Veterinary Volunteering Abroad in Thailand and Vietnam

Meeting Kasetsart University’s Biggest Patient – an Asian Elephant

During the summer of 2019, I was honored to represent The United States vet schools at the ASEAN Veterinary Volunteer Project in Thailand and Vietnam. This project, which was facilitated by Kasetsart University, the largest university in Thailand, brought together around 50 veterinary students from over 14 countries to accomplish veterinary volunteer work in under-served communities and build relationships among veterinary students around the world.

Welcome ceremony at Kasetsart University

After landing in Bangkok, Thailand, we settled into our dorms and headed to Kasetsart University’s campus. At the welcome ceremony, students from each country presented a challenge facing their veterinary community. These ranged from the topics of African Swine Fever in Vietnam, veterinary waste in Cambodia, and lack of rural veterinarians in France. As for my topic, I chose to present about the student debt-to-income ratio facing many students because it is quite unique to The United States – most of the other students at the volunteer project attend school for 6 years and it is much more affordable. After touring Kasetsart University’s veterinary hospital, we were assigned our independent research projects – my group was to assess athelmintic resistance of Haemonchus in rural goat herds in Thailand and study rabies awareness in Vietnam.

An elephant skeleton at Kasetsart University

After getting to know the other students in the volunteer program, we split into smaller groups and were shipped off to separate rural communities in need. For the next week we would be staying in Buddhist temples, which were the centers of these villages.

The Buddhist temple where we conducted our volunteering in Thailand

We converted these Buddhist temples to a makeshift hospitals and dormitories. We slept on the wooden floors covered with mosquito netting and set up metal tables for animal physical exams. Bathrooms consisted of holes in the floor and showers were simply a faucet and a large bucket. Although we had no air conditioning in the middle of the hot and rainy season, I was ecstatic to be surrounded by new friends and improving the healthcare of animals.

Team “selfie” after working hard to plant trees in the local Thailand village

As a group, we did much more than simple veterinary work. Not only were we helping the communities with animal healthcare, but we also strived to improve the environment as well. We planted trees along a river that will one day provide fruit in addition to homes for future wildlife.

Vaccinating dogs in the local village for rabies

During part of our stay, we split into small groups and surveyed the communities, going door-to-door and offering free rabies vaccinations for dogs and cats. In addition, we educated children at the local school about the dangers of rabies and the importance of vaccinating their pets. All in all, we vaccinated over 500 animals in just a few days.

Group picture with the local villagers and their goat herd

In addition to small animal medicine, we worked with local villagers to improve food animal health. For many of the members in these communities, their herds are their main sources of income and food. During this time, we went from farm to farm vaccinating goats and cattle for foot-and-mouth disease, a virus that causes blisters on the hooves and mouths of these animals which causes serious concerns for livestock. In addition to vaccination, we analyzed their fecal samples for parasites, dewormed them with parasiticides, and took blood samples for brucellosis testing.

Taking blood samples for Brucellosis testing in rural goat herds.

The last two days in our rural villages consisted of cat and dog desexing. Many of these animals were either strays or community dogs that roamed the streets, while some belonged to households. Before starting the procedures, we practiced physical exams on all the animals. Once we deemed they were good candidates for anesthesia, we premedicated them and prepped them for surgery.

All surgeries were performed in a mobile surgery truck.

During the procedures, we maintained the animals on total intravenous anesthesia (TIVA), which was much different than using gas anesthesia I had practiced with back home. Although I had assisted with spays and neuters before and performed them on cadavers, I had never completed one on my own.

Taking vitals before castration surgery

With the supervision of multiple veterinarians, I performed my first spay and neuter. I was so thankful for the education I received at A&M because I had a head-start on suturing – many of my fellow students were performing their first sutures on live animals, and I was lucky to have built up confidence with this skill on models in the past.

Performing my first neuter

After performing the spays and neuters, we monitored our patients throughout their recovery. All together, we spayed and neutered over 150 animals free-of-charge for the local communities. Not only will these procedures help prevent stray overpopulation, but they help protect the pets from future illnesses.

