The Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine welcomed 120 new students who will pursue their life-long dreams to become veterinarians over the next four years.

Students in the Class of 2018 participated in a “white coat” ceremony at the college’s Virginia Tech campus Aug. 21, following four days of orientation activities to prepare them for their professional training. The ceremony marked an important transition in their lives, as students are considered part of the profession in veterinary medicine.

“This important event marks and celebrates the induction of trainee veterinarians into a very distinguished profession, a profession that was founded on service to society and advancement of medical knowledge,” said Dr. Cyril Clarke, dean of the veterinary college, who addressed the first incoming class since assuming leadership of the college last year. He explained that the white coat is a symbol of the science-based nature of the profession as well as a reminder that students have been given the rare opportunity to become veterinarians.

Approximately 250 family, friends, faculty and staff members, and guests attended the ceremony where the students received a white laboratory coat and a stethoscope. Also in attendance were representatives from the Virginia and Maryland Veterinary Medical Associations who welcomed the group into the profession.

Earlier in the week, the first-year students completed a full schedule of orientation activities designed to produce well-rounded and professional veterinary students. In addition to lectures, tours, and presentations at the college, students visited the Alta Mons campgrounds in Shawsville, Virginia, for a day of team-building exercises designed to boost their leadership, self-confidence, and communication skills.

The Class of 2018 comes to the college following a highly competitive application period and an uptick in the number of prospective students from underrepresented populations. More than 1,400 prospective students applied for 120 available seats, representing the third-largest applicant pool in North America, according to figures from the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges. Many of the students also self-identify as minorities, and approximately 30 percent of them are male, an increase from previous years.

The first-year students bring with them a wide range of interests and backgrounds. 

Jonah Williams of Annandale, Virginia, loves science so much that he has a self-designed tattoo comprised of scientific symbols. He majored in biology at James Madison University and shared that he’s also enamored with camels. 

“I’ve worked with camels quite a bit and I just love them. They are so smart,” he said. “My older sister owns an exotic animal ranch in Berryville, Virginia, so I have always had access to strange and interesting animals.”

Adrienne Bush of Silver Spring, Maryland, helped dart a rhinoceros from a helicopter during a six-week conservation experience in South Africa’s Limpopo province this spring. She and other staff members rescued the animal after it escaped from the reserve and entered a highway. During her trip, Bush spent half of her time working with a veterinarian and the other half assisting with conservation activities, including helping with controlled burns to reduce wildfire damage.

Despite her experience with the rhinoceros, Bush hopes to pursue small animal medicine after graduation. Like many of the students, she had known for a long time that she wanted to be a veterinarian. 

“It just fit,” she said of her decision to begin her four-year professional training. “I knew I wanted a science-based career and I had volunteered for a local veterinarian. That helped to solidify my decision.”

Although many of the students come to the veterinary college with an interest in companion animal veterinary medicine, others have more exotic interests. Amanda Carlson of Gaithersburg, Maryland, hopes her veterinary education will prepare her for a career in aquatic medicine. She also has two of the most unusual “pets” in the Class of 2018.

“I have two axolotls from a lake in Mexico named Lila and Oliver,” said Carlson, who explained that the underwater amphibians, which are closely related to tiger salamanders, enter adulthood without leaving their larval form. “They are commonly used in research because they can regenerate their limbs.”

Carlson learned about the species while working in an aquatics lab at the University of Maryland, where she completed her undergraduate studies in animal sciences. Her specific interests lie in shark medicine.

Although most first-year students described wanting to be a veterinarian from a young age, not everyone has this perspective. Lauren Hess of Elliott City, Maryland, completed an undergraduate degree in English literature and was two classes away from finishing her master’s degree in humanities, with a focus on English literature, before deciding to make a change.

Hess left graduate school to pursue her dream of working with animals full-time. After completing the prerequisites for veterinary school, she applied for and was accepted into the veterinary college.

On the other side of the spectrum, Morgan Brown of Occoquan, Virginia, knew she wanted to be a veterinarian ever since she watched “Emergency Vets” on Animal Planet as a child. Wasting no time, she already has an animal welfare-related internship lined up for next summer.

“I’ll be working with the American Humane Association to review movie scripts and then go to film sets to ensure the welfare of the animals,” said Brown, who has a minor in film studies from Pennsylvania State University. “This is the organization that puts the ‘No animals were harmed in the making of this film’ statement at the end of movies.”

Brown’s internship was the result of reaching out to Dr. Valerie Ragan, director of the college’s Center for Public and Corporate Veterinary Medicine, to get more information about opportunities for veterinary students and perspective veterinary students at the American Humane Association.

John Delgado-Roman of San Juan, Puerto Rico, majored in geography at Syracuse University. Once he visited the veterinary college, he knew it was the place for him. 

“I noticed that the school is very modern and had great technology available for the students,” he said. “The thing that attracted me the most about the school was the location. Blacksburg is a small and beautiful town that creates the perfect environment to be focused and successful.”

The Class of 2018 also includes a former crew member on a Colorado trail, a mechanical engineer who co-founded an entertainment company, a therapeutic horseback riding instructor, a service dog trainer, a histology lab technician who was the featured baton twirler in Virginia Tech’s Marching Virginians, a University of Delaware cheerleader, and a maple syrup farmer. They represent 15 states, including Virginia and Maryland, plus Puerto Rico and Canada.

The college was one of the first U.S. veterinary schools to have a “white coat” ceremony. More photos of the ceremony and orientation are available on the college’s Facebook page.

Written by Michael Sutphin and Sherrie Whaley.