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The power in diverse representation

INSTAGRAM @dogtorcourt    
Courtney Hughes is a graduate of Michigan State University, where she obtained a Bachelor of Science in Zoology in 2017. Currently, she is a third-year veterinary medical student at the same university. After graduation in May of 2021, she aspires to complete a year-long rotating internship to obtain mentorship and a vast case-load experience before beginning a career in small animal emergency medicine. Beyond medicine, Courtney is invested in giving back to her community both in and outside of her profession. To follow her journey, connect with her on social media.

Its day one: my very first day of veterinary school. I have dreamt of this moment for years and here I am, walking into my first class and realizing that I am one of the very few people of color in the room. This dilemma is something that I have not previously dealt with growing up in an academic setting before—not in elementary, high school, or undergrad. It is a new situation that I am faced with here and now, in graduate school.

How do I feel about it? Honestly, I still have not been able to put together a straightforward answer, but it is something I think about almost on a daily basis.

Within my veterinary school, I, as an African-American woman find myself to be “the only one” in the majority of situations. Although I have great relationships with many of my colleagues at school, this environment can feel lonely and isolating at times. However, it is something that I have had to come to terms with and accept as it is not likely to change once I begin my career.

Even with these feelings, I am still in love with veterinary medicine and can’t see that changing. But, we as a profession are behind. Veterinary medicine is one of the least diverse medical fields. I say diverse not just in regards to ethnic backgrounds, but also gender, sexual orientation, and religion.

Why is diversity so important to me? Diversity within a profession is essential because of a need for representation, which plays a big role for our youth. Being able to visualize someone who looks like you or carries out your same values and interests is very important for younger generations.

I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian at a very young age, but I never had someone to look towards that looked like me. Being a young girl, this made my journey towards veterinary school harder to deal with mentally. I felt a lot of the time that I was on this journey alone and had to prove myself more than my counterparts. I was never able to find a mentor or an experience with a veterinarian that looked like me. This feeling of isolation felt even more real when I was once told by an academic professional that I would never make it in this field within minutes of walking into the classroom. Not a single grade or experience was acknowledged—it was just me. That experience left me believing that maybe this profession truly was not meant for someone like me and I almost gave up.

Now, as a third-year veterinary medical student, I work to help youth not doubt themselves or feel as I have once felt on my own journey. It is through my experiences working with youth that I have realized the power in diverse representation. As a former mentor for the “This is How We ‘Role’” program through my college, I was grateful to be able to dedicate a few hours a week to working with kindergarten through fourth grade students in STEM related topics.

One moment that I shared with a student during this time will stick with me forever. Our activity for the day was to draw what you believe a veterinarian to look like. This student was unsure of what they wanted to draw, and I advised them to “draw yourself.” In response, the student explained that it could not be done because veterinarians do not look like her and I. My heart broke. This is why diversity matters. Our youth should not feel that they are not equipped or good enough to be something they are interested in because their differences are not highlighted in a profession.

My advice to anyone who does or has ever felt the way I have is to not let the current demographics deter you away from chasing after your dreams. You are worthy of this career and this career needs you. Don’t ever let someone’s doubts in your capabilities shape your future. Yet, in the unfortunate circumstance that you hear words of that nature allow their doubt or negativity to fuel your passion. For me, thinking about all the individuals that have tried to hold me back is what drives me to keep going and go beyond what I even believe my own self to be capable of. Prove them wrong.

My advice to anyone whom may not identify as a “minority” in this profession is to support everyone’s passion despite them being different from the norm. Chances are we already feel the pressure or isolation of being different from the majority and the best thing that one can do is to not amplify those feelings. Be fair, provide the same opportunities, and take interest in the qualities that one may be able to bring to progress our profession.

Don’t get me wrong, it is true that veterinary medicine has been making many strides towards diversity through initiatives and groups such as VOICE (Veterinarians as One Inclusive Community for Empowerment) and the Iverson Bell Symposium. And according to the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, the 2016 to 2017 annual data report proved that historically underrepresented students matriculating in U.S. veterinary colleges increased from 11.9% in 2010 to 17.4% in 2017.

We are improving. However, it is the moments we experience as individuals that help us realize our work is nowhere near done.

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