Transporting a patient to the recovery room after a neuter

During our stay we encountered some animals with pyometra (a bacterial infection of the uterus), which left untreated – highly likely due to the lack of veterinary care in the area – is usually fatal. Even more, by spaying and neutering the animals, we decreased their change of developing certain types of cancer and many other illnesses.

Performing fecal flotation testing for Haemonchus parasites in goats

Finally it was time to analyze the goat fecal samples for Haemonchus, a dangerous intestinal parasite. To do this, we used the McMaster fecal egg-count method, in which we were able to determine the amount of parasite eggs per gram of feces by looking at samples under a microscope. We processed over 200 samples and collected data that will help with research and determining if Haemonchus parasites in the area have developed resistance to Albendazole. After analyzing all of the fecal samples, we determined that there was a 92% prevalence rate among the goats in the villages.

Holding a baby goat after a long day of volunteering

We also collected data on the farmers’ awareness of caprine parasites. We developed a questionnaire with basic questions about how their animals may become infected and what measures they used for prevention. After analyzing the responses, we determined that many farmers were not aware of the proper use and dosages of their dewormer medications. Unfortunately this may lead to increased resistance of nematode parasites to dewormers, which may explain why some goats were heavily infected.

Handling a goat during foot-and-mouth disease vaccinations and deworming

One thing I loved about this program was the variety of experiences we received. As someone who grew up in a suburban area, I had very little experience with farm animals. Through this program, I was able to learn how to handle livestock such as goats and cattle and practice my clinical skills with these animals. Before this program, I had never drawn blood from a goat before, but now I can say that I’ve practiced that skill over 200 times. Even more, we weren’t limited to domestic species – at the end of our stay in Thailand, we got to tour Kasetsart University’s exotic ward and raptor center.

Main entrance to the Kasetsart University Raptor Unit

The Kasetsart University Raptor Center is integral to the conservation of birds of prey in Thailand. In the past, people used to hunt owls because they were seen as “bad omens” but due to the raptor center’s education and conservation efforts, farmers are now installing owl nest boxes in order to attract them and use them for rodent control.

Learning raptor handling and medicine at Kasetsart Raptor Center

After touring the facility, the veterinarians at the center graciously walked us through bird of prey handling and medical techniques. As someone who wishes to specialize in exotic medicine in the future, I was thrilled to practice administering injections, drawing blood, and placing splints on raptors in need of care.

Learning how to tube-feed birds of prey at the Kasetsart Raptor Center

After learning about bird of prey medicine, we then split into small groups to install owl nest boxes around the campus. One thing I was intrigued to find out about is that without a suitable nesting area, many owls will fail to pair up and reproduce. By increasing the number of nest boxes in an area, we hope to try and boost owl numbers back to what they once were.

A sampling of traditional Thai food during our last night in Thailand

One of my favorite things about the volunteer program was that it encouraged us to immerse ourselves in the Thai culture. As an adventurous eater, I enthusiastically tried every delicacy I was offered, whether it be fried crickets, fertilized chicken eggs, or stew with the entire fish thrown in. Many of the dishes were very spicy, which I loved, but it definitely wasn’t easy for everyone, especially some of the western students.

Rambutan, a sweet tropical fruit with soft hair-like spikes
Durian fruit has a strong odor, which has caused it to be banned in some public areas

Instead of sweet breakfasts that are staples in The United States, we would typically eat spicy pork and rice for breakfast. Although it was different, I felt like I was in heaven eating authentic Thai food for every meal. I was excited to try fruits that I had never imagined existed – many of them looked foreign to me but all of them tasted amazing.

The largest Buddha statue we visited in Thailand

Luckily we were able to take a few breaks from our medical work to learn about Thai culture. While working with the other Thai students, I would ask them about their Buddhist holidays and they would tell me stories about growing up in Thailand. We were able to travel to museums that displayed artifacts from hundreds of years ago and visit sacred temples with golden statues of Buddha taller than a two-story house.

