Alaska DVM students blaze a trail from Fairbanks to Fort Collins

You can call them trailblazers. Students. Pioneers. And now, you can call them veterinarians.

The first class in the University of Alaska-Fairbanks/Colorado State University 2+2 veterinary program will graduate on Friday, May 17. The 10 students attended the first two years of coursework at UAF and finished their two years of clinical training at CSU. The day marks a personal triumph for the students as well as a milestone for both universities.

In 2013, after years of discussion and research, the two universities teamed up to give students in Alaska access to a top-ranked veterinary medicine education partially in their home state.

“We expect our new partnership will open doors to learning and discovery that are important for students, faculty and many others in the Colorado State University family,” said Dr. Mark Stetter, dean of the CSU College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, at the signing of the historic agreement.

When the program was announced, it seemed like the best of both worlds for many students. “I was attracted to the UAF-CSU program because it allowed me to stay close to home for the first two years and learn more about Alaska’s veterinary community,” says Jean Acuna, one of the UAF students. “Knowing I would have access to the invaluable knowledge and expertise on the clinic floor at CSU made the opportunity that much more compelling.”

“Some thought of us as guinea pigs,
but we call ourselves trailblazers”

Growing up and living in Alaska shaped many of the students’ initial interests in veterinary medicine. “I have wanted to be a veterinarian since I was three years old,” remembers Liz Millman. “That dream was modified when I was seven and learned about the Iditarod. Then I wanted to be a sled dog veterinarian.”

Other routes were a little more roundabout. “I was looking for a new challenge after being a commercial fisherman in Alaska for more than 20 years,” says Jed Harding. “While finishing up my undergraduate degree at UAF, I saw a flier for the program and thought I would be up for giving vet school a try.”

Since the program was brand new, many of the students did not know what to expect, even when meeting their new classmates. “I was surprised by the diversity of incoming students,” remembers Chris Clement. “Each of the ten was not like the others. We all had different backgrounds, different connections to Alaska, different goals.”

With only 10 students in the cohort, the students easily prioritized individuality and flexibility. “Our professors always worked to incorporate our specific interests into the curriculum,” Acuna says. “We could shift around the schedule to attend special events or lectures. We each had amazing mentors who expressed confidence in our ability to do well in our careers.”

The first two years in Fairbanks were filled with experiences as novel as the program. The cohort got to go mushing with the dean of the veterinary school and help check out sled dogs on the front lines of the Iditarod. They learned about public health, rural medicine, and food security issues unique to Alaska. Some students got hands-on experience working with the unique species of the Arctic, from musk ox calves to herds of caribou and reindeer. Others took to the outdoors, spending their downtime mountaineering, kayaking, skiing, and ice climbing in the mountains surrounding Fairbanks.

North to south, and back again

vet student with a pug
Liz Millman, DVM student in the CSU/Alaska Fairbanks program, assists with an echo cardiogram at the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. (CVMBS photo)

The transition from Fairbanks to Fort Collins to start their third year of the program was daunting to many in the cohort. “It was definitely a culture shock arriving here. I missed my tiny house and being able to ski to school,” Jess Ladd says. “But for someone who is not used to living in cities, I don’t mind Fort Collins too much.”

The Fort Collins-based DVM Class of 2019 worked to help the UAF students make themselves at home right away. Chelsea Huffman remembers those first days on the CSU campus. “I felt so fortunate to come into such an amazing and supportive class. They welcomed us without hesitation.”

Treated just like any CSU third- and fourth-year veterinary students, the Alaska cohort has spent the last two years busy on the clinic floor of the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital. They worked alongside the other 138 members of the CSU DVM Class of 2019 to gain experience on everything from Equine Medicine to Small Animal Orthopedics to Avian, Exotics, and Zoological Medicine.

While they are not required to work in Alaska after graduating from the program, the majority of the group will return to the state. Six of the 10 have jobs arranged in Fairbanks and Juneau, working with small and large animals. The other four will be working as emergency clinicians, small animal general practitioners, and rotating interns across the country.

Fulfilling dreams

“The partnership between Colorado State University and UAF is paving the way for new educational opportunities that didn’t exist going in,” said Paul Layer, then-dean of the UAF College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, home of the Department of Veterinary Medicine, when the program was created. “These students will be prepared for careers in veterinary medicine wherever their paths may take them.”

Those paths are as varied as the soon-to-be veterinarians themselves.

man with a seal
Jed Harding with a seal pup. (CVMBS-UAF photo)

“I would like to develop a boat-based ambulatory practice to serve the smaller villages,” says Jed Harding, the student who came to veterinary school through commercial fishing.

“I want to fulfill the dream of my 7-year-old self,” says Liz Millman. “I want to be that veterinarian on the sidelines of the Iditarod, caring for sled dogs.”

But no matter where they land, the cohort is proud to be part of the first class of Alaska-grown veterinarians. “Some thought of us as guinea pigs, but we call ourselves trailblazers,” says Chris Clement.

“As trailblazers,” chimes in Huffman, “I hope our experiences and feedback will hone the program for students to come.”