New awards join pool of substantial grants that help recipients counter school debt
Photo courtesy of Dr. Rowena Woode
Dubious that she would win an all-expenses-paid scholarship that became available at the University of Missouri during her first year of veterinary school there, Dr. Rowena Woode applied anyway. She didn't regret it.
Dr. Rowena Woode was in her first year of veterinary school when a pivotal email landed in her inbox.
The message announced a new scholarship available to University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine students who had graduated from a high school in the state. The scholarship would pay the full cost of attendance — tuition and fees plus living expenses — for all four years.
Woode qualified but figured the generous offer was sure to draw so many applicants that there was "no way" she'd have a chance. Nevertheless, she gave it a shot.
"Well, I'm glad I took that shot!" Woode said last week, speaking from a laboratory at her alma mater where she's a postdoctoral fellow. She won the scholarship, retroactive to the start of her studies, gaining the wherewithal to continue her education beyond the DVM degree she finished in 2016. Late last year, she earned a PhD, launching a biomedical research career.
Woode's experience is rare but not unique. As the cost of education rises seemingly inexorably, and student debt with it, full-ride veterinary school scholarships gradually are increasing in number, offering outstanding applicants a path to a lower-debt, if not debt-free, start in the profession.
Queries by the VIN News Service to the 33 veterinary schools in the United States found that at least eight offer one or more full-tuition scholarships. At the University of California, Davis, about two dozen DVM/PhD students receive stipends to offset living expenses as well as tuition waivers. The University of Missouri reports that it has two awards that cover living expenses, too — the scholarship that Woode won in 2013 plus another being given for the first time this fall, to an in-state student interested in large animal medicine.
Today, another new scholarship covering tuition and fees debuted, available to aspiring veterinarians who intend to practice small animal medicine. The scholarship was created by philanthropist Becky Godchaux in honor of her dogs' veterinarian, Dr. Mike Dunn, a practitioner in the Florida Keys.
Administered by the nonprofit VIN Foundation, the scholarship will provide up to $35,000 a year for four years to each of two recipients beginning their studies in fall 2024. (The VIN Foundation is affiliated with the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession and parent of the VIN News Service.)
Explaining her motivation for establishing the award, Godchaux said: "There's nothing that makes me as happy as dogs do. And my dogs need to be healthy, and that's dependent on having good veterinarian care."
Dr. Karl Jandrey, who has made finding funding for scholarships a priority at UC Davis, where he is associate dean of admissions and student programs, articulated the influence that big awards can have on veterinarians' personal lives and careers:
"The reduction of any financial worry leads to improved mental well-being, as well as opens all doors in vet med (since they are not bound by immediately working post-graduation to pay off their debt)," he said by email. "Many go straight into the most lucrative aspects of vet med to pay off debt instead of pursuing their true passion — where we may have a workforce shortage that is more critical."
At the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges, Lisa Greenhill, chief diversity officer and senior director for institutional research, welcomed the news of more big scholarships but lamented the bigger picture.
"I'm thrilled to hear that there are more full scholarships available, but what concerns me is that the numbers are still too small to have a dramatic impact on educational debt in vet med," she said, noting that "the total number of 'full ride' scholarships is still very unlikely to result in any significant burden shift regarding debt loads when looking across total enrollment."
Total enrollment in U.S. veterinary schools during the 2022-23 academic year was 15,157, according to Greenhill.
Data from the American Veterinary Medical Association shows that some 80% of students borrow money for veterinary school. Borrowers who graduated in 2022 ended up owing $180,000 on average and many of them, much more.
Ifs, ands and buts
Broadly, most scholarships for veterinary students are relatively modest, in the three- and four-figure range. But 13 schools told the VIN News Service that their institutions offer substantial scholarships worth upwards of $20,000. Toward the higher end, for example, is a $51,000 donor-funded award at Washington State University that covers a year's full cost of attendance for an in-state student and about 80% of a nonresident's first-year tuition. (Nonresidents at some public institutions, including Washington's, are eligible to become residents and pay resident rates after their first year.)
Eight programs — at Kansas State University, Texas Tech University, Tuskegee University, UC Davis, University of Arizona, University of Missouri, University of Pennsylvania and Virginia-Maryland School of Veterinary Medicine — offer one or more awards that cover at least tuition for the duration of studies. A ninth school, Oregon State University, has one full-ride scholarship, but it is in its last year due to "a changing financial situation for the donor."
In addition, U.S. Army members wishing to become veterinarians are eligible for a Health Professions Scholarship Program that pays for tuition, books and supplies and provides a monthly stipend for living expenses.
Scholarships typically come with qualifications that limit the pool of eligible candidates, sometimes considerably. For example, the new full-ride award at the University of Missouri, known as the Riordan Family Scholarship, is intended for those "from specific counties in Northwest Missouri as specified by the donor" who intend to pursue large animal practice and excel in that field during their training, according to the university.
Similarly at the University of Arizona, a scholarship covering in-state tuition (but not fees), available for the first time this fall, is directed toward supporting Navajo students studying veterinary medicine. It is jointly funded by the Navajo Nation.
