Veterinary students and newly minted veterinarians of color last year launched organizations aimed at making veterinary medicine more diverse, equitable and inclusive. Early in their commitment to a profession that is overwhelmingly white, Hira Basit, Dr. Valerie Marcano, Dr. Serena Nayee and Juan Sebastian Orjuela judged the effort to improve the situations for underrepresented students and professionals required more than the tools at hand.
Buoyed by Black Lives Matter activism and undaunted by schoolwork, new careers and the pandemic, they separately established the Association of Asian Veterinary Medical Professionals; Pawsibilities Vet Med; Chapter VIII: Veterinary Inclusion and Intersectionality Initiative; and the Latinx Veterinary Medical Association. They found colleagues eager to join.
Basit, Marcano, Nayee and Orjuela recently sat down with the VIN News Service in a video call Zoom to reflect on their experiences in veterinary medicine, where just one out of 10 veterinarians is a person of color. In contrast, four out of 10 people in the United States are non-white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
A condensed, edited version of the Jan. 26 conversation follows. The full 1½-hour discussion is available on video. This is the second VIN News round table focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion (often shortened to DEI) in the profession. The first, On being Black in a very white profession, was published in November.
What drew you to veterinary medicine?
Juan Sebastian Orjuela, co-founder, Latinx Veterinary Medical Association (LVMA): I wanted to become a veterinarian ever since I was very young. Culturally, it was hard because in Colombia, a lot of people think that being a veterinarian is not being a real doctor, which is unfortunate. It was hard to find support and encouragement. I struggled to find any people that looked like me, that spoke my language in the profession. It left me to find my own resources, my own opportunities, and to figure out how to get into vet school on my own. My family did support me. I was very fortunate in that sense. They were the only ones who encouraged me to keep going; to keep making my dream come true.
Even though I found it hard, I became a junior handler in AKC [American Kennel Club]. My first job was in third grade, walking dogs, and I started training those dogs in agility and obedience. Then I met a breeder, and I started showing dogs. Then I met veterinarians and a lot of people in the veterinary industry, and that led me to create more connections.
I went to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where I graduated with a bachelor's in biology and conservation. I started the first pre-veterinary club there. It wasn't a renowned pre-veterinary university, like University of [Wisconsin at] Madison, [which] has a veterinary school. So I saw an opportunity in that: I could stand out, and I could network and connect myself more to the veterinary industry. [After school,] I moved to New York City, where I practiced as a veterinary technician in Manhattan for almost two years. [During this time,] I applied to veterinary school, got accepted [to Ontario Veterinary College], and moved to Canada. It's been quite the process.
It's been hard for me to feel like I fit in the profession and that I was well represented. So, that's what drove me to want to create this community and to prevent other students or future veterinarians [from having] to struggle like I did.
Dr. Valerie Marcano, co-founder, Pawsibilities Vet Med: I grew up in the Dominican Republic, where my mom is a veterinarian. I got lucky, growing up around animals and in the veterinary community, because it's a very close community. I moved to the Bronx, New York, when I was in high school. That's when I really started realizing I wanted to go into veterinary medicine. I missed animals a lot, so I started volunteering at a pet shop and working at a vet clinic.
Diversity groups multiply
When I went to undergrad at Cornell University, I decided to do animal sciences. That's when I started realizing how homogenous the population was. It was kind of a shock coming from being in the Dominican Republic, where all vets look like me, to being in New York City, where it is a very diverse community, to going to Ithaca, New York. Cornell is, relatively speaking, a very diverse campus and still, within the animal science group, it seemed very [homogeneous].
I became involved with the VOICE [Veterinarians as One Inclusive Community for Empowerment] chapter at the vet school there, and through that, I decided that was a group I wanted to continue to be a part of. So I applied to vet school. I didn't get in on my first try. I took a job as a technician at the vet school in a laboratory, and I fell in love with research. So I decided when I reapplied, instead of just applying for veterinary school, I'd apply to dual-degree programs.
I landed at the University of Georgia, and there I immediately joined the VOICE chapter. I served three years at the UGA chapter, and then three years at the national chapter, and realized the disparity in the information that people who wanted to go into veterinary medicine [received] — the lack of mentorship, the lack of advice, the lack of resources to certain communities.
