The first day: "It was exciting, very exciting, but also very scary as if, 'Am I good enough? Am I going to make it?' " recalled Marquis Harper, a food animal track recent graduate from Henderson, North Carolina. 

What does it take to become a veterinarian?

Veterinary school has been described like a boot camp that pushes students to their limits. Getting into veterinary school often requires multiple attempts for even the most qualified applicants.  

Each class is filled with "Type A" highly motivated, hard-working students dedicated to becoming veterinarians and having proven themselves capable of excelling academically. However, even for these high achievers, a professional program presents new experiences. 

The recently graduated Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) Class of 2024 reflects on the grueling yet rewarding path that molded them into veterinarians. What began as an exciting, if daunting, first day of classes (during the COVID-19 pandemic) turned into a profound four-year transformation. 

Drinking from a firehose

"That was the first time where I was like, 'Whoa, this is a lot of information,' " said Kayla Blatman, a mixed animal tracker from Northern Virginia. She remembered her early encounters with the torrent of material in courses like virology and parasitology. The volume is immense, the pace relentless — an experience likened to "drinking from a firehose." 

Students vividly remember their first few weekends prepping for exams and the sobering realization that it is impossible to master every detail.

"I realized there just wasn't enough time to study everything. It's so much material in such a short period of time. There's just not enough time in the day to study everything," said Shaela Clay, an equine tracker from California. 

The strategies and philosophies they relied on during undergraduate studies had to evolve. 

"At the end of the day, it's more important to understand the 'why' than it is to just memorize the answer," said Roger Mack, a mixed animal tracker headed to a private clinic in Columbus, Ohio. 

"For me, it was about focusing on one day at a time or one week at a time, because if I thought about the totality of it all, it was really overwhelming," said Harper. 

The program's first two years focus on developing core knowledge, skills, and attributes across different species through the integration of basic and clinical sciences. Courses are grouped into themes and cover dealing with threats, sensing and seeing, moving, breathing and circulating, and other scientific curricula. In addition, DVM students work on crucial professional competencies, including animal welfare, clinical communication skills, practice management, professional behavior, and other veterinary issues. 

Students face exams every two weeks, along with lab exams, a cumulative final exam each semester, weekly quizzes, and case-based problem-solving sessions. 

Shaela Clay (on left) showing another student how to interpret blood tests in the Large Animal Unit of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital.
Shaela Clay (on left) showing another student how to interpret blood tests in the Large Animal Unit of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital. Photo by Madison Brown for Virginia Tech.

Persevering through self-doubts and failures

Invariably, there are stumbles along the way that shake students' confidence.  

"I failed an exam in vet school, I got a big fat F. It's not something you ever want to see, " said Emma Loessberg, a public and corporate veterinary medicine tracker from Richmond headed to a small animal general practice. 

For many students accustomed to academic success, "It really instills a seed of self-doubt," Loessberg said. "You question, 'Am I smart enough to be here?' "   

Blatman resolved "to keep pushing and keep finding new ways to learn the material" – meeting with professors, studying with classmates, and experimenting with different techniques until she found what worked for her.  

"We have room to fail and improve and get back up and grow," Loessberg said. "It really didn't matter at all. It will not impact my day-to-day life and how I will practice medicine." 

Embracing a calling

"Finishing first year, I studied hard, and I did really well," Harper said. "And I thought, 'OK, maybe I am smart enough and tough enough to make it through this.'  

"What they don't tell you when you start veterinary school is that every semester gets progressively harder." 

The third year is a transformative point when everything starts clicking into place. In the summer after their second year, students enter clinics for the first time to complete four clinical rotations. 

This immersion in a workplace environment allows students to apply their gained knowledge and skills to real-world experiences. 

"Third year really brought it together for me," said Blatman. Those first successful clinical experiences reveal students' newfound capabilities. 

For Blatman, assisting with ovine cesarean sections gave her an unforgettable thrill:  
" 'I just did that — this lamb is coming into this world because I just did it.' It was a glimpse into what clinics and practice would be."   

The later years of the curriculum allow students to focus on an area of interest called tracking. Once students have gained foundational knowledge in core material during the first two years, they can build on this through advanced courses concentrating on their career goals.  Tracks include small animal, food animal, equine, mixed animal, and public/corporate. 

Loessberg also discovered a newfound confidence: "Once I've gotten into clinics, that's really when you realize, 'Wow, I've actually learned a lot. And I'm 10 steps further ahead than I initially thought I was going to be.' " 

By the fourth year, spent entirely in clinical rotations, the transformation is striking. Brimming with anticipation for her first job, Loessberg said: "I'm ready to get out there. I've become much more confident that I can do this." 

Year 2 DVM Students work in teams as surgeon, anesthetist, or assistant whilst performing cat spay surgery under the close supervision of multiple faculty.
Year 2 DVM Students work in teams as surgeon, anesthetist, or assistant whilst performing cat spay surgery under the close supervision of multiple faculty. Photo by Andrew Mann for Virginia Tech.


Among the greatest highs are major milestones — passing demanding examinations like anatomy practicums and, ultimately, the North American Veterinary Licensing Examination. 

"Just opening that document and seeing that 'pass,' I felt like I could let out a breath I had been holding in for the last three and a half years," Loessberg said.

Victoria Marshall, small animal tracker from Pamplin, Virginia, vividly recalled the thrill of her first successful surgery: "I really like surgery. I like using my hands. And I like thinking things out, getting my hands dirty, so to speak, and actually doing something to help an animal." 

Loessberg said: "Veterinary school requires a lot of support from your peers, professors, and family." 

Mack agreed: "I don't think this career can be done without working with one another. Whenever I was willing to be vulnerable and felt like I needed more support, I could ask for it." 

Marshall echoed the importance of her team. "My team is my family and my fiancé. They've all been very supportive. You definitely need a good friend group and good family support system for veterinary school. It's a very rigorous program, but they make it easier to deal with." 

Culminating an arduous but rewarding journey 

Poised to join the veterinary community, students exhibit a newfound self-assuredness and resilience hard-earned through the four years.  

"I think I'm a lot better at handling stress. I can take a step back and look at a situation and kind of analyze everything that's happening," Clay said. "Veterinary school teaches you to think differently." 

"I'm probably better at managing my life than I used to be, being able to know when to stop," Loessberg said. 

"There's so much material, and you want to keep going, and you could keep going forever, you could memorize everything. But, knowing what resources you have and how to go and look things up, I think that's really important." 

"I've come a long way. And I've had a lot of ups and downs," Blatman said. "I've gotten to see myself overcome a lot of challenges. Veterinary school has challenged me in a way that I've really never had before. " 

"I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to be here, and I'm glad I chose to go here. Veterinary school was hard, but I will forever cherish my friendships here," shared Harper. 

"I just feel like I've had a lot of opportunity to grow," Loessberg reflects. "And I feel ready."

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