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Paying it Forward

Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine prides itself on being a place where aspiring veterinarians can achieve their dreams and live their passion. For some, that dream is opening a hometown clinic and connecting with pets and their families; for others, the dream takes them across the world to make a difference with exotic or forgotten animal populations. Ross students don’t let anything hold them back. So there’s no reason why the anchor of student debt should stand in the way of their potential.

Scholarship opportunities yield dividends for students and new graduates The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that today’s veterinary school graduates face the highest debt-to-income ratio of all health professionals, with DVM graduates carrying a mean debt load of about $141,000. Meanwhile, the mean starting salary for private practice in 2015 was about $67,000. In an effort to address this issue, students and industry leaders from the AVMA, veterinary colleges, and private practice convened at the 2016 Fix the Debt Summit. They came up with a few strategies: appealing to the government to eliminate interest on student loans, increasing financial literacy across the board, and enhancing demand for veterinarians topped the list. Also on that list? Increasing scholarships for veterinary students.

Scholarships at Ross

The Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine Scholarships are a part of the Empower Scholarship
Fund, a 501(c)(3) charity which operates in cooperation with but separate from
Adtalem Global Education. Established in 2000, the Empower Scholarship Fund was designed to provide scholarship assistance to continuing students with a financial need and a successful academic track record. In 2015, it expanded to benefit all of the colleges and universities of Adtalem Global Education, including Ross. Even without RUSVM fundraising in 2015, the first Ross Veterinary Scholarships awarded through Empower were significant, totaling $25,000 in funds awarded to 10 students. And although the fundraising from Ross was again limited in 2016, scholarship impact grew to $52,000 and 17 student recipients.

“The need continues to grow,” says John Stachniak, National Director of Advancement for the Empower Scholarship Fund. “Even with limited fundraising, we’ve been able to expand the number of Ross Veterinary Scholarships through the generosity of a small but growing number of Ross Vet colleagues, corporate partners, and alumni.” In 2016/2017 the results were even more dramatic. More than $64,000 was raised from Ross alumni and partners, and when combined with other Empower resources, and it allowed Empower to award $122,000 to 36 RUSVM students in 2017. The 2017/2018 year promises even bigger things, with nearly $103,000 raised from Ross alumni alone. When this is combined with gifts from other corporate partners and Empower resources, the awards will likely double again in 2018. “Each year the word gets out, and we see more student applicants, and more alumni coming forward to help,” adds Stachniak. Corporate partners and outside donors have also stepped up to establish scholarships for Ross students through the Empower Scholarship Fund, but it’s only a fraction of what’s truly needed to address concerns over student debt. The reality is that donations from Ross alumni and partnerships are a critical component of helping students achieve their career goals. Here are just some of the ways that is beginning to happen on St. Kitts.

A Solid Financial Foundation

One benefit that scholarship recipients receive is the ability to chip away at their debt before they graduate. And no one knows this better than Jennifer Askin, a Ross student in her second semester of her clinical year at Ohio State, who served as president of the Veterinary Business Management Association (VBMA) and has received scholarship assistance from a corporate partner. “There’s a huge debt-to-income ratio problem with veterinary education, and that’s something we all encounter because the cost of education can be astronomical,” she says. “I am very passionate about financial responsibility, and part of my passion for business management is making sure you have a solid financial foundation. Scholarships greatly help reduce my debt—which is something I think about every day.” According to Askin, Ross didn’t offer any formal business education courses when she was on island, so to fill the gap, her goal was to provide some. “Everyone needs a little bit of that whether you want to be a practice owner or not,” she says. “Through VBMA, we went over salaries and how to negotiate a contract.” Thanks to scholarship assistance, she also had the opportunity to fly to Washington, D.C. to work with the lobbying arm of the AVMA. “We learned about the issues applicable to veterinary medicine, and they educated us on their views and stance,” she adds. “Then, we went to our state senators to lobby on behalf of AVMA.” Indeed, scholarships provide students with access they may not have otherwise had. And that begins with helping them save a little bit of money.