I wanted to create something to help overcome that gap. I thought: "Can it be a YouTube channel? Can it be a book? Can it be a podcast?" We had an animal-health hackathon where me, my husband and a number of my veterinary school classmates came together and formed the idea of Pawsibilities. After that, I was finishing my PhD and returning to the DVM curriculum; my husband was finishing his PhD and starting a postdoc, [and] I was getting diagnosed with a chronic condition. Things just got a little bit crazy, and we put it on hold for a bit. Then last spring, with being quarantined or staying at home, we wanted to do something productive, and with the Black Lives Matter movement really picking up, we said, "You know this is the time. So let's do it."
Dr. Serena Nayee, founder, Chapter VIII: Veterinary Inclusion and Intersectionality Initiative: Initially, what drew me to vet med was the human-animal bond. But, over time, what pushed me to continue [was that] vet med is so important in the context of One Health. [One Health is the concept that the health of people, other animals and the environment are interconnected]. I did so much research into it, that's eventually what inspired me to continue to pursue vet med further — the public health aspect of it.
I am now in urgent care, which is not public health, but that's what happens when there's a pandemic — your options kind of become limited. I ended up in urgent care because of COVID-19 and wanting to be closer to family. Now I'm here, I will say there's a lot to learn in urgent care [about] what changes we need in terms of accessibility policy and a general understanding of preventative health care.
As time went along, work-life balance and high debt-to-income ratio really became big [as an issue for me].
I was realizing that there are multiple aspects of vet med that discourage people to pursue it: [such as] income and culture. Later on, more realizations about myself and being involved with the LGBTQ community and realizing that maybe I didn't have the representative community that I needed there, too — that all inspired me to pursue creation of this organization.
Hira Basit, co-founder, Association of Asian Veterinary Medical Professionals (AAVMP): I've always been a nerd. I've liked science. I've liked little laboratory kits as a kid. I would make crystals and do the little lab reactions. And I've always liked medicine. I would wrap myself up in bandages as a kid. So my family would joke that I would become a doctor. They weren't wrong.
I was obsessed with Steve Irwin. I was obsessed with going to the animal shelter whenever I could and just playing with all the animals in the neighborhood. Growing up in a Pakistani household, animals weren't really a thing. Having pets wasn't really a thing in my South Asian community. So my parents were surprised at first that I would want to go into vet med, considering the stigma in our community, where, again — this is the third time it's been said — veterinarians in certain people's eyes are not real doctors.
So it was difficult because they were worried about how I would be perceived, but then they eventually realized that it doesn't matter what other people think. They are just happy that I'm following my dreams, and I hear them brag all the time that their daughter is doing exactly what she was born to do.
I was discouraged from entering the profession mainly because I didn't see anybody that looked like me. I thought, "Maybe I'm not supposed to be a veterinarian."
Growing up in Miami, I was lucky in that it's a diverse place. You leave the South Florida bubble, and Florida's a different situation. But in Miami, I was surrounded by Latinx people. My mentor, Dr. Enrique Batista, is an amazing guy and taught me to be proud. And we had a diverse hospital that I worked at, but it wasn't really inclusive because I had to touch more into my grew-up-in-Miami, Latin-culture aspect in order to interact with clients. I never really got to be loud and proud about being Pakistani and South Asian.
I feel like it's tough to connect with people in my school because they aren't as loud and proud about being Asian as I would have hoped they had been. Since founding the AAVMP, I've been really happy with the journey because I realized that there are so many people who have similar stories and who have similar backgrounds.
What is the vision for your organizations, and how has the work been influenced by the pandemic?
Basit: For the Association of Asian Veterinary Medical Professionals, our mission is to inspire, empower and support Asian veterinary professionals — veterinarians, technicians and everything in between, internationally. Eventually, our vision is to create a community of Asian veterinary professionals and establish a veterinary field that reflects the diverse communities that we serve.
We've been doing that through four principles. First and foremost is representation: We wanted to increase that visibility and show people that there are people who look like you. With everybody in quarantine, a lot of people have been turning to social media to share their stories and to feel connected in a time of isolation. So, the pandemic has actually kind of helped in that way.
