Alumna doing her part to bring diversity to field of veterinary medicine
"Dr. Dolittle," a 1998 film in which renowned Black actor Eddie Murphy played the role of a veterinarian who could speak to animals, received mixed reviews from movie critics. Yet the general public loved Murphy’s humor, so much so that the film became somewhat of a cult classic and remains that way more than two decades later.
For Tierra Price, though, the movie provided much more than a few good laughs. A lover of animals at a young age, she found inspiration from the film, enough so to channel a passion for cats and dogs into a pursuit of a career in veterinary medicine even though she had never seen a Black veterinarian.
“I grew up thinking that I was going to be one of the first Black veterinarians because I had never seen any,” Price said.
Price lived her dream in 2020 when she graduated from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech. A native of Louisville, Kentucky, Price — who earned her undergraduate degree in animal science from the University of Connecticut — today works as a veterinarian in Los Angeles, where she has a wide array of interests, including emergency care, surgery, public health, and lab animal medicine.
She also has another passion – helping young Black college students pursue careers in veterinary medicine – and Price continues to receive national recognition for her devotion to this particular topic.
In 2018 while a student at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, Price noticed a lack of Black students in her classes and wanted to play a role in changing that. She started BlackDVM Network, a community “for Black veterinary professionals to grow, connect, and advance veterinary medicine.”
“My time in veterinary school was really the catalyst for starting BlackDVM Network because I felt isolated, and I felt like there weren’t many people that I could relate to,” Price said. “There were probably five or six of us. My experience [at Virginia Tech] was a good one, but even still, I lacked people that I could relate to, that understood my background and the things that I had been through.”
BlackDVM Network started with humble beginnings – a simple Instagram account designed to spotlight the accomplishments of Black students pursuing veterinary medicine degrees. Today, the network features a comprehensive website, a Facebook page, a LinkedIn page, and a YouTube page, providing a relative smorgasbord of resources for Black students aspiring to careers in veterinary medicine.
One of Price’s first initiatives was to build a nationwide directory of Black veterinarians. This led to the creation of the website, and the directory provides a way for Black students to connect with and seek guidance from those working in the profession.
In addition, the website has a listing of both job openings and externship opportunities. Plus, there are subscription services that potentially allow (depending on the service) access to private forums to build relationships with like-minded people; private events centered around medicine, wellness, entrepreneurship, and professional development; networking opportunities; relationships with mentors; and more.
The BlackDVM Network social media accounts also provide information. Price spotlights veterinarians, veterinary assistants, and technicians, and there has been a live interview series on these platforms.
“It started to grow,” Price said. “People wanted more resources. People want to connect in different ways. I was like, ‘We can make it grow. Whatever people need, I’m willing to put in the work to do it if that’s going to be helpful.’ … We started to gain traction and meet different people and network in many different ways.”
Like Price, the faculty and staff who work within the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine understand the importance of increasing diversity within careers in veterinary medicine. Depending on the source, Black veterinarians comprise between 1.7 and 2.1 percent of all veterinarians in the United States, while those of Hispanic and Asian origins each comprise less than 5.5 percent.
“It’s socially responsible to create a diverse veterinary profession,” said Jacque Pelzer, director of admissions and student support at the college. “We really need underrepresented minorities in the profession to serve communities, to bring different things to the learning environment, and to bring different approaches to problem solving and critical thinking – all to really diversify the profession.”
Under Pelzer’s leadership, the admissions staff identified barriers for underrepresented students and took action. She and her staff have built relationships with undergraduate programs that feature diverse student populations with the goal of bringing some of those students into the college, and she and her staff do a lot of outreach. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, her staff visited prospective students all over the country.
“We felt that being there in person sent the message that we were invested in their futures, and we could develop relationships with the students and their advisors,” Pelzer said. “That’s what we began to do, and we noticed there was a change in the applicant pool since they began to apply.”
The staff also tweaked its admissions process. They had found that many minorities lacked experience in veterinary medicine because they spent their time outside of class working jobs to pay for their education. As a response, the admissions staff started placing more of an emphasis on the life journey and educational and economic barriers than simply looking at undergraduate experience in the field.
In addition, the staff instituted programs to promote diversity in the profession, including the unique VetTRAC Summer Program – TRAC is an acronym for Training and mentorship, Realistic experiences, Active and hands-on learning, and Career exploration. Students apply to participate in VetTRAC, and if accepted, they come to campus for two weeks to learn about veterinary medicine through tours, lectures, and hands-on activities.
Of note, though, is that preference for VetTRAC goes to students from underrepresented populations within veterinary medicine.
“That’s been a great pipeline for us,” Pelzer said.
Other steps taken by the college include a 10-member Community and Diversity Committee that periodically assesses the climate of the college and makes recommendations to an executive board to promote recruitment and retention of students, staff, and faculty from underrepresented populations — a committee that includes three students, thus ensuring all stakeholders are represented in discussions.
And the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine is in the process of hiring a director of diversity to work in the office of the college’s dean, M. Daniel Givens. Attracting minority faculty and staff members and retaining them will be an integral part of this person’s role.
So, what is the current result of this emphasis on diversity within the college? In 2009, Pelzer’s first year, the percentage of diverse students within the college was 7 percent. Today, the percentage for the Class of 2025 is 31 percent.
“We’ve noticed a huge difference, and we think that’s a result of recruitment and just changing some of our application review procedures,” Pelzer said.
Expect BlackDVM Network to continue to play a prominent role, both in bringing diversity to schools of veterinary medicine throughout the country and to the profession of the field itself. What that role looks like five or 10 years from now remains to be seen, as the profession continues to evolve, and new ideas come to the forefront.
But Price remains open to possibilities, whatever those may be. At the moment, she wants to provide resources and ultimately opportunities and be a driver of change.
“I hear Black students say they can’t find a veterinarian to write them a recommendation,” Price said. “Then I talk to veterinarians who say they really enjoy mentoring students, and they say they would love to have some students, but they can’t find them. They don’t know where they are.
“So that’s what I see for BlackDVM Network — just finding those people, connecting them, and allowing them to maximize their potential.”
Those in leadership roles at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine want the same thing. They want more minority students pursuing careers in veterinary medicine – and they long to see more success stories like Price.
“We need to have really good role models for our younger prospective veterinary students still in high school, and that’s why I just think the world of Tierra,” Pelzer said. “I think she will be a good role model for Black female and male students.
“When they see her, they’re going to see themselves.”
— Written by Jimmy Robertson