Nong Lam University in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Soon our time was over in Thailand and we were off on our journey to Vietnam. We landed in Ho Chi Minh City and arrived at Nong Lam University, where we were welcomed by vet students from the school. After a short welcome ceremony and a morning full of lectures, we headed out to volunteer and plant trees with high school students in the local community.

Planting trees in the local Vietnamese Community

After spending a few days in Ho Chi Minh City, we once again split off into our smaller groups and left for the rural communities. Once we arrived in these villages, we readied our supplies and set off on our mopeds, zooming from one local farm to the next.

Vaccinating a herd of cows in a Vietnamese Village

In these rural Vietnamese villages, many families raise their own livestock, including chickens, goats, pigs, and cattle. Although many of these practices were different from what I’ve seen in the United States, I was excited to learn about lifestyles and practices in a culture different from my own.

My team in front of a herd of cattle that we just vaccinated

With each new household that we arrived at, we were often greeted with warm smiles and hot tea. The Vietnamese veterinary students usually translated our conversations with the villagers, but sometimes young children would walk up to me and shyly squeak out a “hello!” before running back behind their parents.

Working with dairy cows in a rural village

Similar to our volunteer work in Thailand, we vaccinated cattle for foot-and-mouth disease, gave them deworming medicine, and took blood samples for brucellosis testing. The skill of the Vietnamese vet students were impressive – at times I felt like I was at a Texas rodeo watching them rope and catch the cattle.

My small research group conducting rabies research in Vietnam

Once we were finished with our large animal work, we switched gears to start working with small animals. Over the next few days, we vaccinated dogs and cats throughout the village and spread helpful information about the importance of rabies prevention.

Taking a break and getting to know our puppy patients

My group’s next research project was more epidemiology focused and assessed the rural village’s knowledge and awareness of rabies. Unfortunately in Vietnam, rabid dogs are the leading cause of rabies infections in humans. Although progress is being made to combat the disease prevalence, there is still work to be done to educate the public about the dangers of rabies and increase vaccinations among dogs in the area.

Speaking with local villagers about the dangers of Rabies

After developing a questionnaire, we went from house-to-house asking villagers what they knew about rabies, how they thought it was transmitted, whether their pets were vaccinated, and what they would do if they were bitten by a suspicious animal.

Vaccinating local dogs and cats in the village

While most had proper knowledge of rabies and responded that they vaccinate their dogs, there were still a few others that believed in outdated and unscientific practices such as “rubbing rhino skin into the bite wound.” Others admitted that in the past, children had died from rabies bites because they either did not know the severity of consequences or were afraid to tell their parents. From this we determined that more education is needed to further combat rabies in the area.

Crawling through the tunnels of Cu Chi which were used during the Vietnam War
Cu Chi Tunnel entrance – once the lid was sealed, the entrance was practically invisible

We were lucky enough to learn some history when we were not volunteering. On one rest day, we took a trip to Cu Chi tunnels, which were a network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam war. I was astonished to find out that people lived in these tunnel systems for years – especially since many of tunnels were too shallow to stand in and some were almost too small for me to fit through. We also paid our respects at the Ben Duoc Temple, which commemorates the lives lost during the Vietnam War.

Walking up to the Ben Duoc Temple

We also had a chance to visit Ho Chi Minh City before we left – my favorite part was the night market, where they would close off multiple streets and vendors would set up cart displays of traditional food and souvenirs.

Walking down the street by one of the night markets

Finally, our three weeks together was up and it was time to say goodbye. We attended a farewell ceremony where we ate traditional Vietnamese dishes and our groups received recognition for their work. After hours of singing, dancing, and a little bit of happy-crying, we wished our new friends safe travels back home. As I took my taxi back to the Ho Chi Minh airport, I couldn’t help but smile thinking of all the fond memories I made with my veterinary student friends from around the world.

Learning about the local culture in Thailand

How To Make a Bioactive Terrarium

What is a bioactive terrarium?

A bioactive terrarium is set up to replicate a reptile’s natural ecosystem, in which waste material is broken down by specialized organisms and recycled into food for the plants. Once functioning, bioactive enclosures rarely need cleaning out.

Is a bioactive terrarium right for me?

