A Calling for More Latinx Vets: Suzy Lange Recalls Her Calling to Veterinary Medicine
My name is Suzy Lange, and I’m currently a first-year dual Master of Public Health and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine student living in Colorado. I was born in Miami, Florida to an American mother and Peruvian father, and grew up primarily in and around Lima, Peru. My path to veterinary medicine has been anything but typical, and in all honesty, I still cannot believe I made it here. I’m so excited to share my journey with you, and hope my story inspires other Latinx students to pursue their dreams, however lofty they may seem.
My childhood was defined by animals. I was technically an only child, but I never really thought of myself in that way. My brothers and sisters were my many dogs, cats, birds, horses, and endless other pets and farm animals that I was so privileged to have. I refused to play with dolls and instead amassed an incredible collection of stuffed animals. My parents also both loved animals, my mom having grown up on a Midwestern farm and my dad having developed a passion for dogs later in life.
This love of animals translated well into a passion for science as I advanced through my schooling. At my primary school in Lima, I thrived in my biology and chemistry classes. My parents and teachers could see that I was destined for a career in these fields. As I approached my high school years, however, my parents began to worry. They had always envisioned me attending an American university—my father’s parents had had similar goals for him and spent the little money they had to send him from Peru to college in England. My dad credits his success to being able to get an education abroad, and he dreamed I could achieve the same. My mom was the first person in her family to ever attend university, so my education was a priority for her as well. However, they were concerned I would not be able to having attended Peruvian school. Peruvian secondary education ends in 11th grade. This would mean I would need to attend a Peruvian university for a year or enroll in an extra, specialized year of high school before I could go to an American college. I also had somewhat limited English skills as I rarely spoke the language outside of English classes and in conversations with my mom and her family. I could hold a conversation, but I couldn’t write an essay or read an advanced book. Given that we had the financial means to do so, it was decided I would instead attend high school in the United States.
This was how I ended up going to a boarding school in Massachusetts at the age of 13. I was not expecting much of a culture shock when I arrived—I was an American citizen and had spent time visiting my mom’s family in the Midwest over the years. I was sure I could relate to people at my new school, but I soon found out how naïve I was. I was surrounded by students that had grown up going skiing on the weekends and had vacation houses in Nantucket; a totally different culture from the people of my mom’s family’s small, low-income dairy farming town in Wisconsin. I was also one of three Latinx students in a class of 90. To expect little culture shock was a big mistake. Despite sharing little in common with my new classmates, I was able to adapt and find a good group of friends as time progressed. Adjusting to using English all the time was also difficult, but by the end of my first year I had upped my grades from Cs to As, and I managed to continue succeeding academically as the years passed.
When it came time to start thinking of applying to colleges and what I might want to do in my career, it became clear that alumni from my high school tended to pursue one of three career paths: banking, law, or medicine. It seemed that other choices were not considered “worth it” as I would not make enough money or be well-respected enough. The elitism in this view is abundantly clear to me now, but at the time I didn’t recognize it. My friends and family back in Peru also shared a similar perspective, telling me that I shouldn’t waste this opportunity of an American education on anything other than the most “prestigious” careers. I settled on a goal of attending medical school after college as I knew I enjoyed the subject matter and it seemed that others thought it was a good idea.
I was admitted to Princeton University and started in the fall of 2016. I was expecting to encounter a similar group of people at Princeton that I did at my high school—mostly white, American, and extremely wealthy students—given the university’s reputation. However, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that there was a lot more diversity at my college than at my high school. I made friends with students from places as different as Ohio, Malaysia, and Nigeria, from backgrounds as different as being first-generation, low-income students to medal-winning Olympic athletes. But, most importantly, for the first time in years I was able to be friends with other Latinx students who shared experiences like mine. Being able to share my background with my peers was something I was missing in high school and it was thus a highlight of my experience in college.
In my second year of undergrad, I decided to major in Ecology & Evolutionary Biology. It was a perfect fit for me as almost all the required pre-medical courses I needed to take were also major requirements, and I loved the subject matter. The department also offered a tropical biology field semester abroad in Panama, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to study such a great topic in Latin America. As I progressed through my major, I started to notice that I was much more interested in animal biology and health than the human side of things. I absolutely adored my comparative physiology class where we dissected sharks and got to pet a rhinoceros. When it came to choosing my undergraduate thesis topic, I jumped at the opportunity to work on a project about parasites in wild raccoons, even though there were projects on human health that I could have chosen.
Despite this clear interest in animal health, I was still committed to applying to medical school. I applied to an early medical school admission program during my sophomore year and was invited for an interview. Throughout the whole tour and interview process, I had an uneasy feeling that I could not understand. Everyone said medical school was a great fit for me, and here I was, invited to interview for such a competitive program at a prestigious school. Yet, something felt off, and I think it came across in my interview performance because I received an email the summer after my sophomore year that I had been ultimately rejected from the program. I was sad, but I also felt a strange sense of relief, the basis of which I still could not pinpoint.
This rejection was not the end of medical school hopes, as I could still take the MCAT and apply the traditional route my final year of college or later. However, I still had some time before I would need to start the process. I decided to not think about medical school applications and focus on enjoying my summer and upcoming junior year. That same summer I was rejected from the early medical school admissions program, I happened to adopt a dog. Unfortunately, he broke his front leg in a freak accident about a month in to owning him. He was lucky to not require orthopedic surgery, but due to the nature of his injury, he needed cast changes every few days for two months. I spent a good portion of my summer in the vet’s exam room with him. Despite how tedious having to go to the veterinarian multiple times a week was, I actually looked forward to the appointments. I hadn’t spent much time in a veterinarian’s office before, since when I was a kid my parents would be the ones to go to vet appointments. I noticed there was something so interesting and exciting about veterinary medicine, and starting doing research into it online. I realized there was so much more to it than just spaying and neutering puppies and kittens.
