The rolling hills south of Nashville, Tenn., with their cow-calf herds and occasional ranches owned by country singers, don’t have a whole lot in common with the feedlot-heavy, wide-open spaces of western Kansas. And that’s one of the reasons that Jennifer Hatcher, DVM, College Grove, Tenn., chose to do an externship in Oakley, Kan., when she was a veterinary student at the University of Tennessee.

Hatcher, who works in a mixed practice with her father, says, “This is the only type of practice I knew of, and when I went out to Kansas, I found out how much I didn’t know. It was a great opportunity to see different scenery. I knew cow-calf but nothing about feedlots, and I found that I liked it.”

By learning the feedlot side of the business, Hatcher’s externship with feedlot consultant Wade Taylor, DVM, of Oakley Veterinary Services, enabled her to return home with a different perspective to help cow-calf producers in the area. This is one reason, she says, that she encourages veterinary students to get out of their comfort zone when looking for food animal externship opportunities and why veterinarians should also look outside their immediate area for students to mentor.

Steve McDonald, DVM, Dry Fork Veterinary Clinic, Henrietta, Texas, is the executive director of the Academy of Rural Veterinarians (ARV), and agrees with Hatcher that getting students out of their geographic comfort zone can be priceless. “We advise students to visit as many practices as possible,” he says.

Not only is it a valuable experience to see other practice types, Greg Myers, DVM, Cross Timbers Veterinary Hospital, Bowie, Texas, says the hometown veterinarians where a student may want to have an externship may not have a job opening when the student graduates. “It’s important to learn all you can from everyone you can,” he suggests.

Get in front of students

Jennifer Hatcher’s father, AABP president Charlie Hatcher, DVM, says over the next five to 10 years the industry needs to continue to work on recruitment, selection, training and retention of food supply veterinarians. “We should involve all of agriculture, not just animal agriculture, in this effort,” he says. “I am encouraged by the support given by various industry organizations to this effort.” Both AABP and  ARV have externship programs that pair students with practitioners, as well as helping fund these experiences.

One of the simplest ways for veterinarians to get involved is to speak for and about themselves in front of students and tell them what their practice lives are really like. ARV sends practitioners to the veterinary schools to share their personal and practice lives with potential food animal students. Jennifer Hatcher has been on both sides of those presentations and now talks to students as a rural practitioner.

“In my first year of vet school, many of my classmates did not know what direction they wanted to go,” Hatcher explains. “We need to mentor this type of student. I feel if they could experience and be shown large animal medicine in a positive light, this could open doors for many of them.”

Hatcher says she has had students approach her after presentations to find out more. “Part of their response to me may be because I am young, and they can relate to me more.” Because of this, Hatcher encourages younger practitioners to also get involved in mentoring.

Her father Charlie has fostered the act of mentoring in his and his daughter’s professional life and believes it starts early. “The mentoring reaches all the way down to middle school,” he says. “For example, Jennifer and I recently performed a necropsy on a pig for the local high school forensic club.”

ARV’s McDonald confirms that reaching the younger generation is important. He has hosted all types of students at his mixed practice in north-central Texas and says the most rewarding are high school students who eventually become veterinarians.

Finding opportunities to get in front of young people isn’t hard. Billy Walker, DVM, practiced dairy medicine in California and now is at The Ohio State University working on a PhD. Walker encourages veterinarians to get out and work with 4-H, FFA and similar groups to show them what a joy food-animal veterinary medicine can be. “Visit students in undergrad or high school and on career days,” he suggests. “Express an interest in having them out for the day to check out what your practice is like.”

Define your expectations

The ARV’s goals have been to bring practitioners and students together for mentoring and externship oppor-tunities. McDonald says most bad externship experiences are due to unrealistic expectations and lack of communication on either part, and this is stressed to ARV’s externship grant applicants. “I know luck plays a hand,” McDonald says, “but over 90% report a positive experience.”

The application process for an externship shouldn’t just involve looking at someone on paper. Myers interviews all applicants. “We invite the students to come to the clinic for two to three days,” he says. “We discuss what they want to gain from the experience and what we expect of them while they are here.” Myers’ mixed practice has four veterinarians and hosted its first student in 2005 for a full summer, and had another student for the summer in 2006, as well as a student for the first six weeks and a student for the last six weeks of the summer. This year, the practice is hosting two more students.

At the Burwell Veterinary Hospital, Burwell, Neb., Brett Andrews, DVM (one of the ARV founders), has been hosting one to two students per year for more than 15 years on an informal basis. The four-veterinarian practice has also had about six high school students work there in the last 12 years, two of them who are now veterinarians. In the last three years, this heavily cow-calf practice on the edge of the Sandhills has had more formal mentoring relationships.

“Clear objectives should be expressed by both parties so both will know what is expected, thus making the experience more valuable for everyone,” Andrews advises. “This is something I am learning to do better. All I want on the part of the student is a work ethic and the desire to jump in, do and learn.”

Make it clear to each student what you are comfortable with letting him/her do or not do, based on the student’s skill level. “If the student has a specific interest, then plans can be made so that the student can ride with certain veterinarians on different days or spend the day working in a specialty area of the practice such as milk quality, embryo transfer, etc.,” suggests Jennifer Walker, DVM, a graduate student at The Ohio State University.

Future colleagues or cheap labor?

Having veterinary students at the practice can be a source of extra help, but remember they are also there to have real-life practice experiences and learn and improve techniques. You need to be thoughtful about the “tasks” you ask students to do. “Asking them to shake rations for you is perfectly okay if you’re going to take time to explain how, and more importantly what, it all means,” Jennifer Walker says. “Asking them to plate 500 milk samples is okay as along as you teach them how to read them, making sure it is a worthwhile experience.”