I believe that bioactive terrariums can be great for anyone who’s wanting to add a little life to their reptile’s enclosure. As I’ll discuss later, it’s perfect for lazy people like me who hate cleaning since there’s very little upkeep involved after the initial set up. If you’re squeamish around bugs, it may not be for you, but hopefully you’re past that point if you’re caring for a reptile.

Freshly shed snakeskin
Snakeskin 12 hours after being left in a bioactive enclosure

Bioactive terrarium pros

  • Little to no cleaning
  • No feces to pick up = no smell
  • Encourages instinctive behaviors such as burrowing and hunting
  • More naturalistic appearance
  • Plants and natural substrate holds in humidity
  • Soft substrate is easier on reptile’s joints than paper towels

Bioactive terrarium cons

  • May be costly to set up
  • Potential for pests/unwanted bugs
  • Cannot be sterilized – not suitable for ill pets or those in quarantine

How to set up a bioactive terrarium


  • Tank
  • Drainage Layer
  • Substrate
  • Wood, ledges, and hides
  • Plants
  • Clean-Up Crew

Step 1: Choosing the correct tank

Depending on your reptile, your bioactive enclosure may differ from the ones described here. Some reptiles such as my crested geckos are tropical and require a vertical tank, while other reptiles such as bearded dragons prefer more arid, horizontal tanks. It is important to do research on your reptile’s specific needs before setting up a bioactive tank. Remember- improper husbandry is one of the leading causes of health problems for exotic pets, so I cannot stress the importance of ensuring proper lighting, heat, and humidity before getting fancy with a bioactive enclosure.

Step 2: Drainage layer

A drainage layer is placed below the soil in a vivarium, allowing excess water to drain away from the rest of the enclosure. I used specially-made clay balls but you can also use lava rocks or gravel. I personally like using clay balls because they hold the moisture well and are much lighter than gravel.

Step 3: Substrate

Depending on your reptile, your substrate will have different properties. I will be discussing substrates better suited for tropical species, so if you have a reptile more suited for arid environments, keep in mind that your terrarium may look much different.

Forest set-ups should have a spongy substrate that holds in the humidity well. The mix should be free enough to allow burrowing but firm enough to hold plants securely. Leaf-litter is encouraged for the top as this provides great protection and nutrients to your clean-up-crew. I chose to use HF Premium Tropical Substrate sold by Houston Frogs, but there are many other choices available.

Step 4: Wood

Next comes the backbone of the terrarium- add whatever sticks, branches, logs, bark, rocks, or hides that mimic your reptile’s natural habitat. Since crested geckos are arboreal, vertical branches worked best for this tank, but a nice horizontal log would work nicely for a land-dwelling bearded dragon. Pro tip: Coconuts shells make great hides for smaller reptiles – my geckos love them with a little sphagnum moss inside!

Step 5: Plants

Depending on your reptile enclosure, some plants will do better than others. Not only do you have to worry about the humidity, temperature, and lighting restrictions, but also your reptile’s weight and activity. My ball python is much heavier than my two crested geckos, so the plants in her tank needed to be much hardier.

Some common plants include-

  1. Pothos – These are relatively strong and can be in a variety of ecosystems. I’ve seen pothos planted in all types of soil, sometimes even just in water. However, pothos does not do well in intense heat so I would keep it away from any heating pads or lamps.
  2. Epiphytes, or air-plants: These are great for humid and arboreal tanks like the ones that crested geckos have. Since they do not need soil, you can attach them to branches higher up in the tank. Many of them absorb water from the air or collect rainwater in their leaves such as bromelaids.
  3. Croton: These plants are pretty sturdy are great for adding a splash of color to your terrarium!
  4. Snake plant: I highly recommend these because they are one of the strongest and tallest plants I have in my terrariums. I always see my ball python and geckos climbing on them!
  5. Moss: Whether it’s Spanish moss, sphagnum moss, sheet moss, pillow moss, or any other variety, many people like to add moss to their vivariums to add to the natural “forest” look!
  6. Bamboo: These are great additions to my crested gecko tank because they easily grow tall and fill up the vertical space!

