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Survey finds veterinary colleges generally supportive of student diversity
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IllustrationMost minority veterinary students say they experience a high degree of support from college faculty, staff, and fellow students.

That's according to a survey by the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges assessing the comfort levels of veterinary students from minority groups, including racial and ethnic minorities, those with impairments or disabilities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students.

A total of 5,268 students from all 28 U.S. veterinary colleges participated in the 50-question campus climate survey distributed in 2011, for a response rate of 48.1 percent of total student enrollment. Key findings were presented at the AAVMC Annual Conference March 10 and during the Student AVMA Symposium at Purdue University a week later. The veterinary college deans were provided with survey data relating to their individual institutions.

The research suggests veterinary academic institutions are generally succeeding at fostering a climate of inclusiveness on their campuses. Approximately two-thirds of survey respondents said minority veterinary students receive high to very high levels of support from their veterinary colleges and communities. Almost all students also reported being either very comfortable or comfortable with others of a different race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion.

Additionally, a low incidence of harassment and negative comments by faculty, staff, and other students were reported.

"Overall, the results are good. We are doing something right when it comes to creating positive learning environments on our campuses," said Lisa Greenhill, AAVMC associate executive director for institutional research and diversity.

We are doing something right when it comes to creating positive learning environments on our campuses.

Lisa Greenhill, associate executive director for institutional research and diversity, Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges

Racial and ethnic minorities comprised 12.9 percent of total student enrollment at U.S. veterinary colleges in 2011, according to the AAVMC.

Lisa Greenhill, AAVMC
Lisa Greenhill of the AAVMC shares findings from the campus climate survey during the Student AVMA Symposium at Purdue University in March. (Photo by R. Scott Nolen

Notably, the association's study provides the first quantitative data on the size of the LGBT veterinary student population. About 6.5 percent of respondents identified themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, or questioning their sexuality, with another 0.5 percent saying they are transgender.

A. Nikki Wright, the Lesbian and Gay VMA student representative at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, considers this particular finding "profound." For Wright, the data legitimize an often marginalized portion of the veterinary student population whose members may feel compelled to hide their sexual identity.

"Many people expressed their feeling that this number may be under-representative of the actual population, and this is furthered by the observation that 81 percent of students reported knowledge of 'out' faculty, staff, or students," said Wright, who is also the Penn delegate to the Student AVMA.

The AAVMC climate survey did identify areas for concern, however. Veterinary students were queried about the frequency of intolerant language on campuses and whether students experience harassment at the colleges. Results show fellow veterinary students were more likely than college faculty or staff to make racist, sexist, or homophobic remarks on campus.

Just more than 21 percent of female students and 23 percent of transgender students indicated hearing faculty making sexist comments occasionally to very frequently. Nearly a third of racial and ethnic minority students reported hearing racist comments from student colleagues occasionally to very frequently. More than 20 percent of LGBT veterinary students reported hearing homophobic comments from student colleagues occasionally to very frequently.

"There aren't a lot of reported racist, sexist, or homophobic remarks or behaviors, but there are some findings that merit further study," said co-researcher Dr. K. Paige Carmichael, associate dean for academic affairs and a professor at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine.

"This is a snapshot that begs for additional research and educational programming."

Fourteen percent of all respondents reported experiencing some form of harassment. Of those, 76 percent said it had happened on campus, most often in a common area with the classroom the next most likely place.

Approximately 58 percent of students thought their institutions were not overly sensitive to, or accommodating of, minority groups, and nearly 22 percent said they were.

A little more than 35 percent of students reported not having a faculty or staff member in whom to confide. These numbers were higher for lesbian, gay, and bisexual students—42.4 percent—and for transgender students—52.4 percent. Less than 3 percent of all respondents reported having no supportive group of friends or acquaintances on campus.

"The data don't reveal why these students do not connect with faculty or staff in this way like their student colleagues," Greenhill commented. "LGBT students may not be 'out' or feel as safe with faculty and staff for some reason."

Lesbian and Gay VMA Executive Secretary Ken Gorczyca says the AAVMC climate survey "finally opens the closet door" for LGBT veterinary students.

When Dr. Gorczyca discovered he was a gay man in the early 1980s while attending the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, he worried his sexuality would hurt his veterinary career.

"There were no role models at my veterinary school. There was no support from organized veterinary medicine," Dr. Gorczyca recalled.

Today, the retired private practitioner still sometimes finds those same fears when he speaks with LGBT veterinary students, and yet, he also recognizes greater acceptance of sexually diverse students on veterinary campuses. Dr. Gorczyca attributes this to a shift in generational attitudes and student-driven initiatives promoting LGBT tolerance and acceptance on campus. These include a small but growing number of LGBT veterinary college clubs and the recently formed Broad Spectrum Veterinary Student Association, a national organization whose members identify anywhere on the spectrum of gender identity and sexual orientation.

Like Dr. Carmichael, Greenhill says the climate survey findings raise new questions that warrant further investigation.

"(T)here are pockets of information and bits and pieces that cause us to raise our eyebrows and ask why," Greenhill said.

The AAVMC will begin the work of answering some of those questions later this year with a follow-up study of LGBT experiences at U.S. veterinary colleges.