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Real-Life Pet Project: Student, Age 56, Seeking DVM Degree

Posted January 27, 2004

Real-Life Pet Project: Student, Age 56, Seeking DVM Degree

COLLEGE STATION, Jan. 27, 2004 - Future veterinarian Pat Ryan looks at it this way: if she were a dog, she'd be 392 years old.

The 56-year-old Ryan is in her third year of studies at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine, a highly rigorous academic program for 20-somethings, much less a senior adult. When she graduates next year, she'll be the oldest person ever to receive a DVM degree at the school, Texas' only veterinary college.

While it's not uncommon for older adults to go back to college to earn their bachelor's degree, it's extremely rare for professional schools, such as law, medicine or dentistry, to have someone begin his or her practice at age 57.

Ryan thinks it's great.

"I'm living a dream just being here and that's the truth," the Houston resident laughs. "I wanted to be a veterinarian 25 years ago, but a thing called 'life' had different plans for me."

Ryan has had a life of almost Forrest Gump-like scale.

At various times, she's been a highly paid fashion model who walked runways from New York to Houston, a writer and editor for Mademoiselle magazine, a flight attendant for Pan American Airways, a former Junior Miss of Connecticut, a theatrical producer, a public relations specialist for Neiman Marcus, an award-winning charity organizer who raised $200,000 for the Houston SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), and her most important role - a wife of 32 years and mother of two grown daughters.

In between all of that, she battled cervical cancer and was hospitalized for weeks following surgery, which rid her of the disease that struck in her mid-30s.

Like one of the felines she will probably be treating in a year, Ryan has seemingly had nine lives - or at least lived nine different ones.

All students seeking admission to the College of Veterinary Medicine are required to fill out a "personal statement" form, which is more or less an essay on why they should be selected. Ryan's began, "I've waited 25 years to write this essay. Like that of the tortoise in Aesop's fable, the path leading to this moment has been slow but steady, deliberate and determined. I bring a half-century of life experience to the table, a background as varied as a patchwork quilt and a resume described by a friend as a 'Renaissance woman gone mad."

Admissions counselors were hooked - she got in, but not before taking three years worth of prerequisite courses, such as advanced chemistry, physics and others. Ryan graduated in 1970 from all-women's Smith College in Massachusetts, but her degree was in theater, which is a tad different than doing emergency canine surgery.

She enrolled at Houston Baptist University and the University of St. Thomas to get the required courses behind her, then three years ago headed for Texas A&M's College of Veterinary Medicine, which has an international reputation and the long hours of hard study that go with it. While her architect husband Jeff, who has degrees from Rice and Harvard and whose firm designed the Owls' state-of-the-art baseball stadium Reckling Park, stayed home in Houston, Ryan rented a house in College Station and settled in with three dogs she adopted - sort of.

"The first year was very, very difficult for me," Ryan admits. "Besides the course work, which is very demanding, I found out that I just didn't have the stamina that these 22-year-olds have. I found myself stressing a lot, but I was determined to get through it."

One big adjustment: computers.

"These kids grew up working and doing research on computers. I didn't, and I had a lot of catching up to do," she recalls.

Fellow veterinary medical students, she admits, have been highly supportive of her.

"At first, I had a few 'hey grandma' jokes thrown at me, but overall, the students and faculty have been wonderful," Ryan says. "I've come here to learn. I'm certainly not shy about asking questions."

When she graduates next year, she hopes to work in a small animal practice for a long time.

"I'm not about to go through all of this and practice just a few years and retire," Ryan says. "I'm living a dream I've had for decades. When I get that diploma, it's the start of my new career. To be a veterinarian is the deepest desire of my heart, so early retirement for me is just not an option."

Ryan, who proudly says that her silver-colored hair goes well with her white lab coat, is proof that you can teach an old - better make that middle-aged - dog new tricks. Anatomy class, anyone?

Contact Information:
Angela G. Clendenin
Director, Communications & Public Relations
Ofc - (979) 862-2675
Cell - (979) 739-5718

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