Ask yourself if the task is just “work” or if it’s “experience.” Admittedly, Walker says, sometimes it is plain old work that has to be done, but that “experience” implies some sort of learning.

Students can often get scholarships/grants to help fund their externships, as well as payment from some of the practices. How much a practice does is up to the practitioners. Charlie Hatcher opens his home and family dairy farm to externship students. “We put them up at our house, furnish all meals and pay them about $175 per week to give them some gas money,” he says. “We involve them at whatever level they are comfortable with. We try to give them the big picture and help them understand the business side of farming and the veterinary clinic.”

Billy Walker agrees that the practice should pay for as many of the expenses as possible. “Often these students have a large debt load, and I think it is good form to take care of your ‘guests’ as much as possible,” he suggests. “I would perceive this makes the student feel more welcome, as well.”

Project and expect professionalism

Would you go into your doctor’s, dentist’s or even lawyer’s office and expect them to be wearing a ratty t-shirt and jeans? Make sure your students understand that your clients also have a high expectation of the professionalism of their veterinarians. “First impressions are everything,” Jennifer Walker states. “Why should I expect someone to take me seriously or pay me $140 per hour when I show up wearing dirty, torn jeans or shorts, a bloodied scrub top and a manure-covered baseball cap? Just because you are going to put on coveralls doesn’t mean it’s okay to look like a bum underneath.”

Students dressing professionally also extends to veterinary meetings, Walker says. “The same rules apply and one should always assume he/she may very well meet his/her future employer at any one of these meetings.” If you are acting as a mentor to students, tactfully bring up issues of dress code if you feel the students are dressing inappropriately for the circumstance.

Students and recent grads should respect those who have been in the profession for any length of time, Charlie Hatcher adds. “Students aren’t likely to be hired if they show a lack of professionalism.”

Communication skills are also part of professionalism. A veterinarian is one of the most-respected persons in a community and how he/she communicates to the client reflects on the profession. “At the University of Tennessee, we were encouraged to speak to the client on a daily basis and give updates along with the guidance of the clinician in charge,” Jennifer Hatcher explains. “This helped me and I would also pay close attention to how the clinician would communicate to the client.”

How mentoring benefits you

Mentoring also benefits the mentors. “Usually the mentor is paid back in spades,” Jennifer Walker says. “As mentees move on, they inevitably share their positive experience with others who soon come to your door.”

Your own education can be boosted when hosting students. For Myers, having students keeps him on his toes. “They are always asking questions and wanting to know why we do things certain ways,” he says. Myers has only been out of school six years, but says the students bring fresh ideas and new techniques that they are eager to share. “I also have to brush up on certain things to be able to fully explain them to the students,” Myers adds. “In doing so, I am constantly learning. Having them here has made me a better practitioner. We will hopefully be sources of information for each other in the future.”

The mentoring relationship is a two-way street, notes AABP’s Hatcher. “We always learn a lot from the students when they are at our practice,” he says. “They keep us on our toes. I don’t think they realize how valuable they are. The more you give, the more you receive.”

Being involved in mentoring relationships helps the mentor stay involved with future colleagues and the future of our profession, Andrews says. “It gives us different perspectives, gives us a chance to learn, and allows us the opportunity to interact with some dang neat kids.”  

City kids vs. rural kids?

Everyone has an opinion of whether city kids with no livestock experience can cut it in food animal medicine. Some say that city kids who are enthusiastic about learning about food animal medicine are a pleasure to host at their practice. Others believe that students with no livestock background might be put in danger because they don’t understand livestock.

Patience is key with students unfamiliar with livestock, says Jennifer Hatcher, DVM. “At our practice, we do not just throw them into the deep end, but by the end of their experience, they should be diving. We try to give them more and more responsibility as the externship progresses.”

Jennifer Walker, DVM, was a city kid from the suburbs of San Francisco interested in small animal oncology as a pre-veterinary student at the University of California-Davis. She was directed by an advisor to look at the university dairy for a summer internship. After a previously disheartening externship at the university horse barn where her lack of horse knowledge made her unwelcome, Walker was relieved to find that just being interested made her welcome at the dairy. As a student herdsman, she had the opportunity to work with the veterinarians from the college and became interested in their role.

Her experience with UC-Davis dairy veterinarian Jim Reynolds, DVM, cemented in her mind that she would pursue dairy medicine. “It was Dr. Reynolds who provided experience in milk quality and set an example for the veterinarian’s role in promoting animal care and welfare, which are my two main interests today,” Walker explains.

Walker believes those who come into bovine medicine with limited experience bring a blank slate and are able to learn without bias. “At times, it’s the city kids who are more teachable as they haven’t learned bad animal-handling habits and they have a fresh perspective.”

Greg Myers, DVM, has found that students come to the practice to learn and has experience with both types. “The students with the experience may jump right in at the beginning, but the ‘non-farm’ students who want to learn aren’t far behind.”

“As food animal veterinarians, we should encourage all kids, especially the city kids, to spend time with us,” notes Brett Andrews, DVM. “In this way we can expose them to high quality, ethical food animal medicine and to clients who are concerned with good animal husbandry and production practices. Even if these city kids, and most will, decide not to do mixed animal practice , hopefully they will be good ambassadors for the food-animal production sector.”

How to get involved

There’s no excuse not to get involved in mentoring programs, as right now there are several organizations that offer opportunities. AABP president Charlie Hatcher, DVM, says AABP is working with other organizations in the effort to recruit food animal veterinarians. “It’s important to have a unified message in recruitment between all of the groups and let kids know of the tremendous, diverse career opportunities within the veterinary profession. Providing links between web sites and a common searchable database for mentor programs would be a good start.”

  •     your local veterinary school/veterinary technician school
  •     your state or local veterinary medical association
  •     •your pharmaceutical company representatives