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4 tips for starting vet school in an unfamiliar environment

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Christopher Tan comes from sunny Singapore and graduated in February 2020 from Murdoch University, Western Australia, having attained his Bachelor of Science (Veterinary Biology) and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree with distinction. He was also awarded dux of his year upon graduation. He has a passion for wildlife, orthopedic and soft tissue procedures and is currently on a rotating internship in surgery, anaesthesia, and emergency at a specialist hospital in Perth, Western Australia. Follow him on Instagram to find out more about his veterinary adventures!

I had never been to Australia before. I was about to start classes in a week and I was mostly excited, but also nervous—very nervous. I was about to start my tertiary education in another country, in an unfamiliar environment, where I knew absolutely no one. I had no family or friends here and there was a lingering sense of dread as the days passed and the start of university loomed closer.

I knew I had to say goodbye to my parents soon. They had come to Perth to help me settle in.  Coming to Perth to study was a “heart-based” decision. I say that because my friends would normally describe me as a logical person who always thinks my head. I weigh the pros and cons of every decision I make, especially when they are big ones. And this was a very big decision. I had applied to study for the veterinary science program at Murdoch University in Washington, but was only offered a place in their animal science program with an option to transfer to the second year of vet school after my first year. The transfer would only occur if, 1. I scored exceptionally well in first year, 2. I wrote a brilliant personal statement, and 3. I had a plethora of veterinary experiences under my wing. It is for that reason I decided to take a risk by leaving. I was putting everything on the line to pursue my dream of becoming a vet in a place completely foreign to me.

In my heart, I knew if I didn’t take the plunge, I would always live with the regret of not trying my best to becoming a vet and this was the closest I had ever been. That was in 2015. Since, I have graduated as one of 80 students in my year from the doctor of veterinary medicine program (with distinction). I was also announced as dux of my cohort. Studying in a foreign environment can be difficult (trust me, I’ve been there), but I hope the following tips will help you navigate the demands of starting your life in a new, unfamiliar place.

1. Create your own support network.

Remember your family and friends are only a video call away! I made sure to get a phone plan which included free international calls so I could always call home if I wanted to! Beyond that, surround yourself with like-minded people that you love, trust and can talk to. I realized that as much as my classmates and seniors knew how tough navigating vet school was, having friends outside of the vet circle also provided a different perspective on things.

2. A healthy mind requires a healthy body.

I buried myself in books studying in first year trying to transfer to vet and in second year trying not to get kicked out of vet. Needless to say, in third year, I was beginning to feel lethargic and easily distracted. Being physically active, getting enough sleep, eating healthy and taking breaks made a very big difference to the way I felt. I cannot emphasize how important this is! Taking care of your body and mind will ensure you last in the long run! And I am sure you know, vet school is a long haul.

3. Step out of your comfort zone.

At the start of third year, I realized majority of my friends were also international students mainly from Singapore. I wanted to have more contact with the local students, so I signed up to become a year representative and committee members of two special interest groups. The positions allowed me to make a whole new network of friends and talk to classmates that I would not normally speak to. Studying abroad gives you the unique opportunity to experience new cultures and make new friends. So be proactive!

4. Give yourself a pat on the back and keep reminders of why you’re here.

There were multiple times over my 5 years of vet school where my stress levels were off the charts and I questioned myself, “Is this really worth it?”. If like me you’re asking yourself the same question, I would recommend keeping your reasons for wanting to be a vet in a jar. I  did that and would open it up to remind myself on why I started on this journey in the first place. I think as veterinary professionals, we tend to be way too hard on ourselves. You were handpicked and selected out of hundreds or even thousands of applicants to become a vet. Give yourself a pat on the back and don’t ever forget that!

Starting life in a new and unfamiliar environment is never easy, especially starting vet school! The veterinary curriculum is known to be notoriously challenging, but I really hope the above tips will be useful. As you embark on your new journey, remember why you began in the first place. The only person who decides whether you can or you can’t, is you.

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