Mentorship is something else that is valuable to us, and we wanted to offer that support and guidance to anybody in consideration of their cultural backgrounds. Being a mentor and understanding where that person came from is a whole different type of mentor. We've been creating a directory of Asian veterinary professionals. We've got a bunch of submissions from Canada and the United States right now, but we're looking into Japan, the Philippines, India, and other Asian countries. It's been a little challenging with the pandemic to have in-person mentorship opportunities. Virtual mentorship has been doing great.
Advocacy is talking about our members and how they have needs as a minority, and how they have struggles within the profession and that, yes, diversity is being emphasized, but you have to understand what that person went through to get where they got. We've been doing talks and Instagram Lives. We talked about the model minority myth and how it perpetuates anti-Blackness in Asian communities. We're planning a cultural competency calendar of events, where we talk about different Asian practices.
The last thing is really just fellowship. I want people in our community to be able to be interconnected with everyone because that's the best way to create not only a diverse society but an inclusive and equitable one.
Photo by Ireland Sharp
Dr. Serena Nayee founded Chapter VIII: Veterinary Inclusion and Intersectionality Initiative in June as an inclusive environment for anyone who feels that they belong to multiple underrepresented groups. She graduated from University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine in 2020. She is now working in urgent care in Fishers, Indiana, where she grew up. "I'm here with family in the land of the corn and all is well," she said.
Nayee: I wanted to do something like this for a while now. I just didn't know what platform we could do this from. My friend and I started a YouTube channel in our second year of vet school. It was called Misadventures with Melanin. That kind of fell off the face of the Earth, but the goal was to bring attention to people of color in vet med.
I'm kind of thankful that some things didn't pan out. Because [Chapter VIII] is really what I wanted, to have a professional community of [people who belong to] multiple underrepresented groups, and for that organization to build scholarship opportunities as well as a community for people to be able to discuss with one another their experiences. We're still in the process of building, but we are a nonprofit organization in Indiana now.
I would say that failed attempts, in addition to my own experiences as a queer Indian-American woman, really inspired me to build something like this.
We just started a clothing line to spotlight representation inclusivity. We have T-shirts, sweatshirts, long-sleeve shirts that say pronouns, "Doctor, she, her, hers," and then it has the Black Lives Matter symbol on it, with the Chapter VIII symbol on the back. Hopefully, with those profits, we can build a scholarship. We're working on new designs by the day.
It's a little bit difficult because it's me and one other person who are attempting to do all this together. We both work in ER, so our schedules are very crazy. But, honestly, I would say COVID-19 is definitely harder to deal with than the schedules. The nonprofit status is definitely taking a while because of COVID. That's the major difficulty associated with creating the organization.
Otherwise, people are on their phones all day; they're on their computers all day. So in terms of building community through social media, that process has gone a lot faster than expected. I'm really appreciative of that. If there's a silver lining to anything, that's it. That was a big push [in addition to] COVID-19 kind of creating a now-or-never sentiment.
Photo courtesy Dr. Valeria Marcano
Dr. Valerie Marcano co-founded Pawsibilities Vet Med, a nonprofit platform for the recruitment and retention of underrepresented groups in the veterinary profession in April 2020. She graduated from University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine in 2020. She is a poultry veterinarian in North and South Carolina, and the chair of the first-ever Diversity and Inclusion Committee of the American Association of Avian Pathologists.
Marcano: My goal with Pawsibilities is the recruitment and retention of underrepresented groups to the profession with the emphasis on retention because unless we're an inclusive community, being diverse is irrelevant, right? Part of what we want to do is positive mentoring experiences.
This is not a blind "Hey, vet med is the best career that you will ever have in your life. Come join us," right? This is factual: "Yes, there is a high debt-to-income ratio. Yes, there is a higher likelihood of veterinarians being a victim of suicide or having mental issues." It's about saying: "These are the issues that our profession is facing. These are the things that we're doing to fix them. If you think this is a career for you, let's give you the tools that you need to come into this career, remain in this career, and be successful in this career."
