When campers rave about a new summer camp with phrases like “one of the best experiences in my life,” “loved the hands-on experiences,” and “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” it’s obvious that things went well.

The inaugural Veterinary Medicine Science Camp was held at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech during the last week of July. The week of tours, lectures, and hands-on experiences were part of a pilot program to create opportunities for students from underrepresented populations interested in a veterinary career.

Eight undergraduate students from Richmond’s Virginia Union University and Norfolk’s Old Dominion University were chosen for the camp based on socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, and life experiences. The camp is one of three initiatives the veterinary college developed this year as part of InclusiveVT, Virginia Tech’s new approach to inclusion and diversity adopted by President Timothy D. Sands.

Kayvon Hill of Chester, Virginia, a sophomore majoring in biology at Virginia Union University, found out about the camp from his biology professor. “I am thinking about going to vet school after I graduate, but I am not sure about the best path for me because I also want to be a wildlife biologist and study felines, mostly lions,” Hill said. “I want to do research and study animal behavior.”

Hill explained that the camp gave him a real-life glimpse into what it would be like to be a veterinary student. He and the other campers spent a morning in the college’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital shadowing faculty members and fourth-year veterinary students on clinical rotations. Each student shadowed a different clinical area such as small animal medicine, neurology, anesthesia, large animal medicine, community practice, small animal surgery, and radiology.

“I shadowed in Community Practice, and I actually watched four surgeries,” said Hill, who observed dental procedures on a small cat and a 40-pound dog and spays on two dogs. “I liked the whole thing because it went through what we would go through in vet school. You had to wake up early in the morning and had 10 minutes to eat. Then you were on your feet all day. We had real-life, hands-on experiences, not just textbook learning, and they didn’t sugarcoat anything.”

Hands-on experiences were at the heart of the camp – learning how to suture and place a catheter on models, scrubbing in and dressing for surgery, learning the anatomy of the heart, helping tube feed an injured snake, viewing the milking process at Virginia Tech’s dairy, observing fracture radiographs, collecting and plating bacterial samples, and viewing toxic plants during an outside tour of the school grounds.

The toxicology tour “taught me that not all of vet medicine is animals. Environment plays an important aspect in vet science as well,” noted one camper. “The doctors were all so passionate about their work.” Another said, “I was not expecting to have this kind of hands-on experience. It was one of the most educational experiences I’ve had the honor of being a part of.”

Other participants agreed that the clinical experiences gave them a rare glimpse into life as a veterinarian. Heather Brown of Vienna, Virginia, a senior majoring in history at Old Dominion University, shadowed clinicians in the large animal clinic.

“I would like to go to veterinary school and be an equine and large animal veterinarian after I graduate,” said Brown, who is president of Old Dominion University’s Pre-Veterinary Club. “I got to observe what was happening in the large animal clinic and see a horse have an endoscopy. I have seen it on TV before, but not in real life.”

Brown and one of her fellow campers, Ashlynn Reis of New Orleans, Louisiana, a senior majoring in biochemistry at Old Dominion University, agreed that a visit to the Virginia Tech Dairy was a highlight of their week.

“I liked seeing the whole process, especially the filtering process and the milk going into the tank,” said Reis, who had a chance to operate the milking equipment while learning about the milking process from Dr. Kevin Pelzer, professor of production management medicine in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences. “You don’t really think about all of that when you are drinking your milk.”

Reis spent a year and a half volunteering with the largest pit bull rescue shelter in the United States, which is located in her hometown and featured on Animal Planet’s reality television show “Pit Bulls & Parolees.” She wants to become a veterinarian and, after graduation from Old Dominion, plans to enlist in the Army Corps Reserve to help pay for veterinary school and then enlist for three years as an officer working with military working dogs.

After checking in on Sunday, campers took a tour of the college’s 270,000-square-foot complex. On Monday, they met Dean Cyril Clarke and learned about internal medicine and radiology before they toured the Virginia Tech Dairy and practiced taking a dog’s vital signs. On Tuesday, they learned about surgery, heart anatomy, and catheterization, and met a group of Virginia Tech football, volleyball, and soccer players while visiting the university’s athletic facilities, including the newly constructed football practice facility.

“Some of the faculty members hadn’t even seen the new football facilities yet, so it was a great,” explained Hill. “We went on the field, we ran through the [Lane Stadium] tunnel, we took a lot of pictures, and we went over to the new practice facility. We even had lunch with the football players.”

On Wednesday and Thursday, highlights included the five-hour clinical shadowing experience, a bacteriology lab, an interactive epidemiology presentation, and time in the college’s clinical skills lab to practice prepping for surgery. The final day featured the toxicology tour and presentations on career paths and being a competitive applicant for veterinary school.

Participants stayed in a Virginia Tech residence hall during the week-long camp and had a chance to experience life at the university and in Blacksburg. Dining facilities and campus food also ranked high. “I know why Virginia Tech ranks number one in food now,” one camper raved.

“The camp definitely gives you insight if you are considering becoming a veterinarian. You might think, ‘I really want to do this’ or ‘I’m not sure I can handle it.’ But the camp gives the real experience so that you can have an answer for yourself,” Brown said. “If you have the chance, definitely go for it because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

In 2016, even more underrepresented students will have a chance to attend the camp. “We hope to grow the camp to extend this opportunity to more pre-veterinary students in Virginia, Maryland, and beyond,” said Dr. Jacque Pelzer, director of admissions and student services. “This program will help recruit students to the veterinary profession who reflect the great diversity present in the communities that we serve.”

View a Facebook photo gallery with more images from the summer camp.

Written by Michael Sutphin and Sherrie Whaley.