May 15, 2013


 Vice president’s message to students is one of care

Threlfall assures students AVMA is working on solutions to their problems

Posted May 1, 2013 


Dr. Walter R. Threlfall has been busy since his election as AVMA vice president last August. As the Association’s liaison to the Student AVMA and student chapters, Dr. Threlfall has been visiting veterinary colleges across the country. 

When he talks with students, Dr. Threlfall offers professional advice and reassures them about their choice of careers. He also explains that the AVMA not only understands their worries but also is working to find solutions to some of the more pressing challenges they face, such as high educational debt load and low starting salaries.

Almost halfway into his two-year term, Dr. Threlfall talked to JAVMA News about all he’s learned while on the road.
Do you have a message or key points for the students during these visits?

My message to the students is primarily one that we—the AVMA—care, and I certainly care about their future. I want them to have the same opportunities that I had when beginning my professional career, and I honestly believe it is possible. However, it will require that we all work together to solve their problems as well as our own. None of the entities involved will be able to do it alone. All segments of our profession, including students, must be heard from, or we will not solve our problems. If the best leadership of this entire profession is not able to solve the problems, then I don’t know who would be able to do it.
Are there common issues you’re hearing from students?

The common problems mentioned by students are just that: common, very common. If one focuses on the changes of the past 20 years, it is no big surprise that some of these problems were going to happen. That is not to say every challenge could have been foreseen, but communication between all the veterinary groups and listening would have helped prevent some. Student concerns are justified. Too much debt, too high of interest rates on their loans, fewer jobs in their areas of interest, a failure of income to keep up with their investments, problems with the educational systems, and lack of hands-on experience. All of these problems concern me and other leaders in our profession, including within the AVMA. The primary difference between then and now is the students of today are living the experience. If someone would have discouraged my dream career instead of helping me as most did, I would have not looked kindly on those individuals.

What is their opinion of the AVMA?

Their view of AVMA is mixed. They want to see the parent organization do more for them sooner rather than later. Many are losing faith that we, the AVMA, will be able to solve their problems. They are not expecting miracles, just some rapid signs of assistance. Again, I confirm that we alone will not be able to solve all their problems. It will require everyone—AVMA; veterinary medical colleges, including veterinary educators; veterinary students; practitioners; and all others in various aspects of the veterinary profession—to do it. I know we can do it, but we must work together.

Is there anything the AVMA should be doing for students that it isn’t already?

I personally believe the AVMA needs to set some short-term goals that can be accomplished in six to 12 months. The demonstration of tangible results in a short period of time to what they consider important problems, even if not as grandiose as we might like, would demonstrate we are moving forward.

Has your view of the vice presidency evolved since taking office?

The vice presidency is very much what I imagined it to be. Having been involved in veterinary education my entire professional life, it has been evident the problems (students) face today were coming for approximately a decade and did not occur overnight, so it is not surprising to hear their concerns. It is great to reassure many, especially in small student groups at schools and colleges, that there is hope for their future, but they need to take a more active role in becoming as excellent as they can be at graduation.

The enthusiasm of those students who are involved convinces me that they will be an active part of the solution so long as we permit them to be involved and listen to them. They will not have all the answers, and that is not what I am stating, but to not listen to their ideas would be a grave error on the profession’s part. They experience the educational system from the learner’s side, they obtain the loans, they are the ones to repay the loans, they must find the positions and want ones they will love, they are in the trenches, and they are our scouts. I love the interaction with them and their enthusiasm regarding veterinary medicine.

It is, however, disappointing to see their frustration, and sometimes, loss of hope. Personally, my greatest disappointment is that I have been unable to do much to assist them other than cheer them on. I encourage their submission of ideas to correct whatever they think we can correct, no matter how ridiculous it may appear to them. I think we have worked on the obvious for a while, so something different might just do it.

What is your response to the Governance and Mem­ber Participation Task Force’s proposals to eliminate the AVMA vice presidency position and grant veterinary students full AVMA membership?

Eliminating the vice presidency position would not affect me, so I think I can be honest in my opinion. I believe the visitation by the vice president of AVMA and as a member of the Executive Board making contact with students demonstrates we want their ideas and want to assist them, listen to them, want their input, and most importantly, care about them as a group and as individuals. We then need to follow through by coming up with the solutions to give proof we are doing our best and not just making idle promises.

Without a vice president, we lose that contact person. The time put into this position is considerable but well worth it. I personally believe it is a priceless position. Even if there was a voting student member on the Executive Board, the current vice president (by) description brings or should bring great experience regarding their problems and be a problem solver to the board, which a student may not have at that point in their career. This previous veterinary student and life experience is invaluable.

Regarding students having full AVMA membership, this would necessitate students paying dues comparable to those of graduate veterinarians or some mechanism by which there is equity for full dues-paying members and those at a reduced fee structure. I am not opposed to it but there is the added responsibility of being informed on issues and candidates. It is like the political process everywhere: Some will take on the responsibility seriously and do their homework before voting, while others will not. Students should largely determine their involvement in AVMA, but they need to first consider all aspects of that involvement before reaching a decision, as will AVMA in its to-be-determined new governance plan.

Anything else you want to discuss?

I seriously believe representatives of all parties involved in our great profession need to meet as a task force, committee, or such an entity to consider all possible solutions to the problems previously delineated and emerging ones regarding our students. The only requests I would make are that the word “can’t” not be used in the discussion and that the discussions be friendly. Our profession survived the introduction of the horseless carriage, the elimination of hog cholera, and problems as significant as, or more so than, the ones currently facing our profession. We can work together to solve them or do nothing and lose control of our destiny. I believe working together is the better option. I challenge all students and members of the profession to provide me with suggestions as to how we identify solutions to student problems at a reasonable rate and not drag it out until the problem, right or wrong, solves itself.

I thank all of you who supported me and welcome your comments at any time. This is a team effort. My position is to be positive, informed, a problem solver; to keep the students involved, and finally assist them to accomplish (the) goal of having the same dream profession I was blessed with. Anything less is doing our profession and them a disservice.