Dr. Michael Kavanagh is like and unlike other new veterinarians. Like many recent graduates, he found work as an associate at a small animal clinic as a prelude to owning a practice. Unlike most recent graduates, he attended a brand-new college before embarking on his career.
Dr. Kavanagh graduated May 11 with the 80 other members of the charter class of Western University of Health Sciences College of Veterinary Medicine. The college is the 28th veterinary program in the United States, the second in California, and the first in Southern California. It is the first to open in the nation in more than 20 years.
The college's founding principles are student-centered learning, clinical education through the private sector, and a reverence for life in the teaching of veterinary medicine.
One student's story
The WesternU approach turned out to be a good fit for Dr. Kavanagh, who served as president of the college's student chapter of the AVMA in his second year.
Before applying to veterinary college, Dr. Kavanagh was a veterinary technician in Southern California for 16 years. He applied to a half-dozen colleges, but not originally to WesternU. Then a veterinary admissions board suggested to his boss that he should apply to the new college in the area.
Dr. Kavanagh, who has taught veterinary technicians, said he liked the teaching model of problem-based learning in small groups. On the first day at WesternU, the veterinary students received a case and a group assignment. The small groups helped the students get to know one another, he said, and the cases helped him learn and correlate information the same way he did on the job as a veterinary technician.
"I was never the best at a didactic curriculum," Dr. Kavanagh said. "I could remember better how to treat a disease or how to diagnose a disease because I could remember seeing a case."
The veterinary college was refining the curriculum all along, Dr. Kavanagh said. The professors experimented with various methods for teaching and testing clinical skills in adherence with the principle of reverence for life. They focused many of their efforts on making and adjusting models of animals that allow students to learn techniques before working with live animals.
During the first two years, students participated in wellness clinics where clients brought in pets. In the third and fourth years, the students completed clinical rotations at private practices rather than a teaching hospital.
"I think people could see what private practice is really like," Dr. Kavanagh said.
A student might devise a course of treatment, for example, only to discover that the client couldn't afford the option.
After graduation, Dr. Kavanagh found the job at the small animal clinic. By June, he was in negotiations to purchase the clinic where he was a technician for eight years.
The charter class
WesternU graduates have gone on to a variety of positions. Dr. Shirley Johnston, the founding dean, said the college is very proud to help meet the growing national need for veterinarians.
"Our graduates have accepted positions in practices, internships, and residencies to provide care for pets, horses, food animals, and laboratory animals," she said. "I am confident that they will serve society with excellence as advocates and champions for animals throughout their careers."
Graduates are completing internships in states from California to Florida to New York. Some will complete residencies in laboratory animal medicine at the University of Michigan and the University of California-Los Angeles.
Many graduates have accepted positions at practices among the rotation sites currently serving as the college's "teaching hospital." As third- and fourth-year students begin clinical rotations this August, a number of them will find alumni as their mentors. The mentors will be familiar with the college's teaching model.
"The graduates' actions will prove that the vision of those who worked to establish the college was on the mark," Dr. Johnston said.