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I was told my grades weren’t good enough but I didn’t give up

INSTAGRAM @caseyheinz   
Casey Heinzmann is originally from New Jersey and graduated from Rutgers University with a B.S. in Laboratory Animal Sciences. She currently resides in Southern California and is a second-year veterinary student at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences. Casey plans to practice mixed animal medicine, but has a strong interest in small animal internal medicine and may pursue a residency after she receives her DVM in 2022. Feel free to contact her for any inquiries, questions, or advice.

Growing up, the idea of being a veterinarian never crossed my mind. As a child, I was so allergic to most “four-legged-things-with-fur,” that my parents would avoid them at all costs. So, I gravitated toward the hypoallergenic professions, such as an interior decorator or physical therapist. In fact, I was halfway through my freshman year, taking physical therapy prerequisites, before I had an epiphany. I realized that while I loved medicine, the human side didn’t inspire me as much as I thought it would. Maybe I felt as though I had to make up for lost time without pets as a kid or maybe it was because cows have cooler personalities than most people do, but I became obsessed with veterinary medicine and so began my career.

With renewed determination, I switched my major, found a job as a veterinary technician at a clinic (took a lot of antihistamines), volunteered at the Rutgers farm, and the rest is history. Except for my grades, that is. The veterinary electives weren’t a problem. I thrived in classes like Veterinary Diseases, but General and Organic Chemistry were the bane of my existence. My academic advisor and I would frequently discuss my chances of getting into veterinary school given my late start and my average academic record. I had the references, the experience, and communication skills to impress the interviewers and I hoped that those things would overshadow my academic shortcomings.

But time after time, my advisor would say, “Casey, you’ve got to pull those grades up; those are the most important.” The cycle would continue. I’d take my exams, do poorly on the test, go to him and hear, “Not good enough.” Now, let’s be clear, my grades were passing, they just weren’t As. But, that’s what the profession demanded of future professionals—academic excellence.

As the months went on, I began to get discouraged. I’d interpret every piece of constructive criticism as a blow to my self-esteem. At work, if I did something wrong, I’d use it as another excuse as to why I wasn’t cut out to be a vet. I just couldn’t keep it together, I “wasn’t as smart” as my fellow classmates or mentors. Additionally, most of my undergraduate classmates had an interest in veterinary medicine since they were children. They also had pets growing up and had been shadowing doctors since middle school. Surely I wouldn’t be as “qualified” as they were when it came time to apply.

My senior year of college arrived, and in my hopeful fashion, I went to my advisor and asked for application advice.  He said something I’ll never forget: “I just don’t think that you have the grades to cut it. I think you should start considering a Plan B career.” My dad always used to tell me to look both ways before crossing the street so that I wouldn’t get hit by a campus bus, but I didn’t have enough time to look once before that sentence flattened me right in the intersection. I felt like I’d been hit hard.

I almost listened to him, and even started considering alternatives. What if I switched to animal behavior and became a trainer? A zookeeper? I’d shovel turds if I had to. My dream was crashing down in front of me. I waffled back and forth for about a year after graduating from Rutgers, which set me back almost two years from my classmates who were already in their second year of vet school. But, I’d always been taught to “do what you love,” even if it involves taking the unconventional route and I wasn’t ready to back down yet.

I drowned in GRE Prep books, externed at specialty hospitals, networked with anyone in the profession that would listen, and spent months on my application essays. I remember thinking, “I just need to get to the interview to show them I can do this. I just need to be given a chance. Just give me one chance, people.”

Six months later, I got accepted to four veterinary schools on my first try. When I got my first acceptance, I was out to dinner with some of my friends and was in hysterics at the table as our appetizers were coming out—my best friend has the video for documentation. Embarrassing, but I couldn’t have cared less because I had shattered every notion that I wouldn’t make it. I believed in myself enough to continue to pursue what I loved.

I’m now in my second year of vet school at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences (WesternU) in California and my grades are on par with some of the top students in the class. (Note to self, email undergrad advisor.) I knew I wanted to go to WesternU because of their “problem-based” learning and “case-based” teaching style. We are the only school in the country that fully operates this way. It may sound strange to some (and to me too) at first, but since didactic teaching historically didn’t work for me, I appreciated their unique approach. Needless to say, I’m psyched that I’m here.

With that, here are some valuable life lessons I’ve learned along the way.

1. Getting into grad school is not all about one’s grade point average.

Your experience, personality, tenacity, and grit are all qualities that are just as important. You still need to “hit the books” and standardized tests do provide admissions committees with the objectivity they need to make informed decisions. But, these metrics are not a complete reflection of your ability to succeed in graduate school. Most importantly, you are NOT your grades.

2. Taking the conventional route may not be the “best” route for you.

It’s okay if you had a career change halfway through college. Taking longer to obtain one’s B.S. is not a liability. In fact, many employers are looking for millennials who have taken time off to reflect. So, the old rules no longer apply.

Sure, it’s wise to have a “Plan B”, but if I had given up or lost hope, I don’t know where I’d be today. Strangely, I’m sort of glad it all happened this way. There are still many challenges and late nights ahead, but the process has enhanced my self-confidence and only reinforced the fact that nobody can tell me I’m not good enough.

Is someone telling you, “You can’t do that”? Well, do it anyway. Do you feel like giving up? It sounds cheesy, but it’s ok. You’re human, and everyone does at some point.

Well, not everyone…

Twenty-five years ago, a fellow Rutgers alum named Jim Valvano gave an impassioned speech at the Espy Awards. Coach V, as he was known, was fighting cancer. Weak from his treatments and knowing his time was short, he delivered a powerful message about never giving up. I encourage you to watch it.

Then, live your dream. Tell them I sent you.

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