An Emerging VOICE In Veterinary Care

Photos courtesy of VOICE - University of Minnesota Chapter
Photos courtesy of VOICE - University of Minnesota Chapter

In LGBTQ+ communities, pets play a unique role: a recent study conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University documented the influence that animals can have on the well-being, identity development, and even stress of their LGBTQ+ owners. In other words, our pets take care of us in ways we cannot imagine.

But who takes care of our pets?

Enter VOICE: Veterinarians as One Inclusive Community for Empowerment. This national student organization, with a local chapter at the University of Minnesota, is centered around making the veterinary field inclusive and welcoming. The national organization identifies cross-cultural awareness: understanding and uplifting identities like gender identity, sexuality, religion, race, and ability, as a vital part of meeting the needs of the people – and pets – veterinary medicine serves.

“The main purpose of any VOICE organization is to increase awareness and respect for anyone in the veterinary field – and celebrate diversity,” Courtney Labe exclaims. She’s a rising third-year student at the veterinary school, on the small animal track with an interest in oncology, and the incoming President for VOICE UMN. The group focuses on building inclusive relationships within the student body, administration, and community, and creating spaces for the veterinary field to give back.

“It’s about having someone who looks like me,” Zynia Alvarez voiced. She’s the incoming Vice President for VOICE UMN, and a rising fourth-year student at the veterinary school, with an interest in clinical pathology. “I don’t think I saw veterinarians that looked like me growing up.”

A 2011 survey conducted by the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges found that 7% of veterinary students identified as LGBTQ+, with an estimated 10% percent of veterinarians identifying as nonwhite – with the profession dubbed as one of the “whitest jobs in America” by the Atlantic in 2013. Moreover, a study published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found that LGBTQ+ veterinary students and professionals face obstacles due to their sexuality and gender identity, including a portion of individuals experiencing harmful remarks in school and the workplace.

Labe and Alvarez identify other barriers to getting into veterinary medicine. To get into veterinary school, you typically need a Bachelor’s degree and hundreds of hours of shadowing or pre-clinical work, which are often unpaid. Veterinary school applications are expensive and time-consuming, and acceptance rates hover in the very low 10-15% range. Finally, veterinary school itself costs thousands of dollars and takes time, dedication, and hard work.

One of the most prevalent barriers is the idea of even getting into veterinary medicine. “If you don’t see anyone like you practicing veterinary medicine, well, you’re going to think that’s not a possibility for you,” Labe shares. VOICE UMN believes that one of the key solutions to this issue is mentorship. Their focus for the next year is just that: creating opportunities for young people to get involved in veterinary medicine, get to know the profession, and feel supported by established members in the field. They also hope to host volunteer events, continue their mission of community service, and have fun!

Helping future veterinarians best serve diverse communities and embrace inclusive approaches is the goal.

In the past, VOICE has hosted a “pronoun panel”, educating on respectful language and terminology, and they hope to make it a yearly event, along with other talks that uplift certain affinities in the veterinary field. Alvarez recounted their Hispanic Heritage Month talk which delved into the specifics of working with Hispanic colleagues and clientele, and how to honor and best navigate those moments as a veterinary professional. Their objective is to create spaces for open discussion and education around making animal care inclusive.

They also see collaboration between student groups and the school as key. One of VOICE’s focus points is to facilitate the relationship between administration and the student body, and to collectively address issues and challenges that arise. Alvarez and Labe feel that positive change has come from this work, especially through their new advisor, Elizabeth Martinez-Podolsky, the veterinary school’s Diversity Equity and Inclusion director. “She does bring up these conversations a lot, so that they can be addressed, and for me, that’s amazing because it’s so easy to not talk about these things and ignore them,” Alvarez comments.

For those seeking to get into the veterinary field, both Alvarez and Labe cannot stress enough the importance of mentorship. Finding those that can guide your path, and give you vital advice about your journey, can make a big difference. For those moving into the professional world, taking into account what a practice looks like – and how inclusive an environment may be – can transform a career.

As for their “hot takes” on veterinary medicine? It all comes back to representation. The importance of finding a veterinary professional that values the unique needs and experiences of LGBTQ+ individuals and their pets cannot be overstated. Finding a provider that represents you builds trust and understanding and empowers you in caring for your pet.

For the future, both share that the veterinary field has remained stagnant for a long time, and efforts need to focus on intentional and effective change. They hope schools will recognize – and transform – how expensive the admissions process is and continue outreach to young people that this is a realistic career option. “It’s easier to trust your care team when they aren’t all carbon copies…they might have different ideas to offer, and present them in a way that is most accessible” both Labe and Alvarez express. Designing ways to bridge the gap between pet owners and compassionate veterinary care needs to be the long-term ambition.

The presence of VOICE in our community holds immense significance: future veterinarians dedicated to serving diverse pet owners and making a positive impact. Looking to support their work, or get involved? You can find them on Instagram and Facebook as VOICE UMN, and of course, throughout the campus community, advocating for inclusive veterinary medicine!

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