SAVMA panel talks about shared responsibility of diversity, equity, inclusion

Survey results from SAVMA diversity committee inform recommendations to veterinary school administrations

Story and photo by Coco Lederhouse

One of the most relevant issues to veterinary students today is diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). The topic was covered extensively at the 2023 Student AVMA (SAVMA) Symposium, hosted by the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. Nearly 700 veterinary students attended the event from March 17-19.

Latonia Craig, EdD, chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer for the AVMA, said a lot of historical changes have happened because of student leadership on university campuses. Craig spoke to a room of students at the symposium’s “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in Education” panel on March 17.

The panel discussed what DEI efforts and initiatives are taking place in veterinary education and what veterinary colleges are working towards for the future. Students were encouraged to share their own experiences and ask questions of the panel members.

In addition to Craig, panelists included Dr. Tina Tran, associate professor of practice and clinical relations lead veterinarian at the University of Arizona, and Dr. Anne Barger, department head of veterinary clinical medicine at Illinois’s veterinary college.

DEI panel
Latonia Craig (center), chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer for the AVMA; Dr. Tina Tran (right), associate professor of practice and clinical relations lead veterinarian at the University of Arizona; and Dr. Anne Barger (left), department head of veterinary clinical medicine at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine present on a diversity, equity, and inclusion panel at the 2023 Student AVMA (SAVMA) Symposium.

Shared responsibility

Before working at the AVMA, Craig served as assistant dean for inclusive excellence at Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine, where she fostered collaborations and allyship among groups.

“I think we all have a responsibility to incorporate DEI,” Craig said.

Dr. Barger said veterinary medicine has come a long way in the last 10 years, but there’s still a long way to go.

“We can do more, it’s just a matter of changing minds, and one way to change minds is require it and evaluate our curriculum,” Dr. Barger said. The AVMA Council on Education has done so by revising its Standards of Accreditation that require, among other things, veterinary students receive diversity training.

Dr. Tran agreed, “As a faculty we have to be more innovative in how we start to integrate DEI into core curriculum.”

She said that for well-established veterinary curriculum, it can be difficult to put in new topics such as DEI, and they may be pushed into an elective category.

Despite the challenges, Dr. Tran views DEI as “a foundational piece of what it requires to be a veterinarian.”

Establishing culture

Dr. Barger explained that the veterinary college at Illinois is putting a lot of emphasis on increasing diversity in its student population, but students need to see diversity represented among veterinary professionals as well.

“It’s wonderful that you increase diversity in your student population but what do you have in place to support them?” Dr. Barger asked.

Craig emphasized that promoting a positive culture is the responsibility of everyone. Even if a school has no director or assistant dean of diversity in place, there are ways that schools can provide support to students through active listening, documenting their concerns, and sharing with designated staff responsible for leading student support initiatives.

Dr. Tran said faculty have a responsibility to make sure that they’re contributing to environments where students “will thrive and grow and where they will feel supported.” As a member of the LGBTQ community, Dr. Barger wants to create safe spaces for students to feel free to be themselves.

“Take who you are and don’t be afraid to share who you are with the world, and people will be better because of it,” Dr. Barger said.

Managing relationships

Craig recognized that there can be resistance from people who may serve as barriers to building DEI support. In these situations, building allies through meaningful relationships can hold great importance.

Dr. Tran explained that when managing relationships with different parties, it’s important to understand their perspectives and try to start with one-on-one conversations to learn about their experiences.

“That is one of the big takeaways from our administration is having an open line of communication,” she said.

Craig said staying patient and being persistent is the key to taking ownership of your professional growth in diversity education. 

“There’s a learning process we’re all going through and we have to keep each other accountable,” Craig said. “The thing that should always be your guide is your own value system.”

SAVMA DEI survey

During the summer of 2021, the SAVMA Integrative Communications and Diversity Committee (ICDC) sent out a survey to better understand student experiences regarding DEI. The survey asked, for example, if students experienced discrimination and how it impacted them personally and academically. The goal was to determine what kind of culture was being created at veterinary schools and use the results to inform conversations within SAVMA chapters and with school administration.

Some of the recommendations from the survey are as follows:

  • DEI information should be built into the curriculum to create recurring exposure of topics to students.
  • Veterinary school administration should create safe spaces for students, including administration-hosted DEI events and training faculty on DEI.
  • Create a dedicated DEI administrative position if it doesn’t already exist.
  • Each veterinary school should plan recurring DEI exposure throughout the year outside of class.
  • Veterinary faculty and veterinary students should use AVMA’s Brave Space training.