Tuskegee's diversity legacy continues today

Historic black college graduates the lion's share of minority veterinarians
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SPECIAL ISSUE: DIVERSITY | Additional photos from this issue are available here. See a timeline charting milestones in diversity.

The Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine stands apart as a leader in promoting underrepresented minorities in veterinary medicine.

With the matriculation in 1945 of its inaugural class of 13 African-American students—including Alfreda J. Webb, the nation's first black female DVM—the small Alabama school established itself as a beacon for minority students in the United States and abroad wanting to pursue a career in veterinary medicine.

That legacy of championing diversity within a mostly homogenous profession continues today, with approximately 50 percent of the nation's African-American veterinarians having graduated from Tuskegee's School of Veterinary Medicine.

The Tuskegee veterinary school was founded at a time when black Americans faced enormous social and economic hurdles, especially in the South. It is estimated that no more than a half dozen black veterinarians worked in the region during the mid-1940s. Minorities who wanted a veterinary education attended colleges outside the South.

Members of the '49 and '50 classes of Tuskegee University SVM
Members of the '49 and '50 classes of Tuskegee University School of Veterinary Medicine, including Dr. Alfreda J. Webb (seated), the nation's first black female veterinarian, and Dr. Saul T. Wilson (back row, far left)

Born and raised in rural Alabama, Dr. Saul T. Wilson had never met a black veterinarian before enrolling at Tuskegee. "I did not know any existed. I had never seen one," he recalled. Dr. Wilson was among the second class of Tuskegee veterinary school graduates. During his esteemed career, the octogenarian worked with the Department of Agriculture, which has named a scholarship after him, as well as in academia and is currently professor emeritus at Tuskegee.

Drs. Frederick D. Patterson and E.B. Evans, both of whom earned their DVM degrees at Iowa State University, established the Tuskegee veterinary school to provide Southern blacks with professional training closer to home. Dr. Evans was the first dean of Tuskegee's veterinary school, which received probationary accreditation from the AVMA Council on Education in May 1949 and earned full accreditation in 1954.

Today, the once all-black school is itself more inclusive, and students representing an array of races, ethnicities, and nationalities have graduated from the institution. "You go to any veterinary school and you won't see such diversity. It has been a blessing and a strength for us," said Dr. Tsegaye Habtemariam, dean of the Tuskegee SVM.

Second-year veterinary student Ashley Sullivan, who is white, received her undergraduate degree from a college with little diversity. That experience left Sullivan wanting, so she enrolled at Tuskegee with a hope that the experience would make her a "better, well-rounded person" while also giving her a leg up in her career.

"When you're in practice, there's not going to be one type of person who comes to see you. So you want to experience different backgrounds to prepare you for a broad client base," Sullivan explained.

Graduates of Tuskegee's four-year veterinary program have gone on to distinguished careers in academia, government, the military, and industry; one has even held the office of deputy prime minister in Guyana.

Most veterinary institutions will accept a small number of the highest-achieving African-American applicants, according to Dean Habtemariam. The challenge to the veterinary educational community, he said, is providing opportunities to those other students—the ones who don't necessarily have the grades but show potential, nonetheless.

Each summer at Tuskegee, for example, up to 30 undergraduates who don't meet the veterinary school's academic requirements can enroll in an intensive program featuring instruction on topics ranging from anatomy to internal medicine. At the end of the program the students are tested, and the top 10 scorers are accepted into the school.

"We do not believe that grades are the only thing that actually determines the best veterinarians," Dean Habtemariam explained. "For us, the challenge is to select the highly motivated, mature, and passionate students to come here, and to work with them by providing them a supportive environment."

Additionally, the school is working with the university's College of Agriculture, Environmental, and Natural Sciences on developing online courses for preveterinary students about nutrition and animal and poultry sciences. "Students coming from urban areas typically have not had an opportunity to take these courses, and that's an issue across the board for veterinary schools," said Dr. Ruby L. Perry, associate dean for academic affairs.

Dr. Perry, whose job "is to make sure students are excelling and that we're giving them the kind of support they need," said the school recently launched a mentorship program, matching students with alumni. "That person is responsible for assisting with keeping that student on target, academically and career-wise," she explained.

Small class sizes foster camaraderie among students and allow for personal attention from faculty. "I was accepted so good down here, and I got along with everyone in the class," said Justin Lee, a second-year student. "All the professors know you by name."

Joe Owens
Second-year veterinary student Joe Owens, who is following in the footsteps of his mother, a Tuskegee veterinary school alumnus, didn't want to be the "token black guy" at another veterinary school. "I felt more comfortable at Tuskegee," Owens said.

Tuskegee isn't focused solely on its legacy. Rather, university officials had the foresight early on to recognize the relationship between human and animal health, and in 1996 the veterinary school merged with the university's two human medical institutions to form the College of Veterinary Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health.

That focus on one medicine was a reason Cesar Fermin, PhD, came to Tuskegee from Tulane University School of Medicine three years ago. "We are one of the few institutions that have human and animal health under one roof," said Dr. Fermin, who is associate dean of research and advanced studies.

Although Tuskegee has one of the smaller U.S. veterinary schools, students still receive a top-notch veterinary education on account of a dedicated faculty, according to Dr. Fermin. "At Tuskegee, each member of the faculty does the job of about 10 people. Faculty comes here for a very specific reason: to continue the mission and legacy of the founders. If you're not willing to do that, you're going to be disappointed and terribly overworked, because you have to do with what you have," he said.

Dr. Hani Korani, a surgery instructor in the school's Small Animal Hospital since 2007, was drawn to Tuskegee because of its commitment to inclusiveness. The Cairo University graduate believes working alongside people of various races and ethnicities is a valuable component of the learning experience.

"When you leave school, you have to deal with a lot of personalities—different people from different backgrounds," Dr. Korani said. "Here, you get the experience of dealing with everybody."

One of the challenges facing Tuskegee's minority graduates is overcoming the perception that they lack the skills and proficiency of their white counterparts, according to Dean Habtemariam. "I know this myself. You have to be several times better to be considered average, because the expectations are so unbalanced," he said. "Whether we like it or not, that's the reality. When we do well, we have to do well over and over again just to be considered average."

Third-year student Lauren Rowe believes she and other minorities have a dual responsibility after graduation. Not only must they deliver high-quality veterinary services, they must also be ambassadors of the profession. "We serve as role models, especially to younger kids, who need to see someone like themselves in the profession to know that it's possible," she explained.

Rowe, who has wanted to be a veterinarian since childhood, believes veterinary colleges and associations can promote diversity without sacrificing competence. Dean Habtemariam went further, saying there is "an ethical and moral responsibility" to make the veterinary profession more inclusive. He referred to Tuskegee data showing African-Americans represented approximately 2 percent of the overall veterinary population, while the percentages of Asian- and Hispanic-American veterinarians climbed.

"In 20 years, when you can not make a difference beyond 2 percent, there's a problem," Dean Habtemariam said. So what can be done? "Commitment to diversity is key," he said. "A commitment of truly saying, 'We will do it.' And then make it happen."