VBMA Alumni 360
Photo courtesy of Dr. Kristen Britton
An organizing meeting to establish an alumni arm of the Veterinary Business Management Association drew interested alumni, student leaders and association advisers to St. Louis in November.
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If you are one of the thousands of people who belonged to the Veterinary Business Management Association while attending veterinary school, this message is for you:
Get ahold of the VBMA. You're wanted.
The 17-year-old veterinary student group has just started an alumni branch and is trying to find its former members, most of whom scattered after graduation.
Current officers of the association and their advisers aren't sure how many alumni are out there. A guesstimate is 10,000.
The VBMA was founded as a student club at the University of Pennsylvania in 2001. Today, there are 33 chapters — one at every veterinary school in the United States and Caribbean — with a total of 5,562 members.
The purpose of the group is to teach business and personal-finance savvy to veterinary students, who notoriously tend to be lacking in those departments.
"If I had to rely only on the business and financial learning I got from my university, I would be ill-equipped," said Rachael Ostrem, president of the national VBMA and a third-year veterinary student at Iowa State University. "That's not a slant against Iowa State," she noted, saying that all U.S. veterinary schools fail to teach financial literacy adequately. Results of a student survey released this year showed high demand for education in that subject area, "every year, face-to-face and incorporated into the curriculum," according to a report of the results.
"We shouldn't have to provide outside education, but there's this void that should be filled by universities," Ostrem said. At the time it was founded, and continuing to this day, she said, "The VBMA came to fill the void."
As a student-conceived and -run group, the VBMA always has focused on education and activities for veterinary students. But as time went on and the number of alumni accumulated, interest rose in starting an arm for graduated former members.
The problem was, "No one student board has been able to take on such a large endeavor," said Dr. Kristen Britton, who was the VBMA national president in 2012 and now serves as co-adviser to the group.
The idea began coming to fruition in 2017, as motivated students and alumni made a coordinated effort. Financial backing from some of the VBMA's approximately 15 commercial sponsors enabled the group to organize a conference to brainstorm and work out details. The event, held in St. Louis in November, drew about 50 people, according to Britton.
"It was very eye-opening to me," said Ricky Walther, national VBMA president-elect and a fourth-year veterinary student at the University of California, Davis, where he heads a VBMA campus chapter. Walther had anticipated that alumni would want continuing education on business and financial matters, but he discovered that what they want from an alumni group are the "exact same things" that the students want: networking and fellowship.
"What they really want is a sense of community [with] people who have similar minds," he said. "A lot of our alumni are no more than 15 years out in practice. Some of them, the majority of them, are in the, like, five-year-out range. They're all trying to find each other."
They want to talk about things like, " 'I may want to make the jump into practice ownership but I'm nervous; I need someone to bounce ideas off of,' " Walther said.
They also want to support the students, said Britton: "Our goal is to serve the students in this organization that we all had such passion for in the beginning."
Britton noted that the profession has no organization that concentrates strictly on business skills for veterinarians. "Whether or not the VBMA Alumni is going to want to fill that niche remains to be seen," she said.
The alumni group will be overseen by a committee that operates under the VBMA student leadership. Details such as dues are yet to be determined. At the moment, Walther said, the emphasis is on "finding out what the alumni want and what they're interested in."
Also at the top of the list: finding more alumni. VBMA co-adviser Dr. Lance Roasa said tracking down former members is "a major hurdle. One would think you could contact the schools and say, 'Can we get a list of the alumni?' " But, he said, schools generally are unable or unwilling to provide former students' contact information, and the .edu email addresses that members used as students stop working in a matter of weeks or months following graduation.
"Database management has been a big issue with the VBMA," Roasa said. "There is no way to just push a button and notify the VBMA alumni that this is happening."