Veterinary student essay contest seeks 'solutions for the profession'

Last year's winners tackled school debt, mental health, leadership gender imbalance

January 24, 2018 (published)
By Edie Lau

Photo courtesy of Hanum Wensil-Strow
The top winner of last year's essay competition, Hanum Wensil-Strow, advises contestants to select a subject they genuinely care about.
On Christmas Day 2016, Hanum Wensil-Strow wrote an essay. It was about the high cost of veterinary education and the outsize debt that saddles most new veterinarians. The essay put forth an idea to ensure aspiring veterinarians understand the financial implications before it's too late.

Then a third-year veterinary student, Wensil-Strow had been talking with her family during the holiday break about the coming year and money. With thoughts of student loans fresh on her mind, she composed the 1,000-word essay in one sitting, while those around her played with gifts and watched movies. Her time, it turns out, was well spent.

Wensil-Strow won first place and $3,000 in the VIN Foundation's first annual Solutions for the Profession Competition for veterinary students.

As the foundation calls for entries in a fresh round of competition, Wensil-Strow has this bit of advice for would-be contestants: Choose a topic you're passionate about.

"If it's something you truly care about, it should come easily and naturally to you," she said. "And if it's important to the veterinary community, you should want to share your thoughts."

Last year, more than 100 students shared their thoughts through essay submissions, according to Jordan benShea, executive director of the VIN Foundation, nonprofit counterpart of the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession. School debt was a popular topic, as were stress and mental health, and gender inequality. Some entrants addressed mentoring and curriculum.

The second-place winner, awarded $1,500, was Shannon Finn, a student at Ontario Veterinary College in Guelph, Canada. Finn wrote about mental-health issues. The third-place winner, awarded $1,000, was Alexandra Ripperger, a student at the University of Minnesota. Ripperger called attention to the disproportionately low number of women in veterinary leadership positions.

While contemplating essay topics, Wensil-Strow, now in her fourth year at the University of Pennsylvania, said she realized that all her ideas, such as work-life balance and whether to do an internship, related to financial freedom or lack thereof, which ties directly to debt.

Wensil-Strow expects to borrow just over $100,000 to complete school. That is considerably less than the $167,535 average accrued by veterinary students who graduated with debt in 2016, as reported by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Wensil-Strow said she's been expense-conscious since her undergraduate days at the University of Maryland, where a veterinarian who taught animal science to pre-veterinary students slipped in financial-literacy lessons.

"She encouraged us to calculate out how much we'd have to take out in loans and to calculate out what we expected to earn to see if we could afford the lifestyle we were expecting," Wensil-Strow recalled.

"That's when I started realizing that I didn't have unlimited funds. From the very beginning, money was at the forefront of my mind."

The financial-literacy lessons were life-changing for some students. Wensil-Strow remembered a sophomore who decided not to pursue veterinary medicine after doing the math.

While Wensil-Strow was not deterred, cost was a major consideration in deciding where to apply. Knowing that time and interest inflate loan balances, she understood how even seemingly negligible differences in the annual cost of attendance would snowball over four years: "There might be only a $10,000 difference between schools each year, but that's $40,000 over four years. You add in the interest, and all of a sudden, it's $50,000 more," she said.

So that other students are equally financially aware, Wensil-Strow proposed in her essay that the Veterinary Medical College Application Services — a centralized application clearinghouse for U.S. programs — compel aspiring veterinarians to think about personal finances as part of their application.

"This would not be included in the evaluation for veterinary school admission, but would be used to ensure that students are aware of the realities of financing a veterinary education," she wrote. "This questionnaire would ask students to break down the cost of tuition/fees for each school they are applying to, and would include a section on estimated expenses by region (housing, food, transportation, insurance, etc.). It would also include a section using the AVMA calculator to determine a student's estimated salary after graduation, and discuss repayment options and costs over time. Although students are exposed to some of these options in the process of taking out federal loans, this occurs too late in the process (after students commit to their respective schools) and only covers financing through federal programs."

Wensil-Strow observed that awareness of the financial aspects of pursuing a veterinary degree has far-reaching effects: "This information may ... influence personal decisions such as where to live, whether or not to get married or have children, whether to rent or buy a home, and when to retire."

She concluded, "Although it is certainly possible that better financial literacy would discourage some applicants, I believe that a more transparent understanding of the veterinary student debt crisis is essential to the success and happiness of future veterinarians."

The VIN Foundation's benShea said solutions proposed in the essays are considered by judges who are subject experts, and serve as potential fodder for reforms in the profession.

"The reason we've created this essay competition is to crowdsource innovative answers to problems the profession is struggling with," she said. "It allows students to participate in the discussion and [possibly win] some money to help offset educational expenses while doing so. Our goal is to take these [ideas] and share them with the hopes of helping the veterinary profession and future veterinarians."

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