work on a school strategic plan focused specifically around diversity, equity, and inclusion, to be completed by spring 2021.
  • A School of Veterinary Medicine Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Fund, to support greatest needs in these areas, and a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Scholarship Fund, to support underrepresented students, were established (see below).

What are some of your first impressions around opportunities at the SVM?

There’s a lot of good work going on. Faculty, staff, and especially students are very passionate in this area. And there’s a lot happening around the larger campus and with other diversity officers.

One of the big focus areas, besides the strategic plan and climate survey (see sidebar at right), is curriculum. There’s a great opportunity to think about how we infuse diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout all aspects of the student curriculum.

What role do you see for alumni in advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Mentorship is key for our current students to connect with graduates in a variety of ways. A lot of mentorship is organic, but we can try to help forge connections, reaching out to alumni and saying are you willing to serve as a mentor and what areas of expertise do you have? I think it’s also important to ask what identities do you hold. The more we can foster connections between current students and alumni, the better overall we all are.

But also going out to alumni and saying this is what we’re doing, here’s how you can help, what questions do you have, and how can we help you. I hope to connect with alumni from different populations and ask what was your experience at the SVM, what went well, what could have been different, and how can we constantly improve. It’s always important to listen.

How else do you see the role of listening as important in this work?

I want to create a safe space for everyone to come and chat in a nonjudgmental way. Everyone’s experience matters. We’re all learning, so how can we navigate this together?

I think it’s easy for people to get defensive and stop listening. My role has always been more listening than talking. I want to listen and then think about how do we make the SVM the best place it can be for everybody. And how can we change the profession, ultimately? You’re going to be a student for four years at the SVM, but you’re going to be an alum for the rest of your life. We want to impact students when they’re here, but we know they’re going to have an impact when they’re alumni as well.

Beyond the direct impact for the SVM community, why else is this work so important?

The wider world looks very different than Madison and academia. At the SVM we’re doing everything we can to have an impact in the larger community — it’s the Wisconsin Idea.

More often than not, you’re going to be dealing with people who grew up with very different experiences than you. Despite that, how can we create connections and do work that is going to best serve our clients and their patients, and be the best stewards for Wisconsin and our larger community? The greatest outcome we can have is that people feel listened to, included, and that we’re concerned about what they’re concerned about. It ultimately leads to better outcomes for everybody.

“We want to train our students to have the biggest impact possible and to serve all communities.”

What is one action we can all take to contribute to a more inclusive society?

Ultimately, it’s about good communication skills — how do I have empathy, try to connect with people I’m not similar with, and try to listen to and hear them. Listening is important; hearing is more important. Not discounting their experience, and also sharing your own. Communication and conversation are, at least for me, all it ultimately boils down to.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

I think the important part is the commitment is there — we’re committed to continuously doing the work. There’s never really a day where we’re done and we’ve solved diversity, equity, and inclusion. It’s constantly evolving.

Lessening Barriers for the Next Generation

For years the School of Veterinary Medicine has worked to create a more diverse and inclusive culture within the school and beyond in the field of veterinary medicine — striving to foster a place and profession where all feel invited, involved, and successful, and better able to respond to the varied and changing needs of society. This includes increasing the representation of minority and disadvantaged groups in the school and profession to be more reflective of society as a whole, and creating teaching and learning environments that support diversity.

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The school has numerous efforts underway to help prospective students from underrepresented populations learn more about veterinary medicine, recruit to the school and profession a diverse population of students, and support students’ success. This is in addition to school initiatives to recruit and retain a diverse workforce.

As one important sign of progress, students who are Black, Indigenous, or from other underrepresented racial and ethnic groups represent one quarter of the school’s incoming Class of 2024 (24 of 96 students). Nationally, the number of racially and ethnically underrepresented DVM students currently stands at about 20 percent of total enrollment — a figure that continues to rise.

But much work remains. Two newly established gift funds will help bolster these efforts: the School of Veterinary Medicine Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Fund, to support greatest needs in these areas, and the Veterinary Medicine Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Scholarship Endowment Fund, to support underrepresented students.

The latter was established through a generous lead gift from Kristen Bernard, a professor of virology in the School of Veterinary Medicine, and her husband Rick Ezell. Below, Bernard shares what motivated the couple to support scholarships for underrepresented students and why they hope to inspire others to do the same.

On Call: What inspired the two of you to establish this endowed scholarship fund? Why is this important to you?

Bernard: First, we feel strongly about furthering diversity, equity, and inclusion in all aspects of society. In particular, veterinary medicine is very limited in its diversity, and we want to support the school’s efforts to improve the culture for students, faculty, and staff.

Second, we believe in the power of education to improve one’s life and community. Both of us benefited greatly from attending public universities, and we believe that everyone should have that opportunity. We both were fortunate to receive scholarships, and Rick would never have attended college without a generous scholarship to the University of Kentucky.

Finally, we feel compelled to help others achieve their goals through education just as we have been so privileged.

What do you hope will be the impact of this scholarship fund?

We hope that by helping individuals, the scholarship will increase the diversity of the student body in veterinary medicine. Diversity is so important to bring different backgrounds and ideas to solve problems facing our society and to better serve our clients and animal patients.

We have not named this scholarship eponymously in the hopes that this will encourage all faculty, staff, alumni, and clients to feel part of this effort to make the veterinary profession more diverse and inclusive.

Meghan Lepisto

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