October sweater weather and the sight of ghosts and skeletons decorating Blacksburg residents’ houses and yards were a little bit jarring for four veterinary faculty members from Kenya and Uganda, but the teaching methods they learned and the insights they imparted to their hosts were eye-opening for all involved.

Veterinary instructors from the two African nations visited the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine (VMCVM) for a week in October to learn about methods and approaches they can apply to teaching veterinary students in their universities.

“This is a great learning opportunity,” said Francis Mutebi of Makerere University in Uganda.

VMCVM colleagues Jennie Hodgson, Cassidy Rist, and Jamie Stewart collaborated with faculty from the University of Tennessee on a grant from the Council on International Veterinary Medicine Education in early 2020 making the international visit, delayed two years by the COVID-19 pandemic, possible.

Much of the focus of their week at Virginia Tech surrounded the observation of and participation in OSCEs – objective structured clinical examinations, commonly pronounced “ahskies” among veterinary instructors and students. In OSCEs, students are graded by a trained observer on the step-by-step performance of clinical skills needed often in veterinary practice, such as haltering a horse or placing a catheter in a dog.

“None of our visitors had participated in one of these assessments before, but they are now very keen to introduce them to their programs in Africa,” said Hodgson, professor in population health sciences.

Rist, assistant professor of practice in population health sciences, described OSCEs to the visiting veterinary instructors as “an objective way of evaluating clinical skills in a low-stakes setting.” If a student fails, “they get to come back and do it again,” Rist said. “They don’t fail out of vet school.”

The OSCEs at VMCVM take place with models of animals in the Clinical Skills Lab, a facility that impressed the visiting instructors.

“The OSCEs, it made you think, there’s one big room with so much equipment that can be used for so many different skills, for so many different disciplines,” said Jane N. Mburu of Egerton University in Kenya. “We like that.”

“One thing I‘ve learned here is that all skills, whether clinical or biological, can be taught and be examined by using simulations rather than live animals,” said Robert Ssenfuma of Makerere University in Uganda. “Such simulations that are used here are very cheap and can also be used to train our students.”

“They got to learn that designing clinical skills models to replace live animal work does not need to be a daunting task,” said Jamie Stewart, assistant professor of large animal clinical services at the veterinary college. “In fact, they got to see how the students used their models to practice techniques over and over to achieve the ‘muscle memory’ needed to become proficient.”

The first half of the program was an online Master Teacher Program hosted by the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Knoxville. The African veterinary instructors spent two days at Knoxville before a brief visit to Lincoln Memorial University, a private university with a veterinary college just south of the Virginia-Tennessee border near the Cumberland Gap, on their way to Blacksburg.

“This program gave them the opportunity to see aspects of three different veterinary colleges with vastly differing curriculum designs,” Stewart said. “The program was meant to help them see different ways that they can modify their programs in a sustainable way that works for them.”

The African instructors were taken with, alternately, the variety and specialization of student training at the veterinary college.

“The way the curriculum is structured, the holistic approach in the training of students, there is no breaking down of the disciplines. No discipline stays on its own, and there is interconnection between the disciplines,” Mutebi said.

At the same time, Irene Thiguku Kamanja of Egerton University in Kenya was interested in how students could choose a specialty track even within the interdisciplinary approach.

“We have five years to learn everything, do everything, no specialization,” Kamanja said. “Here the system is crafted in such way that before you go too deep into the system, you know where you belong.”

Even while learning many new processes they can apply to veterinary education in their nations, the visiting faculty also noted several differences in approaches and programs that might be difficult to bridge.

Ssenfuma found it interesting that more veterinary students at VMCVM are interested in treating small animals rather than large ones. He also suggested that the veterinary college should consider adding a wildlife veterinary track to its program.

Mutebi said he has concerns that American veterinary students may “over-rely on technology” and not always understand the basics of “what is behind what the machine is doing.”

Mburu said veterinarians from Virginia might have a difficult time grasping the scale and intensity of “fallen cattle diseases” that affect Africa.

“Here maybe they have learned about it but they haven’t seen it,” Mburu said, noting porous borders between nations that have stringent regulations to fight the diseases and others that did not. “Whatever they get [in another African nation], gets us too.”

Hodgson and Stewart said talking with the African veterinary instructors was educational for the Virginia Tech faculty also.

“It was not surprising to hear that they had fewer resources available for their programs in Kenya and Uganda,” Hodgson said. “However, they are very innovative in how they manage the resources they have and still provide an excellent veterinary education for their students. 

“The needs of their countries for veterinary services are quite different from those here in the U.S., but it made us reflect on our own day-one graduate competencies and whether we have these expectations right.”

“We learned so much from them,” said Stewart. “Even in transporting them around the area, I learned how knowledgeable they have to be in every aspect of food production, not just animal health. Many of their students actually obtain their veterinary degrees so that they can go back and be able to treat animals on their family farms.”

Kamanja noted that the veterinary college students at Virginia Tech were much more mature than those she taught, coming straight from high school into the veterinary program at Egerton.

About some things they were learning in the U.S., she said: “We may not be able to completely borrow that with the age difference between your students and ours.”

The interaction between students and faculty is much different, Mutebi found.

“A big difference is the relationship between professors and students,” Mutebi said. “In Uganda, the professor is like a god, and you go to them when you are shaking. Here, it’s different, it’s collegial. To me that is really good, it makes students comfortable, they can approach you anytime.”

Most of all, the group said they were grateful for the hospitality of their hosts.

“We appreciate the hospitality,” Mutebi said. “Our hosts were so good, they were so friendly, they easily answered questions. That has made our stay here good.”

“They are still doing their jobs,” said Kamanja “but they are also taking care of us.”

Taking care of the visitors included sending them home with some treats based on the odd American fall tradition they observed being celebrated.

“During our travels together, they would ask questions about all the ghosts and skeletons in people’s yards,” Stewart said. “So on their last day here, I put together a goody bag full of Halloween staples for them to take home with them to remember us by.”

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