First-Generation Faculty and Clinicians Share Challenges and Triumphs With Current Students

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The UW School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) recently hosted a career panel featuring first-generation faculty and clinicians. Cecilia Grinis, the school’s career development coordinator, recruited five panelists from the SVM to offer advice and tell their stories to new first-gen veterinary medical students.

Each panelist shared some of the challenges and triumphs of being the first in their family to obtain a degree. Speakers included:

“First-generation” or “first-gen” can mean a variety of things. For this panel discussion, Grinis defined it as someone whose parents or guardians did not receive a four-year college degree.

As the panelists shared, first-gen students can often have difficulty dealing with the academic system on their own, as the bureaucracy of universities can be overwhelming and complex. They can feel out of place, too, once they begin attending college with peers who entered a program with stronger financial and social resources.

“Because of my background, and as a small woman, I wasn’t what high school officials and teachers thought of as a ‘typical vet,’ and they offered up more ‘realistic’ career alternatives,” McLellan said. “But because I’m stubborn, I knew I was going to go to vet school.”

“Follow through on picking good mentors. Listen to them, and don’t be too set. You can build a career out of their advice.”

First-generation veterinary students often find their path by utilizing outside resources, including others in their field and academic advisors. The panelists emphasized the value of finding mentors, who are especially important for assisting in navigating the university system.

“Look for someone who not only is the right fit scientifically,” Olsen shared. “Look for somebody who’s a nice person and you’re going to get along well with.”

“Everybody thrives with a different type of mentor,” Loeber added. “Some of us need to get pushed a little bit harder versus somebody that is going to listen and connect with you. I wanted somebody that can connect with me, hear me, listen to me and help decide how can we get to my goals.”

“Follow through on picking good mentors,” Oetzel also suggested. “Listen to them, and don’t be too set. You can build a career out of their advice.”

Ultimately, the stories of Olsen, Loeber, Oetzel, Johnson and McLellan offer inspiration to the generations after them. They overcame adversity to get an education in veterinary medicine and prove to prospective SVM scholars that barriers can be broken.

“It’s what was meant to be,” Johnson said. “You can do everything. I have done it. You are the same. I’m a woman, I have family, I have twins. And I have a very, very happy career.”

In the future, the SVM Office of Academic Affairs plans to host additional career panels highlighting other underrepresented identities in veterinary medicine.

Alisyn Amant

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