What Pawsibilities wants to do is give those tools [to] underrepresented groups that don't get as many chances as others get. Can we get individuals from these groups more experiences within vet med? Can we have them build a network with veterinary students, veterinarians, technicians that will help them review their essay when it's time to apply to vet school? Or give them suggestions on what [undergraduate] classes to take? It's also, once you're in veterinary school: Do you want to do an internship? Do you want to do a residency?
And when you are a veterinarian, it's those leadership skills as well. When you're a veterinarian and a veterinarian technician, you are going to be a leader in your community — whether you want to or not. You're always going to have people asking you questions about their pet. So we might as well be prepared to be leaders.
Veterinary school doesn't teach you about financials, it does not teach you about wellness, it does not teach you about leadership, about communications. So Pawsibilities is about providing all of the tools that we fail to teach our students in vet school with the emphasis that underrepresented groups are less likely to be able to get those skills from somebody else outside of vet med.
When we had started a couple of years ago, we had gotten some feedback that this wasn't needed or that this was not the way to do it. We decided to put it on the back burner. This spring, we said, "You know what, let's do it. If it's not the right time and it's not the right platform, then it will not work. But if it works, we did it." And the support that we got was absolutely overwhelming. It was amazing.
It's been essentially my husband [Seth Andrews, a biomedical engineer] and I, for the most part. Then we have two volunteers, one of whom is about to jump with us, part-time. We were able to get our nonprofit status in September and launch officially in mid- to late September. We have about 140 people on our platform.
Like others have said, in a way, COVID has helped because people are a lot more open to doing things on Zoom. What we want to accomplish is a free online platform that will help overcome economic, socioeconomic and geographic barriers. COVID has really opened the doors for, "You can do things online, and it's OK." And for part of COVID, I was not able to travel. Working from home gave me the chance to finish my work, and then move from one desk to another desk and work on Pawsibilities.
Do the mentors have to be from underrepresented groups?
Marcano: No. The logic behind that is that we are providing the tool. To be able to join the platform, you have to take an hour-and-a-half training. It goes over some leadership aspects … diversity and inclusion, and things like microaggression and unconscious bias. If we want to be successful mentors, we want to make sure everybody who comes on the platform has that training.
Our goal is that we're going to increase diversity in our community. To be able to do that, we need to tap into our allies and use them. So we are welcoming of anyone who wants to be a mentor.
Photo courtesy of Juan Sebastian Orjuela
Juan Sebastian Orjuela co-founded the Latinx Veterinary Medical Association with Yvette Huizar in February 2020. Originally from Bogota, Colombia, Orjuela lived in the U.S. prior to attending Ontario Veterinary College in Canada. There he started an Instagram account (@juancho.the.student.vet) to share his experiences. "That was my way of doing my part and giving myself a voice," he said. He is in his third year in veterinary school.
Orjuela: Our vision is to create a community that is representative of our society in order for veterinary care to be more accessible to the Latinx community. We've seen that there's a very big misconception with the Latinx community [regarding] animal health — [that we are not] as caring compared to other communities. We discussed why this was such a perception in our community, and we came to the conclusion that it was mostly due to the lack of representation.
For example, my parents: They speak mostly Spanish. They have very broken English. Whenever my dog got sick, they would struggle [to communicate] with the veterinarian, not being able to express exactly how they felt and their concerns. It was just a process of struggle and struggle and struggle. So they would keep away [from the veterinarian].
Most veterinarians nowadays are unable to educate people that don't speak English as their first language. As a technician, I've been able to talk to many clients in the United States and Canada [because of my ability to speak Spanish and English fluently]. And they were so receptiive. It was like a "wow" moment. They felt like, "OK, I understand why it's important to do these vaccinations. Why it's important to castrate or spay my pet. This is somebody that's connecting with me, that has my similar culture, that is giving me more perspective on the topic." We see a huge value in that, and that's why we base our mission on representation.
The LVMA is built on a foundation of four pillars of empowerment. [First,] mentorship is a key aspect of us reaching our vision and our mission. Imposter syndrome is prevalent in our profession, but it is more prevalent in communities that are underrepresented. Because we don't see ourselves in the profession, we think that we're a bigger imposter than anybody else in our class, right? We want to eliminate that and give students the support that they need.
