Successful mentoring does not happen by chance. The reality is that it requires significant, consistent work and a strong desire to see students succeed. Mentoring is a fundamental part of learning. For professional graduate students, it is critical as they need in-depth knowledge, a set of skills, and techniques for networking, collaborating, and gaining a perspective on how their profession operates in the real world.

The mentorship program at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine started in 2003 and is a partnership with the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association (VVMA). This long-established arrangement connects students with professionals in the field and allies in veterinary medicine. Though the main event occurs one day a year, the forged relationships have ongoing benefits for students to reap throughout their graduate education and professional careers.  

Rocky Deutsch DVM' 85 participates in the mentorship program to help give students the perspective of a practicing veterinarian and help them sculpt their careers in whatever discipline they choose to follow.  

"The title of 'veterinarian' can mean so many different things, so it is important to be a sounding board as the student navigates through the process of selecting where they may be in the next few years," Deutsch said. "It is rewarding to me personally to know that I may have been instrumental in helping a student as they consider their options."

Throughout the day, meetings between students and paired mentors set up conversations tailored to both interests. Mentees were able to have conversations with seasoned professionals about navigating student life, with the opportunity to ask questions helpful for excelling in their veterinary school careers, such as studying and the curriculum. In addition, there was a sort of "speed-dating" mix-and-match where students had a certain amount of time to rotate through all the mentors' tables. In doing so, students learned more about what other mentors from different specialties do and areas of the profession they didn't know about or, conversely, were interested in further. 

Lauren Maxey (DVM’13) is on the Dean's Advisory Council and serves as Vice President for the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association.
Lauren Maxey DVM ’13 is on the Dean's Advisory Council and serves as vice president for the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association.

"The mentor program provides perspective and reveals how everything ties together in the veterinary profession," said Steve Karras, who completed an internship at the veterinary college in 1990. "It reinforces as veterinarians why we're here and serves as a touchstone and reminder for why we're doing what we're doing. It shows that if we are connected, we're not isolated."

Students raved about the program.

"My mentorship experience has allowed me to pursue my veterinary education more boldly," said Caitlin Swecker, a fourth-year veterinary student in the mixed animal track with mentor Brian Neumann DVM '14. "Knowing that I have the support and confidence of my mentor has encouraged me while in veterinary school. Dr. Neumann is also very open to hosting me at his clinic whenever I can travel to that area."

The mentorship program not only serves students while they are students though, but it also expands their veterinary student network and prepares them for professional development later. Robin Schmitz, executive director of VVMA, says, "The greatest success is when students are in their fourth year, and they get a job with or through their mentor," said Robin Schmitz, executive director of the VVMA. "Veterinary medicine is a small profession, and a lot of people make connections over the years, so if I see a student get a job, that's a success."

That's a benefit Swecker said she intends to capitalize on: "With graduation in just a few short months, I am sure I will be asking Dr. Neumann a lot of life-advice questions regarding the transition from student to doctor. I feel as though I'm not as nervous as some of my classmates about that transition, and I would attribute that to having such a great support network, including my mentor."

Edward Radue (DVM’15) brought an equine focus to the meetings.
Edward Radue DVM ’15 brought an equine focus to the meetings.
Brian Neumann (DVM’15) has opened his clinic to students. He serves on the Dean’s Advisory Council, Alumni Board of Directors, and is Secretary-Treasurer for the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association.
Brian Neumann DVM’15 has opened his clinic to students. He serves on the Dean’s Advisory Council, Alumni Board of Directors, and is secretary-treasurer for the Virginia Veterinary Medical Association.

"I know for me when I participated in the mentor program as a student, it was an awareness of knowing what other opportunities were out there and what else I could kind of dig my hands into and become more exposed to different areas of the profession," said director of Alumni and Referring Practitioner Relations Cassie Wagner DVM '13, MPH' 13. "It's pretty incredible to be able to have that here, and as a student for your future career options to not feel quite so overwhelming."

The mentorship program in its current iteration began in 2003. Schmitz was instrumental in rethinking the program's structure to get students more involved. "I developed the mentor program from the vision of how VVMA wanted to be more connected to the students. I took what we already had in place - a VVMA presence in the fall at the [Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine] event - and started the mentorship program with the cooperation of so many at [Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine] to make it happen."

Bill Tyrrell DVM '92 has been involved in the mentorship program since its change of course in 2003. Since that time, over five of his past mentees are now cardiologists and currently, two of his three residents were previously his mentees.

"The contacts I have made through the mentor program have led me and my clinic, Cardiac Care for Pets (CVCA), to recruit top residents," Tyrrell said. "It has provided a truly symbiotic opportunity for me to be able to give back to the profession, to [Virginia Tech], to the college, and to also benefit from the incredible student contacts made in the building of the program."  

While the benefits for students are numerous, perhaps what makes the mentorship program so successful is its symbiotic nature.

"I can't think of a better way to give back to veterinary medicine than my participation in the [Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine] mentor program," said Jay Margolis, past president of the VVMA, said. "The program allows members of the VVMA, [Maryland Veterinary Medical Association], and [District of Columbia Veterinary Medical Association] direct contact with veterinary students and allows us to offer our experience and guidance as those students want and need. I have had students work in my hospitals, stay in my home, and I try to always be an open book for guidance and advice regarding a class, a case, or just how to handle the stresses that we all feel day-to-day. The program also allows me to stay up to date on what's happening in veterinary education and to meet other mentors from around the region."

Schmitz elaborated on the benefits for mentors. "It's a two-way street," Schmitz said. "Mentors can learn from students, and we want to connect to the future of veterinary medicine. Veterinary medicine is changing every day so the students can bring what they're learning to their practices."

This symbiosis encourages mentees to return and participate as mentors, further strengthening the longevity of the mentorship program. Swecker, who has participated as a mentee throughout her time at the veterinary college, said, "I am also very excited to become a mentor one day as well, having seen the impact that the program has." 

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