As AVMA vice president, Carlson would be mentor to students

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Dr. René A. CarlsonLast July in Denver, Wisconsin's representative to the AVMA House of Delegates, Dr. René A. Carlson, declared her intention to seek the 2003-2004 AVMA vice presidency. Since receiving a DVM degree from the University of Minnesota in 1978, Dr. Carlson has participated in organized veterinary medicine while employed in small and mixed animal practices. In addition to having served as president of the Wisconsin VMA, which honored Dr. Carlson with its 2001 Veterinarian of the Year Award, she currently owns a three-veterinarian small animal practice in Chetek, Wis. Nominated by the Wisconsin VMA, Dr. Carlson sees the AVMA vice presidency as a chance to share with students what she's learned, with the hope of preparing them for successful and fulfilling careers in veterinary medicine.


Why are you running for AVMA vice president?

Several people asked me to run. During the year I considered running, I spoke with a number of students and recent graduates, and there was some frustration out there—mostly from those who were one or two years out of school—with the transition from academics to reality. I enjoyed talking with them and I wanted to be part of their support system. That's what made me realize that I wanted to do this. First, I was encouraged and was asked to run, and second, I realized there was a real need I could meet.

What skills and experience qualify you for the office?

I think I'd be very good at it. I love talking to people, listening to them, and helping them. I've been in private practice for 27 years. I've worked in a small animal urban referral practice and in two mixed practices in rural areas. I've been an associate for 18 of those years, and I've built and now own a three-veterinarian small animal, AAHA certified practice, so I'm coming from an ownership standpoint, as well as an associate standpoint.

I married a veterinarian who was raised on a dairy farm and was a dairy practitioner for six years. He is now in public practice as a diagnostician and pathologist. I also worked as a sales consultant for a veterinary company. So, I have a broad view of the veterinary profession.

Also, I've been quite involved in organized veterinary medicine at my local, state, and AVMA levels as an officer, delegate, or foundation board member. I truly believe that participation has given me the perspective that's kept me excited and successful in this profession for so long. I can't be a stronger advocate for the value of organized veterinary medicine, so if I can bring that to the students, it helps both sides—us as an organization and them in their careers.

If elected, what would your priorities be?

The first thing I want to bring to students is that the most important thing they can learn at veterinary school is veterinary medicine. That is what they're there for and that's the only place they can get that education and training. It's important that they concentrate on learning to be the best veterinarian they can be.

I have three priorities as a representative of the AVMA. The first is emphasizing the value of mentorship. I totally support the AVMA's initiative in mentorship. A lot of us are role models without even knowing it, with so much knowledge to share in many areas. Second, there is more to veterinary medicine than the medicine. As we all know and are finding out, people skills and communication skills are important. Veterinarians need to be able to relate to people as much as take care of the animals. Business skills are important, as well.

Finally, students need to recognize the value of organized veterinary medicine. They can be supported in three areas. Educators can emphasize the value of organized medicine to students, but we need to emphasize to the educators, as well, what the value is for them in organized veterinary medicine. Employers should support their new associates' involvement in organized veterinary medicine. Finally, association members themselves at local, state, and national levels can actively invite and mentor students and recent graduates in participation and leadership.

When you meet with veterinary students and recent graduates, what are their concerns?

The obvious one is their educational debt. Two things have helped. The recent passing of the National Veterinary Medical Service Act gives students a little hope of relief for the debt they incur. The second one is the National Commission on Veterinary Economic Issues, which is helping practices increase revenue for better compensation.

Students can feel a little bit overwhelmed by everything that's being jammed into the curriculum because there is so much information now. There's only so much time, and I don't think the students always know what they should concentrate on versus what they want to concentrate on. That's why I want to get the message out: Learn what's important for you to be a good overall veterinarian.

Then there's the stress students face after graduation. They're concerned about paying back their loans, moving, and taking a new job. It is especially important they have positive experiences in the first one to two years after graduation.

Concerning issues, I find that students are very concerned about animal welfare. We've always seen ourselves as being the animal welfare experts. But the students have been raised in this atmosphere of increased focus on animal welfare and rights. Maybe this new generation of veterinarians will more clearly define animal welfare in this country and make veterinarians even more the leaders of animal welfare than we have been.

What are students saying about the AVMA's economic and mentoring initiatives? Are there other areas where students and recent graduates would like to see more AVMA help?

Students are certainly excited about the National Veterinary Medical Service Act and they see the value of legislative activities. They're excited about mentoring and they certainly are aware of NCVEI. But truly, when I've asked them what their concerns are, the most common answer is their test tomorrow. Their biggest immediate concern is the short term for the moment; how do they get through school, how do they do well, and how do they get their work done?

How have students changed since you studied at the University of Minnesota in the late 1970s?

Students are more mature, more educated as undergraduates, more assertive in getting as good an educational experience as they can get, and live in a whole new digital and electronic age. I'm amazed at how appreciative they are to be part of this profession. On the flip side, they are much deeper in debt than I ever was and face greater expectations by their employers.

Why are women and minorities underrepresented in key leadership positions within the AVMA, specifically on the Executive Board, House Advisory Committee, and House of Delegates? Does the AVMA do enough to promote diversity at leadership levels?

I'm sure it bothers women and it's certainly a perception of the membership, there's no question about that. My feeling is the opportunity is there if you want it; maybe I'm being naïve. I'm not somebody who believes in ethnic or gender quotas. I've never been a fan of that. Over the last 10 years that I've been involved with the AVMA leadership in the House of Delegates, I feel there's been a dramatic change in the involvement and reception of recent graduates participating in the AVMA.

The student population is gradually—albeit, very gradually—becoming more diverse. Part of getting a more diverse leadership is getting a more diverse population of applicants and students accepted into veterinary school. To me, I want to know why more minorities aren't applying to veterinary school.

I truly feel the opportunity is there for those who are willing to seek it out and accept the challenge when it's presented to them. I feel the AVMA is open to that; they welcome input and participation from all members, regardless of ethnicity or gender. All members of AVMA leadership have always treated me respectfully and invited my participation.

Maybe one reason there are so few minorities and women in leadership positions is there are so few role models. You need someone to nudge you; I've needed someone to say, "You'll be good at that, René." I don't know if I'd have gotten involved without someone asking me specifically. But sometimes, to be asked, other leaders need to know who you are. That comes from participation at some level, and constructively expressing your opinions.

Other subjects you'd like to speak about?

I believe in the importance of maintaining the integrity and quality of our veterinary medical education system and preparation for licensing (through certification) with the Educational Commission for Foreign Veterinary Graduates. I totally support making it as good a system as we can make it, but maintaining the high standards. Also, I'm convinced that the most important thing we can do in our profession, other than our own business of veterinary medicine, is to be legislatively aware and active. If I can encourage students in their continued involvement in that arena, that would be very important for all of us.