One of the reasons people choose Cornell for veterinary school is that Cornell claims that students have an earlier opportunity for practical experience than they would at many other schools. This is true — I know that there are at least a few schools where dealing with animals is not an essential part of the curriculum until students enter clinical rotations in their final two years (most vet schools are set up so that students are in lectures / labs for the first two years and rotating through the different departments in the hospital for roughly the last two years) and here we have the chance to start working with animals from day one. We learn how to do physical exams on all kinds of species at the same time as we learn about their anatomy, so we will really be able to apply our theoretical knowledge in a practical setting. In this block of classes that has just started after spring break, we’re going to have the chance to practice specific clinical skills on different species.
That being said, I’ve always been a proponent of the practice makes perfect mentality, and I had anticipated that vet school would involve a lot of practice. I am also continually impressed by how confident the third and fourth years seem to be in dealing with their patients and I assumed that this confidence was something they picked up in the first two years of vet school. What I’m coming to realize is that this confidence is not something that they necessarily picked up in a strictly academic setting. While it’s true that we get a lot of hands on experience before clinics, “a lot” is relative and really means that we get to practice routine procedures at most a handful of times. Although this is a handful more than at many other schools, it still doesn’t seem enough to me to create the level of confidence and skill that I want to have before entering clinics.
What it really comes down to is that we have to take advantage of the tons of extracurricular activities offered to us — I think that these are the things that give us the practice and self-assuredness that I’ve admired in the upperclassmen. I’m used to prioritizing extracurriculars below academics, but I’m starting to think that in vet school, they should be on slightly more even footing. The multitudes of opportunities provided to us are not only fun and interesting, but also incredibly valuable practice. For example, there’s a community healthy pet clinic that the vet school participates in twice a month. Owners bring their pets in, and for $20 they get routine shots, a physical exam, parasite preventatives and other routine maintenance. The clinic is primarily staffed by students (who have completed the first block of classes in which we learn anatomy and how to do physical exams) with a few veterinarians from Cornell and the surrounding area on hand to offer help when needed. I participated in a clinic last November, and found it to be exhilarating and motivating and my comfort level interacting with clients and their animals skyrocketed.
In the same vein, underclassmen are encouraged to volunteer (for fun or for credit) in the Community Practice Service at Cornell’s hospital. Here, the third and fourth years are the primary clinicians, but the first and second years are the ones who get to greet the client and take a detailed history that we then present to the upperclassmen. There are also several jobs in the hospital that we can take advantage of, and wet labs run on a regular basis by the student clubs. For example, last weekend I participated in the large animal symposium which was put together by several of the student clubs, who had invited guest speakers for one of the days and then divided the other day up into a series of labs. Doctors in the hospital had volunteered their time to teach us specific techniques and then supervised as we practiced some of them.
As the year has gone by I’ve learned how to manage my studying so that I have enough time to do the activities I find most interesting (until it’s around two weeks before an exam, and then the studying takes over completely). I should emphasize that besides being good practice, all of the extracurriculars are a lot of fun and always help me refocus myself so that I remember why I’m studying so much and get excited about vet school all over again. All that being said, I’m just a first year — maybe I’ve got it all wrong and Cornell is a magical place where the upperclassmen have just learned how to do things by intuition and didn’t need any practice at all. I’ll report back when I get there, but right now I think I’ve learned that vet school itself is just a place where we learn all of the information we’re going to need to use in the future, but it’s taking advantage of the activities that aren’t formally part of the curriculum that really gives us the skills to succeed.
Nikhita Parandekar graduated from Cornell in 2011 and is a first-year veterinary student in the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. She may be reached at email@example.com. Hoof in Mouth appears alternate Fridays this semester.