The new scholarship funded by Godchaux and administered by the VIN Foundation is open to veterinary school applicants seeking admission in 2024 to any of a variety of institutions in the United States. Therefore, it's potentially accessible to a larger pool of candidates. However, for its inaugural year, only the first 300 people to apply will be considered.
More significantly, the award is available only to students who will attend U.S. schools that are projected to charge tuition and fees totaling no more than $170,000 over the course of their studies, of which the scholarship will cover $140,000.
Exactly how many schools that encompasses is tricky to parse, VIN Foundation Executive Director Jordan benShea said, but in general, resident tuition rates and fees at the 25 public schools are apt to fall within the limit.
For context, the lowest tuition and fees paid over four years by the class of 2022 was $78,523 at North Carolina State University, while the highest was $266,923 at Midwestern University in Arizona, according to figures provided by the AAVMC cost comparison tool.
The purpose of the school-price restriction is twofold, according to VIN Foundation board member Dr. Paul Pion: First, to ensure the donor's dollars cover recipients' tuition and fees in full or nearly so; and second, to task each applicant with researching the cost of attending each school to which they consider applying.
"It is hoped that this scholarship will help two very deserving students enter the profession with no, or a very manageable amount of, debt," Pion said, "so they can focus on their passion for serving clients and their companion animals without being distracted by the [financial] pressures put upon the majority of veterinary students ...."
Donor follows philanthropic tradition
Photo by Deb DeMeo
A fervent fan of her veterinarian in the Florida Keys, Becky Godchaux, shown with her dog Lucy, has created a scholarship worth up to $140,000 per awardee for veterinary students interested in small animal medicine.
Born in Louisiana to a family that found success in the rice business, Godchaux moved to Florida in 1998 and met Dunn, the veterinarian who inspired her gift, a few years later. His "one-man show" and warm bedside manner impressed the dog lover.
Comparing him favorably against larger "commercial" practices with multiple doctors and fancy facilities but a less personal approach, she said: "He knows you and he knows your animal, and he speaks to you. It's almost like he's your friend. ... He's not going to make you run a thousand tests unless it's necessary."
She added: "If it's an absolute emergency, he will come to see you at midnight at your house. That's the kind of vet he is."
Short of an emergency, though, Godchaux said it can be hard to get an appointment quickly with the popular veterinarian, who was described by the Keys Weekly in 2018 as "the most loved man in Marathon." Godchaux got to thinking how nice it would be if there were more Dr. Dunns. That thought led to the idea of a scholarship to create new veterinarians like hers.
Establishing scholarships is something of a tradition in the Godchaux family, which funded an endowment for nursing scholarships at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.
For her part, Godchaux created a five-year community college nursing scholarship as part of an effort to rebuild a local hospital in the wake of Hurricane Irma in 2017. And she's a regular donor to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
In an interview over Zoom during which she picked up and snuggled each of her dogs, a "naughty" Corgi named Nanette and a Teddy Roosevelt terrier named Lucy, Godchaux recounted how, while planning her estate, she began thinking about other endeavors to support. "Why not do a vet scholarship?" she thought. "Dogs are the most important thing in my life."
Godchaux said she partnered with the VIN Foundation at the recommendation of a neighbor who happens to be a veterinarian. Foundation head benShea said the organization's goal is to support the scholarship recipients not only by paying their tuition and fees but by providing financial counseling and mental health support — free services it makes available to all veterinary students and veterinarians.
Alluding to the foundation's emotional support group, benShea said, "Vets4Vets found that if veterinarians were struggling in their first five years, they tend to struggle throughout their career. If they're thriving in the first five years, then they're thriving throughout their career."
'Just give it a shot'
Woode, the biomedical researcher who won a full-ride award at the University of Missouri, remembers being acutely attentive as a new veterinary student to minimizing how much money she borrowed for school. At the time, as she recalls, resident tuition was about $21,000 a year.
She'd taken a loan by the time the scholarship came through, but since the award was retroactive to day one, she was able to repay the loan immediately. "Wow," she thought. "They're actually paying me to be here instead of the other way around." Today, she has less than $20,000 in debt remaining from her undergraduate days, having received a fellowship covering the cost of her doctoral studies.
Asked whether the substantial veterinary school scholarship added pressure to excel, Woode said, "Yes and no. As long as I passed and wasn't failing my classes, there was no, like, sweat of getting the scholarship rescinded. On the other hand, it did add some pressure for me to be exemplary, in the sense that I needed to act like I deserved it. That was more like self-imposed pressure."
Over the course of veterinary school and working toward her PhD, Woode said, "One of the most interesting things I learned is self-compassion." Now as a mentor and teacher to others, Woode tries to pass on that lesson: "Cut yourself some slack. ... It's already hard. There's no reason to make it harder."
And to new or aspiring veterinary students wondering whether they could possibly have a hope of winning a full-ride scholarship, Woode offers, "Just give it a shot."