Step 6: Clean-Up-Crew

Isopods crawling on one of my gecko’s coconut hides

Your terrarium’s clean-up crew, otherwise known as CUC, are the essence of a bioactive environment. These invertebrates keep the enclosure clean, recycle waste, and turn it into nutrients that plants can use. There are many types of CUC, so I will just go over some basics.

Isopods: A.K.A. Rolly-polly, woodlouse, or pill-bugs, are detritivores, which means they feed on dead and decaying materials, including feces. They come in many varieties and colors, which you can see in a beautifully designed poster here.

Springtail Culture

Springtails: These are closely related to insects and feed on fungus and decaying plant and animal matter. I keep a culture of springtails in a cup with charcoal, water, and baking yeast. Every few days I sprinkle some springtails in all of my terrariums to ensure that all fungal and mold growth is taken care of.

Superworm Beetle

Superworm beetles: These are hard-shelled and produce a defensive odor when threatened which prevents them from being eaten by most exotic pet species. The beetles are great at removing feces and breed readily, producing superworms which my geckos love to hunt at night!

Superworm burrowing in the substrate

Some great links to get you started:
The Bio Dude – This website has an amazing selection of substrates, plants, lighting, CUC, and bioactive kits that are already categorized by the different types of reptile ecosystems.
Josh’s Frogs – In addition to selling awesome reptiles and amphibians, this website has a great collection of insects, feeders, and bioactive bundles! It also has great how-to guides and videos if you’d like more in-depth information about bioactive vivariums.
Houston Frogs – This website has a ton of cool CUC and DIY bioactive kits available, especially if you’re interested in frogs! You can even buy pre-made terrariums if you don’t want to get your hands dirty.
Reptile and Amphibian Bioactive Enclosures Group – This community on Facebook is great if you need ideas or have questions.

My finished bioactive enclosure – can you spot the crested gecko?

South Africa Study Abroad Course: A Once-In-a-Lifetime Experience

Immobilization of a Giraffe

It was a crisp, chilly June morning when 16 eager veterinary students excitedly unloaded off the bus at Amakhala Game Reserve. We were ready to start our South Africa study abroad course and gain knowledge and skills involved in the immobilization and conservation of wildlife. Guided by Dr. Peter Brothers, the veterinarian leading our course, and Dr. Alice Blue-McClendon, our professor from the Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine, we quickly gathered into two game-viewers and headed off on our first safari ride. Within minutes, we were immersed in herds of cape buffalo, wildebeest, zebra and white rhino. While the sun set along the horizon, a full-grown African elephant walked within inches of our game-viewer, and I knew this would be a trip to remember.

The view of the sunrise from our tents at Mattanu Game Reserve

After getting a taste of the adventure that awaited us, we spent our first full day in the classroom learning the basics of African wildlife management.

A herd of giraffe at Amakhala Game Reserve

Next came physiology and pharmacology. Safety being our instructor’s top priority, we learned the ins and outs of the different tranquilizers, sedatives and antidotes we would be working with in the field as well as how and why specific ones work for different species.

Texas A&M CVM South Africa study abroad class

Brimming with excitement, we started out the next morning by darting wildebeest. It didn’t take long until all 20 veterinary students were working like a well-oiled machine, each with their own duties to make the process as efficient as possible. Each student was able to practice different skills such as administering vaccines, anti-parasitic medicine, drawing blood and monitoring vital signs.

One of the rescued leopards at Shamwari Big Cat Rescue

Between classroom and safari work, we were able do some sightseeing. Addo Elephant National Park, the third-largest national park in Africa, is a must-see for any elephant lover. One of my favorite days of our trip was an excursion off the coast of Port Elizabeth. We journeyed to St. Croix island, home to the largest breeding colony of African penguins. On our boat ride there, we encountered a pod of more than 100 bottle-nosed dolphins and a rare southern right whale with her calf.

Southern Right Whale, off the coast of Port Elizabeth

Finally, our last stop in the southern cape consisted of giving back to the African community. We brought donations to Isopho, a facility that assists victims of the AIDS pandemic, most of whom are children. The smiles on the kids’ faces were priceless as they scored against us in games of soccer and when they each got their very own bag filled with hygiene care products and treats.

