A Summer Program Where Students Learn So Much More than Science

The Adventures in Veterinary Medicine program connects middle and high school students with Tufts students to build mentoring relationships and help develop the next wave of veterinary professionals 

For more than 30 years, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University has offered a rich summer experience to pre-college students interested in veterinary medicine. Adventures in Veterinary Medicine (AVM) is an immersive experience that includes lectures, hands-on experiences with animals, diagnostic challenges, and opportunities to interact closely with current Cummings School students.

“What we seek to do through AVM is spark that interest in veterinary medicine, give students insight into how they can enter the profession, and open their eyes to all the options that are possible in veterinary medicine careers,” said John Chenier, director of AVM. “It’s a pretty unique opportunity for students.” Chenier is the recruitment outreach director and associate dean of the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Climate at Cummings School.

This summer, AVM added a new dimension by partnering with pre-college programs at Tufts University School of MedicineMini-Med Connect (MMC) and Teachers and High School Students Program (TAHSS)to offer financial support plus an additional two weeks of career and networking content to two AVM students from local underrepresented communities.

MMC and TAHSS both offer a paid experience that includes a scholarship. That support was crucial to Megyn Ta, a first-generation Asian-American who attends high school in Malden, Massachusetts. She said she would not have been able to attend AVM without the scholarship. “I’m really grateful for this opportunity,” she said. “I got a lot out of it, more than I ever thought I would.”

That comes as good news to Flo Tseng, professor and associate dean for diversity, inclusion, equity, and climate at Cummings School, who worked with colleagues at the School of Medicine to offer AVM students spots with MMC and TAHSS students. “This collaboration allows students from more diverse backgrounds to be able to benefit from AVM,” she said, “and supports them with additional programming to help them so they can succeed in veterinary medicine careers.”

A Longstanding History

Thousands of students have participated in AVM over the years. With only about 30 veterinary schools in the U.S., and only a subset of those providing pre-college programming, AVM is in high demand. This past year, the program received about 300 applications for 80 spots in two separate summer sessions. Students come from across the U.S. and other countries.

There are two programs: one for middle schoolers, which lasts a week, and one for high schoolers, which lasts two weeks. Some students enjoy the middle-school experience so much, they return in high school. Kierra Walsh, V23, is one of them. “I thought it was absolutely the coolest thing ever,” she said. “It’s a fantastic way to tell whether veterinary medicine is the career for you.”

For Walsh, her AVM experience not only increased her desire to become a veterinarian, it also eased her transition into veterinary school at Cummings School. “The transition to vet school is rough in terms of academic rigor, so it was really nice to have that familiarity with the school, the campus, and the people,” she said.

According to Chenier, Walsh’s experience of choosing to pursue a veterinary degree at Cummings School after attending AVM is not unusual. “We see a direct connection between AVM participation and students who apply here as doctoral and master candidates,” he said.

Walsh graduated from Cummings School with a D.V.M. in May and now works as a veterinarian at Lexington Veterinary Associates.

The AVM Experience

AVM students attend lectures by Cummings School faculty and other professional veterinarians, learn how to suture and bandage, and practice animal-handling techniques with chickens, dogs, cows, sheep, and other animals. They go on behind-the-scenes field trips to a variety of places veterinarians work, including the New England Aquarium, the Franklin Park Zoo, and Great Brook Dairy Farm in Carlisle.

They also work in small groups to solve a diagnostic problem over the course of the program. “We’re giving them a very real approach to how a veterinarian might think about an owl that has flown into the side of a barn or a dog who has a limp,” Chenier said. “How would you go about diagnosing these things? Which procedures and treatments are appropriate?”

A defining aspect of AVM is the use of program mentors, who are current veterinary students at Cummings School. “Program mentors are essentially teaching assistants,” Chenier said, “providing content and answering questions.”

Walsh continued her involvement with AVM by participating as a program mentor while earning her D.V.M. degree. In that role, she facilitated icebreakers, demonstrated hands-on experiences with animals, gave a talk about exotic animal care, and answered questions about her experiences before and during veterinary school. “It was really fun to get to go full circle and interact with kids who had been me so many years ago,” she said.

Ta said having Cummings School students as program mentors enhanced her AVM experience. “They were kind and insightful and you could tell they have a passion for veterinary medicine,” she said.

Adding a New Dimension

This year, for the first time, AVM was able to offer more support for students from communities underrepresented in veterinary medicine by teaming up with the Center for Science Education at Tufts University School of Medicine to enroll two AVM students in MMC.

MMC grew out of Mini-Med School, a Tufts pre-college summer program that focuses on medical careers. MMC adds two weeks of additional programming for students, with one week occurring the week before Mini-Med School or AVM, and the second week occurring after those experiences. The programming covers topics such as professionalism, how to seek out advisors, interviewing, career exploration, and the college application process. The topics apply to all STEM careers, not just healthcare, so it made sense to add a couple of AVM students to the group.

MMC students are also paired with Tufts undergraduates who have been trained in “near peer” mentoring.

Berri Jacque, associate professor of medical education and director of the Center for Science Education, said the students and the Tufts undergraduate mentors are exceptional students who come from backgrounds that are historically excluded from the health sciences or face other opportunity gaps that make entering a STEM field challenging. “The whole concept is to build a strong network for students and mentors,” he said.

Ta’s experience illustrates what building that network looks like. “During the first week of Mini-Med Connect,” she said, “I was very out of my comfort zone. I’ve never done any program like this in my life.”

After attending AVM and coming back for the second week of programing, things got easier. “It was a lot more fun for me,” she said. “I knew people. I knew names. I found my own group to talk to. I felt more comfortable in my own skin after that.” When the program was over, she found she really missed the people and the “taste of college independence.”

To maintain the network, the MMC and TAHSS programs host several field trips throughout the year for participants, who are all from the greater Boston area.

Katie Lew, E25, was one of four undergraduate mentors. In her role, she had weekly conversations with each of her four mentees. “These relationships are concretely centered on college experience,” she said, “but in a broader sense, I was helping students figure out what they are passionate about, what’s important to them, and how they can achieve that.”

In some cases, the act of conversing was more important than the content. “It’s special for high school students to have someone to be there just to listen to them,” she said.

As part of her role, Lew, like the other undergraduate mentors, worked in a Tufts research lab over the summer and presented her research to all 18 high school students to expose them to scientific content as well as career opportunities in research. “We want to showcase a lot of careers for students,” Jacque said.

That’s why all the students in Mini-Med School visit Cumming School’s North Grafton campus and all the students in AVM visit the Boston Health Sciences Campus, home to Tufts University’s medical, dental, and nutrition schools. The in-depth hands-on experiences in the two programs, combined with visits to different professional schools at Tufts, can bring clarity to a young person’s career aspirations. Walsh said one of her friends in AVM discovered that she had no desire to ever touch a cow again; that friend is now in medical school.

For Ta, AVM solidified her desire to go into veterinary medicine. “This is definitely a journey I want to take,” she said.

And her experiences helped her understand how to make it happen. “I know what I want to do and these people are here to support me,” she said. “I’ve learned through this program you are not going to get anywhere if you don’t push yourself.”

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