Jasmine Gibbs, a 2018 DVM candidate, receives $2,000 per semester through the Eliza Ann Grier Scholarship, a special program for veterinary students who come from underrepresented minority groups in the field of medicine. She’s also a recipient of the Empower Scholarship Fund. “Both scholarships have shown me that I can do anything I put my mind to, and that becoming a doctor doesn’t always require a high amount of debt,” Gibbs says. “I’ve been able to save a little over $20,000 because of the combination of both scholarships, and that helps me save for my future goal of becoming a business owner of a general practice. No matter how big or small a donation may be, it truly makes a difference in a person’s life who may have struggled to get where they are, or someone who wants to save for future endeavors like myself.”

Better Campus Experiences

Saving money is key. But scholarships also allow Ross students to have a richer on island experience. Eric Lynch, a 2019 DVM candidate, had the opportunity to take care of animals on the island over campus break, from checking on cows, horses, sheep, and donkeys, to walking dogs and taking care of birds and tortoises. Receiving scholarship money helped him gain these valuable hands-on experiences because, without the additional funds, he’d have to get a different job that paid better during the breaks. Vlada Bhukhanova, a 2019 DVM candidate, received a scholarship from a corporate sponsor that included a caveat that she participate in small animal research. So she found herself a mentor, and started brainstorming potential projects she could do on St. Kitts. She’s currently working on a project about lizards, which are intermediate hosts for a common parasite on the island that, when transmitted to cats, can cause liver failure. “I had never done research before, but it was an area I definitely wanted to get involved in,” she says, “and this scholarship was the catalyst for that.” A side benefit, Bhukhanova says, is the vote of confidence she gets from receiving a scholarship: “It gives you a boost in morale, because you have been recognized for your work. The cost of education has increased substantially, and if you look at the loan debt and our options for repayment, it’s very scary. It could scare you away from veterinary medicine entirely. But scholarships lessen that burden and boost morale at the same time.”

Educational Opportunities

Without the Empower Scholarship Fund, Sara Bresse, 2018 DVM candidate, would not have been able to study abroad and volunteer with veterinarians in other countries, nor would she have been able to afford a large and small animal veterinary acupuncture class and her subsequent certification. It started with the Integrative Medicine Club at Ross. Bresse had learned about the possible veterinary applications of acupuncture, and was interested in becoming certified. She found a certification course in Colorado, which was science-, research-, and anatomy-based, and which incorporated acupuncture into western medical approaches. “After taking this course, I can say that I have changed my way of thinking about every patient that I see in a clinic,” Bresse says. “It has taught me how to look at the patient as a whole, and not just treat a problem the patient may currently have.” Next up, Bresse hopes to either begin an equine internship or start working in a mixed animal practice. But she realizes that her acupuncture training wouldn’t have been possible without that scholarship: “The help and assistance has truly made special opportunities possible for us veterinary students who would not be able to afford them on our own. Donors are making more of a difference in the future veterinary world than they may think, and I am so grateful for the opportunities I’m provided through scholarship assistance.”

Continuing education is a common thread among scholarship recipients, who use the cushion provided by the funds to maximize their training. Zachary Sloan, a recipient of the Dr. Lanse T. Fox Endowed Memorial Scholarship and 2018 DVM candidate, was able to afford a flight to attend the American Association of Bovine Practitioners conference. Because he was able to attend, he had the opportunity to network with practitioners and sit in on lectures about his area of interest. “You always hear about the Ross family, and a lot of veterinary schools have a family like that, so it’s important to support the new generation coming in. It builds community, and helps new students realize that there are people out there that have done it before, and they enjoyed it enough to give back to the future generation to support them,” he says. “But being in a position to give back also sends a message that if you manage your time and money properly, you won’t be in financial hardship as a veterinarian, which is so encouraging to current students.” Lynch’s message for alumni? “Remember where you were when you were trying to get through school—it has gotten a lot more expensive. Veterinary medicine is a great career that people should want to get into, and not be afraid to get into because of money. Any support is so appreciated, and really motivates us to know that alumni are behind us.”