Rhinos during sunset, Amakhala Game Reserve

The next leg of our journey took place at the Mattanu game reserve in the northern cape of South Africa. It was here that we took on our largest and most dangerous immobilizations—giraffe. Because of their enormous size, it took careful planning, incredible skill, teamwork and a little bit of luck to safely dart, treat and guide them onto a specialized trailer using a system of ropes. Once loaded, the feeling of accomplishment that swept over our team was unforgettable.

Walking the giraffe to the transportation vehicle

After more immobilizations, we continued our lectures on the diseases of African wildlife and their conservation. One lecture that really changed my way of thinking was Dr. Brothers’ lecture about hunting and its positive effect on conservation.

Dr. Brothers teaching me how to shoot a dart gun

Going into the study abroad, it seemed counter-intuitive to me that hunting could help save species from extinction. However, we learned that without carefully maintained and humane hunting to sustain the value of African wildlife, many populations would be killed off to be eaten and make room for farmland instead of being carefully managed and conserved. In addition, the revenue made from hunting is put back into protecting wildlife.

Sunset at Mattanu Game Reserve

Although all the animal darting was done by veterinarians, we had a unique opportunity to practice shooting from a helicopter on our own. Each student had a short ride in a helicopter that chased a pretend antelope (a volunteer on a four-wheeler with protective gear and a cut-out target on his back) and had five shots with a paintball gun with which to test their skill.

Immobilization of a red hartebeest

In addition to the darting, I was thankful for the view because there was nothing like seeing the African safari from above, especially during sunset. With green vegetation stretching as far as the eye could see and elephants grazing in the distance, I knew I would never forget this once-in- a-lifetime experience.

How I got into veterinary school without finishing my undergraduate degree

Dumeril’s python at the Zoo, Exotics, and Wildlife reptile wetlab at Texas A&M

Yes, that’s right. You can apply to vet school without an undergraduate degree.

I had no idea until I started researching requirements. For most U.S. vet schools, you can be accepted if you have all of your prerequisites completed, regardless of if you have a degree or not. For me, this meant I could apply after my sophomore year of college and go straight to veterinary school after my junior year. Although it’s uncommon because of how competitive veterinary school are, its not impossible – and below I will discuss what I did to make it happen.

Some quick statistics about my application:

  • Undergraduate GPA at The University of Texas: 3.8
  • GRE Scores:
    • 157 Reading, 75th percentile
    • 160 Reasoning, 76th percentile
    • 4.5 Analytical Writing, 82nd percentile
  • Research assistant in an Ecology, Evolutionary, and Behavioral Biology laboratory for 3 years and an organic chemistry laboratory for 1 year
  • Intro to Biology Teaching Assistant
  • Some veterinary clinic experience
  • LOTS of veterinary volunteer experience
    • Second Chance SPCA volunteer
    • Austin Humane Society volunteer
    • Austin Animal Center Volunteer
    • Austin Bat Refuge volunteer
  • Animal officer for UT’s wildlife rescue team

Frequently Asked Questions:

If you could give one piece of advice for getting accepted into vet school, what would it be?

There’s absolutely one thing that I tell everyone – get involved in research! I worked in two different research labs during my 3 years of undergrad, and I believe that is what set my apart from many of my peers. There is a serious lack of veterinarians involved in research today, so if you can show them that you already have experience under your belt, you will be sure to stand out.

Your research doesn’t have to be animal related, but if it does, that’s a plus because it can double as animal experience hours! The first lab I joined in undergrad was Dr. Molly Cumming’s Integrated Biology Lab in UT’s Ecology, Evolutionary, and Behavioral Biology department. Our lab’s model organism was fish, specifically Gambusia affinis and Xiphophorus nigrensis, mosquitofish and swordtail fish, respectively. During my three years working in that lab, I assisted with behavior and cognition studies involving anxiety, mate selection, and learning (yes, fish can learn!).

