Dr. Grace Bransford's second year as AVMA vice president will look a lot different than the first.
The AVMA Board of Directors in July voted to make the office more strategic in its outreach to veterinary schools and include recent graduates in those efforts.
Dr. Bransford spoke to JAVMA News about what the revamped position looks like and what students are telling her during her school visits. The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. What changes were made to the office of AVMA vice president?
A. I had the good fortune to be a member of the AVMA School Engagement Optimization Committee, made up of both volunteer leadership and staff members. We spent months reviewing data, feedback, and projections and came up with a plan that focuses the AVMA vice president's work on veterinary student leadership at the national level and builds stronger relationships with school deans and faculty.
There are now 37 veterinary schools with Student AVMA chapters … . Were the 'visit all schools' travel expectation to remain, we would find our only candidates for vice president are retired or only work part time.
AVMA Vice President Grace Bransford
That plan designates the vice president as the Board's liaison to the Student AVMA Executive Board and SAVMA House of Delegates. Key AVMA staff liaisons to the SAVMA student chapters are Student Initiatives Team members Drs. Derrick Hall, Caroline Cantner, and Anna Reddish.
Finally, the vice president will be the AVMA liaison to the deans and faculty of the veterinary schools. One important responsibility is identifying ways the AVMA can support veterinary faculty.
Q. How do these changes affect school visits?
A. As there are now 37 veterinary schools with Student AVMA chapters, it has become extremely difficult for a vice president with a full-time job to visit all schools during the two-year term. Were the "visit all schools" travel expectation to remain, we would find our only candidates for vice president are retired or only work part time. The expectation to visit every school is neither in the AVMA Bylaws nor stated in any AVMA policy.
This summer, I met with AVMA's Student Initiatives Team, and we came up with a list of several schools for me to visit during my final year as vice president. Many of these are newer schools, schools that were undergoing changes, and schools that need a visit from the AVMA vice president.
Q. What's your message to students?
A. One key message is to let students know about AVMA's expansive efforts of support in the areas of educational debt, well-being, and career planning. It was not that long ago that those were areas that were critical to me as I planned the road ahead after completing veterinary school. I also let students know that their concerns and worries, as well as many of their dreams, are shared by veterinary students across the country and around the world.
Q. What are you hearing from students?
A. I am hearing concerns about the level of educational debt and questions on how they might manage it along with planning to raise a family and purchase a home. I am also hearing about some very creative and innovative plans for their careers. Although clinical medicine is still the mainstay, many students are considering work in public health, nongovernmental organizations, and politics or industry.
Q. Are educational debt and starting salaries still a top concern?
A. I would say I hear a little less buzz over the concern regarding starting salaries. Unemployment for veterinarians is at 0.5%, while the overall national unemployment rate hovers around 3%. That is good news for graduating students searching for their first job. On the other hand, while the current average starting salary is twice what it was when I graduated in 1998, the current average student debt figure is four times higher. AVMA needs to continue to collaborate with all entities available to help our graduating students.
Q. What about well-being?
A. Another full-court press issue. Educational debt and well-being are inextricably linked. A lot of well-being issues stem from concerns about debt and a student's future. I think if we could wave a magic wand and eliminate all veterinary educational debt, we would see concerns over depression and suicide among veterinary students and veterinarians decrease a notch. There are multiple reasons why veterinary students and veterinarians deal with depression and anxiety, but debt often plays a major factor.
Q. Overall, what is students' impression of the AVMA?
A. It is very positive. I think we have done a good job of letting students know that AVMA is working hard to address the issues that are of concern to them. The website My Veterinary Life has been a very successful tool providing support for veterinary students. Its emphasis on debt and finances, well-being, and career planning means it is a valuable tool in helping students and recent graduates deal with the challenges they face. I believe they know that AVMA is here for them.
Q. Did you learn anything during your first year as vice president that surprised you?
A. That something that could be so different could be so similar. What I mean by that is that each veterinary school is so distinctive. Its geography, the make-up of its students, and areas of clinical excellence are distinctive. What is so similar are the issues the students, deans, and faculty face and the solutions they create. There will be great benefit in sharing those solutions and realizing we are not alone and we are all in this together.
Q. How do you hope students will remember you?
A. I hope they will remember that I am doing my best to be a good listener and to be empathetic to their concerns. I remember when I was a veterinary student talking to the AVMA vice president at that time, Dr. Allen Miyahara, that he really listened. I knew that what I had to say would be taken to AVMA headquarters. He later became a valuable mentor and reinforced that to me as I worked my way up the ladder of AVMA volunteer leadership.
Q. Is there anything else you would like to share?
A. I have been told by several previous AVMA vice presidents that this is one of the best positions, if not the best position, in AVMA volunteer leadership. This comes from a number of folks who made their way up to AVMA president. I have to agree. To work with and help support the future of our profession—the students and those who develop them, the faculty—is a tremendous thing.