Class of 2023: Coast Guard veteran Heather Skowron forges a nontraditional path to veterinary medicine
When Heather Skowron was a child growing up in Rhode Island, she didn’t know she wanted to be a veterinarian. In fact, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to be.
After two years of community college, she earned her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from Rivier University in New Hampshire and began an office job. But at the age of 23, she decided she needed to change direction.
"I just decided one day that I was going to do something different. So I joined the Coast Guard."
She went into the Coast Guard thinking she would be a reservist, but she ended up on active duty for over 20 years as an enlisted petty officer and then a commissioned officer.
She was trained as an engineer, learning to use a cutting torch and work with plumbing, and she served on several ships, where she was often responsible for ship repair and oversight. She also served as support staff to an admiral and was selected to attend the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, graduating with a master’s degree in systems engineering.
While living in Monterey, Skowron’s life changed again after she decided to volunteer at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. There, she had the opportunity to volunteer at a wildlife center. One of the rehabilitation technicians allowed her to help with some procedures on wildlife such as raptors and sea birds, and Skowron was hooked.
After 14 years in the Coast Guard, Skowron started to think about what would come next and was concerned that she did not have the right background and experience for veterinary medicine. Prerequisite classes would be a barrier, as it had been too long since she had taken undergraduate courses, but Skowron was determined to pursue her new goal.
"I just felt drawn to doing it. I couldn't stop myself. When you take any path, you get the pros and cons and the cautions, and I was like, 'I hear you, but I'm just going to go for it and see where this path takes me.'"
While working full time, Skowron spent five years completing her prerequisite classes at night and on weekends while also volunteering at City Wildlife in Washington, D.C. With prerequisites complete and a plan to retire from the Coast Guard, it was time to apply to veterinary school.
In its very first year, the Class of 2023 was hit with a massive challenge: the pandemic. Skowron said it felt like her class went through four versions of veterinary school: before the pandemic, during lockdown, in-person with masks and other precautions, and finally doing clinics.
"Being class president took on a different role then. Facilitating between the class and the school online was difficult because the world had not had to lock down before, and it was hard to facilitate making everyone feel connected," Skowron said.
The responsibility of being class president grounded Skowron and helped her focus as she navigated veterinary school.
Skowron entered veterinary school interested in epidemiology, but she decided to be a mixed animal tracker so she could experience all the field had to offer. Through the college’s mentorship program, she connected with Dianna Thornton of Caring Hands Animal Hospital in Arlington and completed a rotation there. Upon graduation, she will join Caring Hands as a small animal veterinarian.
"I'm ready to have my own cases, apply what I've learned in classes and in clinics, and I'm ready to work with my team and be a contributing member," Skowron said.
Skowron said on graduation day, her focus will be on her peers.
"I've seen them grow, become themselves, and figure out their new profession. Seeing them graduate means more to me than just graduating myself.”