Scuba diving in Belize with my research lab

The second laboratory I worked in was an Organic Chemistry research lab. At The University of Texas, you’re allowed to have one of your laboratory credits substituted for working in an actual research lab. I heard that organic chemistry lab was one of the hardest labs for my major, and I was lucky enough to get accepted into a research lab working with light spetrometry and colorimetric assays.

How did I get involved in this lab you might be wondering? I simply asked! With most research institutions, you can search different departments for cool research that is going on and find the emails of professors working in the lab. Most professors will jump at the chance to bring you on the team (who would pass up free labor?) and help an undergraduate interested in their research.

Research also has so many extra bonuses I couldn’t even imagine when I first signed up. At my institution, you can collect one hour of credit for every three hours worked in a lab per week. So for one semester, I worked 9 hours every week and had 3 credits added to my course load as an A; can you say GPA booster?! I eventually collected 12 hours total of credit over my three years, and this definitely boosted my science GPA. After I collected my max amount of hours allowed, my PI then decided to pay me to continue my research. And after three years, I was so close with my PI that she became one of my letter of recommendation writers- and boy did that look good on my application.

What should I major in and what classes should I take?

I was lucky – I knew from a young age that I wanted to work with animals!

Although most will tell you that you can major in anything you want as long as you complete your prerequisites, I definitely recommend majoring in something that aligns with biology or animals. So many of your prerequisites build off of science, and the more you learn in that field, the easier it will be in the future. Even more, you won’t have to fight with your course counselors to take the classes that you want. There’s one thing that you should do if you want to apply early – take all your prerequisites as early as possible! My counselors tried to get me to leave all the “hard classes” for later on in my degree plan and take the easier classes first, but leave all the non-required courses like “intro to Jazz” for the end (yes, that was the very last course I took at UT). This way, you can apply as early as possible, and if you don’t get in on your first application, you can take those classes when you finish your degree. Yes, it might be challenging to take all your science-heavy classes in the beginning, but I didn’t say getting accepted early was easy, did I? 😉 However, don’t do this if you don’t think you are able to make decent grades in these classes – in the end, your GPA matters a lot, and it’s a lot harder to bring up a GPA once it’s fallen. This brings me to the next most frequently asked question –

What was your undergraduate GPA?

I initially thought about not sharing my GPA, since I actually can’t stand when people discuss their grades. Everyone is different, and what may be easy for one person may be the hardest class for another. There were times when hearing how well my friends did in classes made me feel really bad about myself, and it’s important to learn not to compare yourself to others. But for the sake of this article I will say that my undergraduate GPA was a 3.8. Some tips to keeping your GPA up – don’t be afraid to drop a class and take it later on when you know you’ll be more ready. For me, that was organic chemistry. I had a really hard semester the first time I attempted to take that class, so I decided to drop it and take it over the summer, and boy did it make a difference. The first time I took that class, I failed the first two exams, but when I took it over the summer when all I had to focus on was that one class, I made an A in both Organic Chemistry I and II. Yes, veterinary schools will still accept you even with the dreaded “Q-drop,” just don’t make it a habit. Another thing you can do to boost your GPA (and your mental and physical health) is to take a PE class. It might not count towards your science GPA, but if you’re going to be working out anyway, you might as well get some credit for it!

One thing about GPA that I did not know when applying was that veterinary schools can give you a multiplier for your GPA depending on which school you went to. For instance, a 3.0 at an ivy league or top institution may count much more towards your application than a 4.0 at a community or satellite college. So don’t be scared to go to a harder institution, veterinary schools definitely take your school choice into consideration!

Immobilization of a giraffe with Texas A&M’s South Africa study abroad program.
Picture by Dr. Alice Blue-McLendon

What was your GRE score?

I received a 157 in reading, 160 in reasoning, and 4.5 on analytical writing. These were in the 75th, 76th, and 82nd percentiles, respectively. For me, the hardest part of the GRE was the vocab. The math and reading sections were pretty much high school level, but it had been years since I took an English class so my vocabulary recollection was very limited. I would recommend reviewing a few of the most common vocab words every day and practicing math and reading problems from one of those GRE-prep books.

How many schools did you apply to, and how did you decide which one to attend?

