Texas youth work to make their veterinary dreams reality
By Jennifer M. Latzke
It's the typical question of any child: What do you want to be when you grow up?
For a group of Texas 4-Hers, their dreams of working in the veterinary medicine field "someday" are becoming a reality today.
The 4-H Veterinary Science Program, explained Brandon Boughen, allows youth ages 8 to 18 to expand their studies in preparation for a future in veterinary medicine. Boughen is the Texas AgriLife Extension agriculture and natural resources agent in Potter County and is the co-teacher of the program.
"They can go through the program and when they are done they can take the exams to be a veterinary technician," Boughen explained. It's a five-year course that includes apprenticeship time with a practicing veterinarian as well as hands-on course work led by a veterinarian.
The course was the brainchild of Dr. Buddy Faries, a professor and Extension specialist with the FAZD Center, the National Center for Foreign Animal and Zoonotic Disease Defense. He wrote the textbook for the course, "Veterinary Science: Preparatory Training for the Veterinary Assistant." He saw the demand increase for jobs in the veterinary medicine field beyond the clinic.
"Young people often have an interest in veterinary medicine, so we want to satisfy that interest early," Faries said in a statement. "And, the other side of this is that job opportunities in this field continue to grow." From homeland security, to laboratory technology to public health, there is an increasing demand for veterinarians. Additionally, the increasing demand from families for health care for their pets means an increase for small animal veterinarians and vet techs to help them in their practices.
Tufts University has estimated a rise in demand for veterinarians of more than 33 percent from 2008 to 2018. From families willing to spend more on Fido, to a need for veterinarians to serve in governmental capacities to protect public health and food animal safety, a student with a veterinary education has a good chance at a good job.
Seeing these trends, FAZD, a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Center of Excellence, funded the project through a grant. While it was started in Texas, Boughen said it has the potential to expand to other states.
While most of the students enrolled in Boughen's course do so because they want to work with animals in a clinical setting, he emphasizes the opportunities of "Plan B."
"We spend a huge amount of time on Plan B," Boughen said. "So Plan A is being a vet. What's your Plan B? Well, 90-some percent don't make it (through veterinary school) so we go over what a biologist does, what a histologist does, a phlebotomist, a zoologist and how that field interact with veterinarians. They don't have to be a vet. If they love growing tissue cultures and they like to go on fact-finding missions to figure out what bacteria is killing an animal, then they don't have to be a veterinarian to do that.
"They can have a master's degree in biotechnology or microbiology," Boughen said. "They don't have to be a vet; you can do something you like to do without the DVM behind your name."
The curriculum has 75 core lessons in basic veterinary science and 25 lessons in clinical science and technology, taught by Dr. Tiffany Olsen, an Amarillo veterinarian. Olsen volunteers her time because she sees the need for more young people with veterinary skills to come into the field. By reaching them at such a young age, the program can help them decide if the expense of veterinary school is the right choice for their future, or if they would prefer to go into another aspect of the field. "These kids come out of this with a marketable skill, whether they become veterinarians or not," Olsen said. "As veterinarians, we don't have that many people willing and able to be technicians. There's a percentage that will become a veterinarian, but this program is a good way to figure out which side they want to be on."
Faries' textbook is the main teaching tool, with additional online materials available to keep the courses current, Boughen explained. Because the course is five years, it is taught on a cyclical basis, and new students can jump into course work at any point. Lessons are tailored to the age of the student, with older students often choosing to accelerate their learning plans in order to complete the programs by the time they graduate from high school.
There's an emphasis on self-directed learning, Olsen said. "It combines real-world skills and talking to people already in the field with self-directed study," she said. "It's good that they have to do stuff on their own and it's not all spoon fed to them. Because, in a practice, you have to be self-motivated." There are also online resources that they can use to supplement classroom lessons, she added.
Beyond the classroom, though, the hands-on aspect of the program is a big draw for students.
"They really like it when we have anatomy lessons," Olsen said. "We will bring in a fetal calf or a fetal pig and do a postmortem on it, or I'll bring in organs from the meat lab and it makes the lessons more interesting if you have the real parts of the real animal. Until that, it's just theory."
"In order to complete the program in its entirety, they have to spend between 500 and 1,500 clinical observation hours," Boughen said. "Now, that can be with a veterinarian, or it can be helping at a zoo cleaning pens, but they are getting experience. Even cleaning pens they learn what type of chemical they need to use to clean specific types of fluids, or animal demeanor when they're scared or mad." These observation hours also build their client interaction skills, as well as their confidence, he said.
There's also the chance to be one of 30 youth selected each year for the West Texas Youth Veterinary Workshop held in San Angelo each year, Boughen said. This intensive-study week takes students from the various educational departments of zoology and biology, to laboratories that work with feedlots to develop antibiotics, to research labs in the field working with fistulated animals. They even explore the business of pharmacology and working with the animal health industry, he said.
Many students in this course don't have a traditional agricultural background, and that's helping Potter County expand the reach of its traditional 4-H program. Also, the Amarillo Independent School District offers advanced learning opportunities for animal science through the Amarillo Area Center for Advanced Learning, Boughen said. The two programs work in tandem together and students often use their coursework in one to help with the other. One benefit to the 4-H program is that there are scholarships available for their future education. Funding for the vet tech program falls under the 4-H Extension umbrella, Boughen said, so as long as students are members of 4-H and they buy the textbook they can be enrolled.
For the majority of students, this course is a stepping stone to realizing their dreams. Some will take the test to become certified vet techs and work their way through college and vet school that way. But, if nothing else, they get opportunities to see what other doors are open to them in the animal health profession, beyond the dream of owning their own practice.
Jennifer M. Latzke can be reached at 620-227-1807 or firstname.lastname@example.org.