Our second pillar of empowerment is professional development. We want to give everybody opportunities to access [networking and continuing education] events and resources that are going to accelerate them in the veterinary field.
Our third pillar is scholarship. We're aiming to provide scholarships that are substantial — beyond $1,000. The scholarships that we see nowadays for underrepresented communities are something lower than $1,000. That helps, but it doesn't have an impact for those students that are trying to apply to vet school. Taking the GRE [Graduate Record Exam] and doing all the applications for VMCAS [Veterinary Medical College Application Service] turns out to be a lot of money.
Our fourth pillar is outreach. We are establishing chapters all over the United States at different [veterinary] schools. So far, we have around 13 chapters that have opened up since the LVMA was founded in February 2020. We are also aiming to target elementary and high schools with predominantly Latinx students to give presentations to show them that veterinary medicine is an option for them, that they will be supported throughout the whole process and that they have a community they can depend on.
We thought we were going to struggle to create a community because we felt that a lot of Latinx people were very quiet about themselves as being Latinx. Once we launched on social media, the support and the drive that people wanted to help the LVMA was overwhelming. It's been really humbling to see how much our community can come together.
There are already a number of diversity, equity and inclusion organizations in veterinary medicine. Why start a new one?
Photo by Yelena Bruzon-Rodriguez
Hira Basit co-founded, with Stephanie Kuo, the Association of Asian Veterinary Medical Professionals in April 2020. A Pakistani-American who grew up in Miami, Basit said it was difficult to find and connect with individuals of Asian descent at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, where she is in her third year. Now, through the AAVMP, she is able to connect to Asian veterinary students, veterinary technicians and veterinarians around the country and the world.
Basit: I've been speaking to a lot of veterinarians who are established, who have worked with either the AVMA [American Veterinary Medical Association] or AAVMC [Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges], and they've said that they would have loved something like this when they were in vet school or when they were first starting because it felt like they were kind of going through this journey on their own. So that's mainly why I felt like what was present already wasn't enough and wasn't specific enough to the Asian community.
Asians historically are quiet kind of folks. They don't really speak loud and proud about it. I think maybe I'm a little bit more vocal because I grew up in Miami, and that's just the culture of being loud all the time. But it's definitely opened my eyes to how helpful and how needed this organization was. Pride VMC [Veterinary Medical Community] and MCVMA [Multicultural Veterinary Medical Association] have been doing an amazing job, but that little niche of Asian-specific and Asian allies was needed.
Orjuela: What the LMVA saw and why we decided to branch off and make our own organization was because we very much have a presence around the world because there are so many countries that speak Spanish and Portuguese. We are all interconnected by language and culture. No matter where you go, you can understand each other's kind of way of life. We did not see that representation in other groups.
So many pet owners are Latinx in the United States and Canada, but barely any veterinarians are Latinx. [According to the U.S. Census, 1.6% of veterinarians are Hispanic or Latino, while 18.5% of the general population is Hispanic or Latino. More than 61% of Latino/Hispanic households own at least one pet, according to an AVMA survey.] And there's a problem with animal health and the understanding of animal health in the Latinx community in North America. So we wanted to give those pet owners the understanding and education [about] why it's important to care for your animals' health, because that education is going to propagate in the community. And it's going to have such a positive impact, not just in our community but in veterinary medicine.
Nayee: There was a specific situation that occurred for me that I think was the main spark of inspiration. That was when we had the issue with [U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] being berated [by former U.S. Rep. Ted Yoho, a veterinarian, at the Capitol in July 2020]. I sent out a petition, and it wasn't welcomed in every community that I shared it with because some communities felt that it didn't apply to their specific underrepresented group.
I can understand you want to set your niche apart so that you have a very specific sense of belonging. I think that that's amazing, and we need that. [However], I think for us to pursue this idea of equity/inclusion, we have to understand that everything is connected when it comes to lack of representation. For us to really make big strides forward, we're going to have to collaborate with one another. I think that's where having multiple groups come together in one single community comes into play.
I do think that what other groups have done and are still doing is really important. But I don't think that we need to stop just because there are groups that are enhancing representation. I think that we can only do better if we have more people involved.