My beautiful veterinary school, Texas A&M

I decided to “go big or go home” and applied to 10 veterinary schools, all of which I knew I had the required prerequisites for and that they would accept a student without a graduate degree (at the time of applying, I didn’t think I would graduate in three years, which I later decided to do by taking summer and courses my junior year). Out of these 10 veterinary schools, I was offered interviews at 9 of them, of which 5 I declined since I had already been accepted to a school I preferred more. I received acceptances (in order) from The Royal Veterinary College in London, Louisiana State University, Texas A&M University, Auburn University, and University of Georgia’s dual degree DVM-PhD program. Although I loved all of these schools, I chose Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine. Not only had they just built a brand new state-of-the-art veterinary school and redone their curriculum, but it was the cheapest by far because that was my in-state school. I highly recommend going to your in-state school if you can, because all U.S. veterinary schools provide quality education and none are worth an extra $30k per year (there’s usually a drastic difference in price between state and out-of-state schools). However, I did hear that A&M is offering in-state tuition to all students that maintain a certain GPA, which I think is amazing, but I’d be scared to bet that much money on my GPA!

What extracurricular activities should I do?

I recommend joining at least one sport/physical club, one social club, and one volunteer club in order to be well-rounded. While at The University of Texas, I was on the official Gymnastics team, in the sorority Alpha Xi Delta, and officer of the pre-vet club. Being on the gymnastics team allowed me to continue competing in a sport I had been practicing my entire life and helped me (unsuccessfully) keep off the “freshman 15.” My sorority forced me, an introvert, to become more social and meet people from outside my major. Lastly, the pre-vet club allowed me to volunteer and gain experiences I otherwise would not have gotten in the area of veterinary medicine. Additionally, I was able to have a leadership position as an event coordinator, which looked great on my resume!

The University of Texas Women’s Gymnastics Team (Second-to-right on the bottom row)

What volunteer experience did you have?

Four kittens that I fostered through the Austin Human Society

Luckily for me, I knew that I wanted to be a veterinarian from an early age, so I started volunteering with my local shelter, Second Chance SPCA, since I was 14 years old (shoutout to my mom for driving and volunteering with me all the time). Once I started college, I continued to volunteer with the Austin Humane Society and Austin Animal Center, where I walked and fostered dogs and cats. If you’re short on volunteer hours, I highly recommend fostering an animal! It’s amazing how much a little love can change the life of a special needs animal. Something that really set me apart though was that I volunteered for the Austin Bat Refuge and gained exotic animal experience at the same time!

American alligator during ZEW Club’s reptile wetlab

What clinical experience did you have?

Since I took classes during most of my summers, I never worked a solid technician job and got as much nursing experience as I had hoped. However, what I lacked in solid skills I made up for with diversity – in addition to working as a kennel tech my first summer, I shadowed at a specialty hospital, VCA Capital Area Veterinary Specialists. It was here that I had the opportunity so shadow a variety of veterinary practices such as surgical oncology, chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and even acupuncture.

Did you work any jobs while in undergrad?

Rescuing a young squirrel on The University of Texas campus

Like many other college students, I worked multiple jobs during undergrad (at one point, three jobs at once). In addition to babysitting, I worked as a biology lab TA, biology lab research assistant, and my favorite job of all – working for UT Austin’s wildlife rescue. It was through this job that I received training to capture wild animals and either release them off school premises if they were healthy, or bring them to a licensed rehabilitator if they needed medical attention. I was literally getting paid to do something I would have done for free (don’t tell my supervisor that)! Every week would be something different – we saw everything from bats, opossums, snakes to owls, and I loved every minute of it.

Blue and gold macaw at the Austin Aquarium

Although it was after I had applied to veterinary school, I also worked at the Austin Aquarium. I could have tried to gain more veterinary technician experience, but I decided I could do that later in vet school and focused on my passion for exotic animals instead. I am so happy I did, because it was there that I learned so much about husbandry that would shape my future as an exotic animal veterinarian.

Picture of me taken by Dr. Alice Blue-McLendon on our South Africa study abroad trip