Vanessa Wilkins, a fourth-year veterinary student at the Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (VMBS), is a living embodiment of perseverance.
Despite multiple hardships, a career change, and raising two children on her own, Wilkins remained committed to pursuing her dreams and will graduate with a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree on May 10.
Finding Her Way
Growing up in Murrieta, California, Wilkins was proud to call herself a “horse girl.”
“I have been obsessed with horses since a very young age. I did not have Barbies; I had My Little Ponies,” Wilkins said. “When I was 12, I would walk around Murietta, which was full of little ranchettes, and knock on people’s doors to ask, ‘Can I pet your horses?’
“The one place that let me come over most often had Arabians and I got my first horse from them,” she recalled. “I did horse shows and rodeo pageants, and my girlfriends and I would go riding every weekend. Horses have always been a huge part of my personal life.”
Wilkins had dreamed of becoming a veterinarian from as early as middle school but also considered pursuing a career in academia or research because of her love for genetics. In the end, she chose an undergraduate education that would be beneficial for either type of career.
She attended California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, for her bachelor’s degree in biotechnology, with a double-minor in chemistry and microbiology, followed by a master’s degree in equine exercise physiology.
“I was really involved in the Arabian horse program there and loved it,” she said. “They maintain a horse show program, do breeding and training, and have an intercollegiate horse show team that I was on. I was a student rider and had horses assigned to me that I was responsible for caring for.”
Forging New Paths
During her time at Cal Poly Pomona, Wilkins became pregnant and gave birth to her oldest child, taking off only two weeks to recover. Despite the challenge of raising a baby on her own, she finished her degrees and took a teaching position at the university, followed by a research lab manager position for Western Veterinary School.
“I was a lab manager for about a year and a half, and then I applied to vet school there and was accepted,” Wilkins said. “I went to vet school from 2006-2007, but I had a lot of health problems and was diagnosed with Addison’s disease my third quarter in.”
Despite her diagnosis of the rare condition — which is characterized by the adrenal glands not producing enough cortisol, a hormone that helps the body respond to stress and maintain blood pressure, heart function, the immune system, and blood glucose levels — Wilkins still finished the year.
“But then I got pregnant with my second child and decided I was just going to be a mom at that point,” she said.
That summer, Wilkins married an equine veterinarian and, together, they moved their family to Texas, where she helped run his equine veterinary clinic in the small town of Pittsburg, about 128 miles east of Dallas.
“I was a practice manager, so I did everything — I did the books, I trained all the staff and technicians, and I was responsible for managing the inventory,” Wilkins said. “I was also a driving force for starting a new USDA-approved Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA) testing lab, which is a huge feat. It took about three years of effort working with the USDA for approval of a new facility, plus traveling to Iowa for training and certification as a USDA-certified EIA technician.”
Endure And Achieve
Wilkins managed her husband’s veterinary clinic for about a decade while also homeschooling her children. But during all that time, she never forgot her dream of becoming a veterinarian.
In 2019, after going through a particularly unpleasant divorce, she finally felt like it was the right time to return to veterinary school and was admitted into the VMBS’ DVM Class of 2023.
“I had a support network of amazing women who helped me through the recovery process after my marriage ended. We started as an online book club and I came to lean on them so much,” Wilkins said. “I knew it was time for me to go back and finish what I started.”
Going through veterinary school as a single mom was no easy feat, especially when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“It was not impossible, but definitely tough,” Wilkins said. “I’m grateful that my kids were older, so I was able to say, ‘Hey, it’s a fend-for-yourself night. We can pop some pizzas in the oven.’
“It was really challenging to wear the hat of the mom and the hat of the student,” she said.
On top of those two hats, during her first three years of veterinary school, Wilkins also spent her Saturdays working as a professor at Blinn College, teaching anatomy and physiology to pre-professional students planning to become paramedics, radiology technicians, and nurses.
Despite her multiple hats and busy schedule, Wilkins’ time at the VMBS is full of accomplishments, include having conducted research with the Dog Aging Project and earning a Morris Animal Foundation Student Research Grant.
Now that graduation is finally here, Wilkins is planning for what her life will look like after veterinary school. One of her top priorities is giving herself a break from the fast-paced, and sometimes hectic, way her life had been for the past several years.
Even though she had followed an equine track during veterinary school, she decided to begin her career as a small animal emergency veterinarian, a role that can provide the work-life balance she desires.
“The climate as an equine veterinarian is still a little bit more ‘old school,’ where you earn your badge of honor by how many hours a week you work. I didn’t want that lifestyle anymore,” Wilkins said. “I still love horses and who knows? I may go back into equine medicine later, but right now, small animal emergency medicine provides the professional mental stimulation I need but also a lifestyle that’s much better suited for me.”
After graduation, Wilkins will split her time between working in Sugar Land and being at home in College Station with her kids, who are now 15 and 21 years old. She plans to dedicate herself to her new career while also saving time for her family and other passions.
“I want to spend more time with my kids and my animals,” Wilkins said. “I want to ride my horses and get at least one more dog. I also love to garden, cook, and can foods, and I’m ready to have more time to pursue my hobbies.
“I’m so looking forward to it,” she said in anticipation of her DVM graduation. “I’m just going a few years at a time and then seeing what happens next.”
Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of VMBS Communications, Texas A&M School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; firstname.lastname@example.org; 979-862-4216