With all the focus on diversity, does it seem like equity and inclusion get lost in the discussion?
Basit: I did a talk at Michigan State University about how each of them plays a role, and you're right, diversity is so focused on, but everybody forgets about equity and inclusion. And really, those are important to enact DEI, because it's not just diversity.
Inclusion is making sure that those people who are diverse are also included. So you have to create that environment, not only where those people are able to go, but also where they feel welcomed and respected and supported and valued. So for a lot of South Asians, some of them are Muslims, so creating a time for their veterinarian to be able to go pray, things like that are what inclusion means to me.
As far as equity goes, equity isn't equality. People tend to forget that. Equality is that everybody gets the same things. Equity is identifying the barriers that are keeping people from being equal, and increasing the justice and fairness of situations. That fairness and that justice are important, because if we're all able to achieve that equity, we can start on the same page, rather than feeling like we're 10 steps behind as a minority. In order to achieve that true DEI, reminding ourselves of the definitions is important.
Nayee: I think what Hira was saying absolutely hit the line. It was perfect. Equity gets confused with equality a lot. But when it comes to equity, at least what it means to me is enhancing accessibility. That differs for every single group. It's very important to realize those specific barriers to each group to be able to move forward. In my mind, DEI has always been, at least [in] all the schools that I've been to, mostly focused on diversity. I think we forget about the power that equity/inclusion holds. Because if we don't have equity and inclusion, there's no way that we're going to have people to feel comfortable enough to continue to pursue veterinary medicine.
What is something every veterinarian could do to make the profession more inclusive and equitable?
Orjuela: For veterinarians that are practicing now, being open to taking on people from different backgrounds and [being] willing to mentor them, and wanting them to succeed in the profession would be probably the most impactful thing that they can do.
As a pre-veterinary student, I was told "no" many times. I was told that school was too hard and to maybe start looking for different options. Switching that tone into something more encouraging and motivating, sharing your experiences, going out to different communities and telling them that they can become veterinarians, would be very powerful. It's all about education.
Nayee: I think if we were to change one thing on an individual basis to make this profession more inclusive, I would suggest that it's critical for us to stop judging people based on how much money they bring to the table.
I think that something that is so harmful to people considering vet med or people in vet med is that there is such a set mindset when it comes to judging people on how much money they're willing to bring to the table, especially from a clinical perspective. It creates such a poor relationship between doctors, between doctors and students, between students and future clients. And it encompasses a lack of cultural competency, as well as judgment on socioeconomic status. Those two are so intertwined. If people feel judged, then compliance ends up being compromised. And that can pertain to someone being discouraged from pursuing the vet med field, [or] someone who's being discouraged from bringing their pet into a clinic.
I think that if we had that one little tweak of "Let's just not judge people on how much money they're going to bring to the field," then we could do a lot better in understanding what somebody's individual perspective may be.
I know that's a very broad thing. But even for me, when I went to vet school, I didn't want to bring up the fact that I had an in-state school scholarship because I knew that if I did, it would be assumed that the only reason why I got it was because I'm a person of color. Anybody who wasn't paying a full amount of tuition and is a person of color, that judgment automatically clicked for them of "Oh, they aren't paying full tuition because they are a person of color." It's everywhere. It's in the clinic. It's in school.
I don't think that it's just in vet med either. But it really hits home for me, in my specific career, just because I've experienced it so many times. And even in clinics, I've noticed we're being taught what makes medicine good is putting a certain amount of money into it. I just don't think that's where we need to be … in order to achieve true equity and inclusion.
Orjuela: It comes down to a lot of the education we had from the beginning and how our profession is willing to act on the things they say. You have to walk the walk to be able to have an impact, not just have it on paper that you're a supportive profession. Unfortunately, a lot of people graduate with perceptions that it really doesn't matter, that diversity/equity/inclusion is a pain [to understand], but it doesn't really pertain to their own professions or their own clinics or whatever.
Correction: The description of the Multicultural Veterinary Medical Association has been changed.
Editor's note: A portion of Dr. Serena Nayee's description of her start in veterinary medicine has been deleted at her request.