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VOICE Leaders

Posted October 06, 2015

Angela Harrington (left) and Erin Black (right)
Angela Harrington (left) and Erin Black (right)

Angela Harrington and Erin Black, DVM students at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), are leaders in the organization Veterinary Students as One In Culture and Ethnicity (VOICE). They were both elected to their current posts at the Student American Veterinary Medical Association (SAVMA) Symposium in March 2015. What follows is an edited conversation about the group, their roles in it, and what they hope to accomplish.

Angela’s Perspective

What is VOICE?

VOICE is a student-run organization that focuses on different ways of raising awareness about culture and ethnicity, and we have different events that are free and open to veterinary students, just to bring some education and, as I said, awareness.
VOICE started at Cornell in the early 2000s and the various schools opened their own chapters. I became involved because I realized that the veterinary profession was lacking diversity, so I found organizations here that were working to improve that.

How do we improve inclusiveness in the veterinary profession?
I think practicing veterinarians actually have the most influence on who is applying to veterinary school because students are inspired by working with veterinarians or going to veterinarians when they were little. So just branching out to families and having that inclusive environment and being open to everyone, that’s what’s going to change the field the most. We, the students, are already here, so we’re not going to be able to change the enrollment statistics in our class. All we can do here is raise our awareness, and that’s something that I want all the students to do. As professionals, we need to have that level of awareness and be open to everyone in our communities, because we are part of businesses and we are serving the public and we need to be leaders in that aspect. I think having that cultural competency awareness is just necessary, not only to be a successful veterinarian, but also to be a successful human being.

What attracted you to become a veterinarian?

My mother is a veterinarian, so I grew up in the profession. So, that’s how I’ve always known, but I know that’s not how it is for everyone.

How can we advance VOICE?

I think one of the things we need to do with VOICE is bring in more alumni, because after you graduate, there are not a lot of organizations. One of the biggest issues with VOICE is students don’t realize that they are already automatically members. They don’t have to pay dues. They feel like, “I can’t come to the events,” or they don’t know that it exists, even. So that’s one of the biggest things we’re trying to do at Texas A&M and on the national level—just to say who we are, what we do, and get people involved and to come to our events and raise that awareness.

Where do you get support for VOICE?

Zoetis does a lot of funding for us, so students don’t have to pay dues. And the dean’s office, they help fund us too. We don’t want to forget to thank them. Also, Dr. Kenita Rogers and Dr. Dan Posey have been very supportive of VOICE and the LGBT group. The ideas they come up with are so exciting, and they love coming to our events and meetings, so it’s nice to have that support.

Are we advancing our mission to recruit diverse populations of students?

I went to the Iverson Bell symposium in Washington, D.C., this year, and it was amazing to hear about all the steps that Texas A&M is actually taking, compared to other veterinary schools, to improve the diversity problem, even just with how they do the multiple mini-interview format now and how they try to be aware of all the issues that can come up and focus on making things better for all students. And a lot of schools haven’t even done that. A lot of schools don’t have things like VOICE, and having the diversity-cultural competencies that we have in our curriculum. So, Texas A&M is doing a lot in that respect, and it has a lot to do with the work of Dr. Rogers and Dean Eleanor Green.

Erin’s Perspective

What do we need to do to advance diversity initiatives?

At the SAVMA Symposium, we had a forum, and it focused on seeing what everybody thought that diversity meant, and a lot of people had different perceptions of what it was. They thought it was only about ethnicity, not disabilities or different backgrounds, and so first of all we need education on what diversity encompasses, and then go from there.

How many VOICE chapters are there in the U.S.?
The chapter at Texas A&M started about three years ago now, and there are only about 16 active chapters at the other veterinary schools, although some are in the process of starting new VOICE chapters. They just need help to do so, so the national organization is trying to help them.

What are some of your VOICE goals?

Coming from the African-American background, I know the percentage of us in veterinary school is not representative of the country’s population, so I would like to improve that and also allow people who often don’t feel included in things to feel included. I think that’s important at our school and also nationally, where we’re trying to push all of the different student-run organizations across the veterinary schools, keep everybody on track, and see what everybody is doing and where we are struggling and how we can get better. This year we are focusing on getting diversity pushed to the forefront of issues within the veterinary profession, and we will be working closely with the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC) and also with the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). We’re really excited about that. I’ve already made contacts with Dr. Andrew Maccabe of AAVMC. He’s willing to help, along with the AVMA.

What more can we do as individuals to increase diversity?

If you come from a diverse cultural background, it is so important to be able to affect the younger generation. It’s not starting at the undergraduate level, or even necessarily the high school level, but elementary and middle school level. If you’re Asian, or black, or have a disability, or whatever, and the kids see you and think, “Oh wow, they can be veterinarians! That didn’t hinder them, so it shouldn’t hinder me.” We just need to reach out and have a bigger influence on our communities.

What influenced you to become a veterinarian, and how do you hope to inspire others?

I grew up going to the Boys & Girls Club of Collin County as a young child, and they always brought in speakers. They never brought in actual veterinarians, but they brought in lots of people who dealt with animals, and I’ve always loved animals, so the most logical step was to become a veterinarian. From there, I realized the lack of diversity and how it is not as common for African-Americans to go to veterinary school, so I have found veterinarians who mentored me, some with backgrounds similar to mine, some with other backgrounds. I do see the importance of reaching out, especially to the younger kids, and we have started doing that. We went to Neal Elementary in Bryan, which—although we did not realize it before we visited—is mostly underrepresented minorities, and a lot of them were just like, “Whoa, we’ve never had anything like this before!” You could just see the excitement. We talked to them about rabies and animals—not necessarily trying to get them all to become veterinarians, but just to expose them to some of these ideas.

What are some of the steps we can take to increase awareness?

Right now, Rachel Caesar, who works with the USDA APHIS Animal Care, is in the midst of forming a professional group, and hopefully we’ll help build something for people to continue on and have affiliations and be working on the issues, where you can easily find something to join and stay in touch, have speakers, and find more information. I hope to be able to influence—or at least connect with people who have more influence—making people more aware. I think the first steps are awareness and education. From there, we could increase awareness of barriers, known or unforeseen, in our application process. I know Dr. Kenita Rogers and I and Ashton Richardson have worked together to figure out some of the barriers in admissions at Texas A&M. We’re reaching out to A&M University Prairie View to try to prepare them for Texas A&M’s rigorous application process and things that always slipped through the cracks. That’s where a lot of my efforts are focused right now.

Is support key to your organization’s success?

Some schools might be held back by the dean’s office not being supportive, but we have a huge supportive team. I think Texas A&M, at the veterinary college especially, is very much aware of the lack of diversity, and I feel like we are trying to take steps that way. It’s a long hard road, and right now we are not representative of our diverse population, but we have efforts in place as we attempt to improve that. Join! Join VOICE!

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Contact Information: Megan Palsa, mpalsa@cvm.tamu.edu, 979-862-4216, 979-421-3121 (cell)



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