It had the feel of a reunion, a professional conference, and a carnival.

Connect 2022 was all those things, and more, for more than 600 registered attendees Oct. 20-22 at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, apparently the largest veterinary gathering in the state of Virginia.

“Connect consisted of a wonderful series of events involving mentorship, career opportunities, reunion events, a continuing education program of alumni speakers, awards ceremony, and other celebratory events,” said Cassie Wagner, director of alumni and referring practitioner relations. “It was a special time for our entire college community to reconnect.”

Connect 2022, which evolved from several separate events into a single festive weekend over the past three years, began Thursday evening with a dinner for mentors and continued through Saturday night’s reunion gathering at Moon Hollow Brewing Company. The grove was filled with merriment on Friday evening for the college celebration.

“The color of the leaves and the company here in Blacksburg have been hard to beat lately,” Wagner said.

“The weekend was fantastic and I can’t thank the college enough for all that was done to make it a tremendous success,” said Capt. Marianne P. Martinson of the U.S. Public Health Service and FDA/Center for Veterinary Medicine, a 1992 veterinary college graduate back for her 30th reunion. “We all had a great time catching up and rekindling friendships.”

A total of $5,363.50 was raised for the DVM General Scholarship Fund, or 10 percent of the total collected from Connect 2022 registration fees and sponsorship contributions, Wagner reported to alumni after the event.

Jeremiah Easley graduated from VMCVM in 2007. Now the director of the Preclinical Surgical Research Laboratory at Colorado State University’s veterinary college, he gave one of the continuing education lectures at Connect 2022.

“I truly enjoyed going down memory lane and catching up with old friends and mentors,” said Easley “I hope this is a start for me to participate more in the future with VMCVM alumni and students.”

Friday’s activities clustered around two buzzing centers, the career fair in the VMIA and mentoring in the Commons area.

Nearly 90 firms – animal hospitals, veterinary clinics, nonprofits and others – set up in the VMIA foyer, overflowing outdoors with space heaters on chilly October morning. Many tables sported buckets of early Halloween candy as people streamed through steadily.

One two-word theme was prevalent at the career fair: Help wanted.

“It’s a combination of things,” said Jesper Lorentzen, director of Hanover Green Veterinary Clinic at Mechanicsburg, Virginia, a 2004 VMCVM graduate and past president of the VMCVM Alumni Board of Directors. “Some older veterinarians retired during COVID -- we need 1 ½ doctors to replace the ones who retired.

“People aren’t working 60 hours a week any more, quality of life is a greater concern. Pet ownership is at an all-time high. People who were at home all the time during COVID noticed things about their pets they didn’t notice before. People are more connected to their pets, pets have become family members. People are starting families later in life, and often their first ‘baby’ is a dog or cat.”

Fourth-year student Caitlin Hearst of Chester, Virginia, already has her job lined up, at Vinton Veterinary Hospital 40 miles away, but was nonetheless impressed with the career fair.

“It’s interesting to see how many options there are,” Hearst said. “The hiring market is wonderful right now.”

While Mike Falconer, administrator of Craig Road Animal Hospital in Las Vegas, Nevada, said he’d love to hire veterinarians from Virginia Tech eventually, he mainly came across the country looking for candidates for externships from fourth-year students.

“We have no vet school in Nevada,” said Falconer, who just came from Pennsylvania and will soon attend another job fair in Tennessee. “My job is to sell the Vegas we like, the Vegas we enjoy. You may know or like the tourist part of Las Vegas, but there are multiple other sides to Las Vegas. The hospital sells itself. My job is to sell Las Vegas.”

For Julia Foster of the Lynchburg Humane Society, the fair represented an opportunity for growth of the nonprofit’s services.

“We are looking to expand our services to offer community services, and we are opening new facility next year,” Foster said, “We also want to expand our spay/neuter services. We’re open to being a learning ground. You see a broader range of cases than you would in private practice.”

Meanwhile, current VMCVM students met with over 160 veterinary professionals, including nearly 70 college alumni, for mentoring sessions in the Commons area.

“I received really good advice from alumni and practicing veterinarians that makes me feel comfortable moving forward in life,” said Hannah Mader, a fourth-year student from Pennsylvania who plans to move to Ohio after graduation.

“The important thing is just connecting to the students, not only those that come from West Virginia, but all of the veterinary students at Virginia Tech,” said Danny Montgomery, president of the West Virginia Veterinary Medicine Association who is in private practice at Princeton, W.Va. “The veterinarians in West Virginia support them and we can be an asset to them.”

Montgomery’s message in mentoring is straightforward. “I tell them three things: They should enjoy vet school, don’t get overwhelmed, and have a support system. The connections they make here will be with them for the rest of their lives.”

“We are grateful for the collaborative and supportive relationships we share with the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association (VVMA), who coordinates the mentor program, as well as the Maryland VMA and West Virginia VMA who all attended this year’s events,” Wagner said.

Mentoring happened less formally, also, and from veterinarians only recently removed from college.

Alexis Young, standing at the career fair table for Eagle’s Nest Animal Hospital in King George, Virginia, graduated VMCVM just last year.

“I love it, I’m happy where I’m at. I love to give advice to the new graduates and the fourth-years, I’m excited to be here.

“When I drove up, I said ‘I’m home.’ “

Written by Kevin Myatt, Writer/Editor for the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine.