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Believing in yourself when you don’t see anyone like you

INSTAGRAM @kennethB_89   
Kenneth Burris is a third-year veterinary medical student at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Born in the District of Columbia and raised in Silver Spring, Maryland. He is a graduate of Tufts University, Biomedical Engineering Systems and Sociology (Social Inequalities and Social Change Concentration) a double major and a minor in Africana Studies. He is a graduate of Hampton University (HBCU), where he earned a Master of Medical Science degree. Kenneth completed a Graduate Business Minor in Health Sciences at The OSU Fisher College of Business and is on student government at the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine as one of the Class of 2022’s Diversity Committee Representatives.

My mom always told me to believe in my dreams, but I never knew those words would actually come to fruition or that I would develop such a deep understanding of what she was trying to instill in me at such a young age.

As an African-American, male veterinary student, I have learned veterinary medicine is (and continues to be) the whitest profession. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the August 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics’ report Labor Force Characteristics by Race and Ethnicity, 97.3 percent of practicing veterinarians in 2013 were white. In fact, historical records tell us only 70 black students graduated from U.S. and Canadian veterinary schools between 1889 and 1948. These numbers have not moved much despite efforts to increase this under-representation of African-Americans in the profession.

It is necessary for the profession to change along with society. The numbers do not reflect the U.S. population’s numbers; according to the United States Census Bureau, black or African-American people make up 13.4 percent of the population, LatinX or Hispanic people make up 18.3 percent, Asian-Americans make up 5.9 percent, people of two or more races make up 2.7 percent, and Indigenous people make up 1.3 percent of the population.

Often, as a black, male veterinary student, it is hard to speak out on these issues because I do not want to make rifts or cause conflict so early on in my career. This can make me feel frustrated because even though I learned so much in undergrad about what is wrong with the society in which we live (one of my concentrations in Sociology was Social Inequalities and Social Change), they don’t teach you how to go about implementing change in that society. This is something that you have to execute yourself. But how do we start to change these numbers unless people like me speak out about these issues? If not me, who? If not now, when?

When I was applying to vet schools I became discouraged because it was uncommon for me to see other black veterinarians practicing in the field. Growing up, I had all types of animals you could imagine, from gerbils, to dogs, iguanas, rabbits, newts, frogs, fish, salamanders, ferrets, ducks, and even had the privilege of taking care of my late uncle’s beef cattle in Alabama from time to time. I always knew I wanted to become a doctor like my father and two older brothers, but I was discouraged from applying to veterinary school because of a lack of representation. It was not until I met and started shadowing two black, male veterinarians who owned their own practice that I thought maybe I can do this and found the courage to believe in myself. Meeting them was surreal. It was almost like I was holding up a mirror. Seeing a veterinarian who looked like me in real life instilled courage, hope, and a drive in me. It made me want to excel in vet med, gain as much experience as I can and to be like them one day.

Through shadowing, I started gaining more and more experience in the field, sometimes for pay, but mostly for free. All of the veterinarians I worked with encouraged me to remain steadfast, to not give up, and apply despite the odds.

By having mentor veterinarians from all different backgrounds believe in me, push me, and ultimately inspire me, made all the difference and definitely helped my mental health overall. I remember before I applied to vet school, as I was riding along with an equine veterinarian on our way to a barn call, he asked me which vet schools I was planning on applying to. As I rattled off a few names of places I was interested in, I would belittle myself and say, “I don’t even know if I’m going to apply there because I probably won’t get in.” That veterinarian immediately shut my negative thinking down by highlighting all of the wonderful things I have done both academically and non-academically over the years. He assured me any vet school would be lucky to have me and I was the future of veterinary medicine. This taught me to stop putting myself down, to take pride in who I am, and to be confident in myself at all times.

I am so grateful for every experience I have had thus far and I owe it all to mentors who have guided me the entire way. The National Association of Black Veterinarians (NABV) has also been a huge proponent in helping guide black students and professionals alike through veterinary medicine. I am a student member of NABV. I was sponsored by The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine to travel to New Orleans, Louisiana, in the summer of 2019 to attend NABV’s inaugural conference. At this conference, I participated, spoke, and lead group discussions about my vet school experience thus far. I also had the opportunity to hear from and network with many dynamic speakers and veterinarians from all over the country. It was an awesome experience and I can’t wait for OSU CVM to sponsor the second annual NABV conference in June. This year’s theme is “securing the pipeline and promoting advancements in diversity and inclusion.”

Believing in yourself starts with you and is an ongoing mindset that is necessary. Some days are harder than others walking into an auditorium or a lab or a hospital where you are the only black veterinary student but utilizing resources and leaning on allies to guide you along the way help in so many ways. This comes from fellow students, to practicing veterinarians, to faculty members, to deans, to organizations. It all helps you feel more comfortable with who you are and helps you to have the courage to say, “Maybe I can do this too,” and thrive.

As the Diversity Committee Representative at the Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine (and the only current black/African-American male student that has both parents who identify as black/African-American at the college), it is therapeutic for me to work with faculty members to make changes and shed light on different topics surrounding diversity and inclusion. Diversity is having a seat at the table, but inclusion is all about how you are treated, included, and retained once you have that seat.

My hope is to bring more students and veterinarians together to not only be aware of these issues, but also to make change for future generations to come. I surely did not get to where I am now by myself. Older veterinarians have passed the baton to me and others like myself; it is only our duty to do as much as we can with this and to pass it on to the next generation of veterinarians. My hope for the future is that anyone, regardless of what he/she/they/them looks like, can have an equal chance of following their dreams of becoming a veterinarian. It is also my hope that everyone can be represented and find other veterinarian mentors who they identify with and feel comfortable with. I want veterinary medicine to reflect the true diversity of the real world we live in. Nobody should feel discouraged about applying to vet school because they don’t see anyone who looks like them in the field. Also, by increasing diversity in vet med, this will allow future veterinarians to feel more comfortable with people who do not necessarily look like them, ultimately increasing inclusion in vet med and being able to touch future clients in practice in unimaginable ways.

Representation and visibility are pivotal for believing in yourself and this does not stop with race; we need to be more cognizant of the lack of diversity across the board in veterinary medicine. LGBTQ, rural, LatinX, Asian, multi-racial, women, and other marginalized or underrepresented groups of people have all received the short end of the stick in veterinary medicine. Not because of a lack of interest, drive, or intelligence, but simply because of gatekeepers who have historically kept out certain groups of people.

As my mother always said, believing in yourself starts with you and believing in your dreams. But in order for us to truly believe in ourselves in vet med, we need to see ourselves represented and to believe that he/she/they/them can do it too.

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