The lifelong dream of becoming a veterinarian is one step closer to reality for 127 new students at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech.

First-year students participated in a “white coat” ceremony at the Inn at Virginia Tech on Aug. 19, following four days of orientation to prepare them for the next four years of professional training. The incoming Class of 2020 will also be the first cohort of students to participate in a new doctor of veterinary medicine curriculum.

Cyril Clarke, dean of the veterinary college, spoke directly to students during the ceremony about the white coat’s significance. “As students, you will be accountable to yourselves, to each other, and to your faculty mentors for your integrity and commitment to learning,” he said. “After graduation, you will be accountable to your patients, clients, and the communities that you serve. You will be expected to present yourself in a professional manner with the white coat.”

Clarke added that the white coat represents the science-based nature of the veterinary profession and the rare opportunity that students have been afforded to become veterinarians. More than 1,400 prospective students applied for admission in the Class of 2020, the second largest applicant pool in North America according to figures from the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges.

The new doctor of veterinary medicine curriculum integrates the basic and clinical sciences in courses focused on function, incorporates team-based learning in all first- and second-year courses, and allows for early entry into the clinics after the second year. New courses interweave scientific theory and clinical practice so that students can better contextualize what they learn in the classroom. Students in the Class of 2020 will still choose a track in small animal, equine, food animal, mixed species, or public and corporate veterinary medicine.

The veterinary college was one of the first U.S. veterinary schools to hold a white coat ceremony. During the event, students also received a stethoscope to mark their transition into the profession and were welcomed by representatives from the Virginia and Maryland veterinary medical associations.

Earlier in the week, first-year students completed orientation activities designed to produce well-rounded and professional veterinary students. In addition to lectures, tours, and presentations at the college, students visited the Alta Mons campground in Shawsville, Virginia, for a day of team-building exercises designed to boost their leadership, self-confidence, and communication skills. (View a Facebook gallery of the Class of 2020’s orientation activities at Alta Mons.)

Josh Scharf, of Charlottesville, Virginia, appreciated that the visit to Alta Mons incorporated both mental and physical activity. “It seemed mostly team-oriented, but we also broke out into pairs and competed with each other,” said Scharf, who completed a bachelor’s degree in biology at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. “It just brought out different sides of people and that was really fun. I felt like I got to know people more that day than just the typical first day when we met each other.”

Before joining the veterinary college, Scharf worked at the Virginia Safari Park in Natural Bridge, Virginia, which helped solidify his interest in zoo medicine and gained additional experience working with Richard “Chip” Godine, a 1987 alumnus of the college who received its 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award, at the Ruckersville Animal Hospital in Ruckersville, Virginia.

All of the students in the Class of 2020 arrived at the veterinary college with formative experiences like these. Dania Soto, of Brooklyn, New York, studied animal science before graduating and starting a career in marketing and communications in Silver Spring, Maryland. She is excited to return to her first passion.

“I have always had an affinity for animals and was always concerned about their welfare from a very young age, so it just made sense,” Soto said. “I remember reading a library book from elementary school which said you can pair two careers together. If you are interested in both animals and medicine, you can be a vet. So here I am now.”

Tracy Wachbrit, of Los Angeles, California, was one of five students in the incoming class to arrive from a pre-veterinary program at Pierce College in Los Angeles. Jacque Pelzer, director of admissions and student services at the veterinary college, visited Pierce College several times to encourage students to apply.

“Every time she came she made Virginia-Maryland sound like an amazing college and Virginia Tech and Blacksburg sound like great communities,” said Wachbrit, who hopes to explore her interest in diseases that spread from animals to humans at the veterinary college. “When we came here for interviews, we were sold on that. The college is amazingly beautiful, the town is very friendly, and the new curriculum is perfect.”

The Class of 2020 includes 84 Virginia and Maryland residents and 43 out-of-state students who arrived with a 3.5 average cumulative grade point average. Outside of Virginia and Maryland, they represent 15 states, plus Puerto Rico.

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