Veterinary medicine is an extremely well-developed field with a vast number of specialties like human medicine, ranging from fields like dermatology to radiation oncology. There are advanced residency and fellowship training programs. The scope of practice is not just limited to household pets; veterinarians are also responsible for the health and welfare of all animals in our food system and external environment. Veterinarians are also vital to human health by preventing the spread of zoonotic disease, protecting our food system, monitoring the health of our environment, and participating in vital research and pharmaceutical development initiatives.
It started to become clear that this field, rather than human medicine, was much more in line with my interests. However, I didn’t know any veterinarians or people interested in veterinary medicine personally. The career was never mentioned at my high school, and Princeton’s Health Professions Advising had extremely little information on what would be needed to apply to veterinary school. Out of over a thousand students per class, Princeton sends between zero and one of its graduates to veterinary school every year. I had no one to get advice from about this career option. I went back online and did my own research on what would be required to get in to vet school, and was startled by the results. The overall acceptance rate to veterinary schools is comparable to that of medical schools, and so is the overall applicant-to-seat ratio. However, veterinary schools demand more pre-requisite courses and prior work experience than medical schools. In addition to the required biology, chemistry, mathematics, physics, and English classes needed for entry into medical school, veterinary schools often require additional courses in anatomy, microbiology, genetics, animal nutrition, and other disciplines.
Although medical schools strongly recommend prior experience working for or shadowing physicians, veterinary schools require a certain number of hours of prior experience to apply. The minimum amount ranges between 200-400 hours, with most successful applicants having figures in the many thousands. This experience is strongly suggested to be across several veterinary fields, ranging from small animal primary care to wildlife medicine and veterinary public health. Animal experience without veterinary supervision, such as working on farms or participating in activities like 4-H, is also strongly recommended. I thought to myself, how would I be able to get into vet school any time in the next decade with these requirements? I still had a number of classes I would need to take, on top of courses I had left in my undergraduate program, and had zero hours of experience. I thought achieving this goal would be near impossible.
However, I spent the next two years doing everything I could to prepare for my vet school application. I dove into my thesis research, took classes over the summers and post-graduation, and took on internships and work experience during my school breaks. This was extremely emotionally, physically, and financially challenging, but I knew I had picked the right path as I was still excited to continue forward.
Another challenge I experienced during this process was the realization that veterinary medicine is a profession highly lacking in diversity. Just like when I was in high school, I again found myself surrounded by people who did not share my life experiences. As of 2019, 89% of veterinarians in the United States identify as non-Hispanic white, and up until 2020, the job was classified as the whitest profession in the nation. Black, Asian, and Indigenous American veterinarians of either Hispanic or non-Hispanic origin do not come close to achieving the representation in the profession that they do in our population. A particularly shocking example of the diversity problem comes from a 2014 Texas Tribune article: in Texas, a state whose residents at the time were 38% Hispanic, Hispanics made up only 2% of working veterinarians. Many Hispanic clients are thus unlikely to find providers that they feel they share cultural and linguistic backgrounds with. Given that 61% of Hispanic households in the United States own small animals like cats and dogs—not to mention those who own livestock—this is a dire issue.
Despite these abysmal statistics, progress is slowly being made. Veterinary schools have recognized this issue and now pay particular attention to ethnic and linguistic diversity in their application processes. Change must not only occur within academic and veterinary institutions, but also within Hispanic cultures. Hispanic families of immigrant origin are “more apt to encourage kids to pursue careers in education, engineering and law, and human medicine” rather than a path like veterinary medicine, a pressure I definitely felt myself. As put in the Texas Tribune article I previously mentioned, many Hispanic students do not see veterinary medicine as a career path that contributes to their communities. In February 2020, the Latinx Veterinary Medical Association was founded by Yvette Huizar and Juan Orjuela. The organization “hopes to increase the visibility of current Latinx veterinary professionals and inspire more students to become veterinarians." Efforts like that of LVMA highlight the importance of the veterinary profession and how breaking down barriers Latinx students may face are essential in helping diversify this profession.
When it came to apply to schools a little more than two years after I decided on my path, I was incredibly nervous. I had barely gained the minimum amount of experience and little guidance on the application process. I was on a lunch break at the clinic where I was working full-time after college when I found out I was accepted to Colorado State, my top choice. I accepted my spot almost immediately. I was particularly excited to be offered a spot in the dual Master of Public Health-Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program. Veterinarians have some of the most vital roles the fields of food safety, bioterrorism prevention, and zoonotic disease control, and need for such professionals only continues to grow. Having a public health background equips veterinarians to work on these issues found at the human-animal interface. Getting both degrees will allow me a career in which my work to improve animal health will translate to improving human health as well.
I am now thriving, and I believe choosing to come here is one of the best decisions I have ever made. I still sometimes struggle being back in a situation where so few people share my cultural background, but I know I can manage it. I’ve done it before, and I know all my friends are here to support me, no matter if they experience the same or not. I hope that my story helps inspire other Latinx students to pursue veterinary medicine if that is their dream. As a veterinarian, I plan to use my position to help those aspiring to this career. Barriers to entry are high and those that have made it have a responsibility to help grow and empower the rest of the Latinx veterinary community, especially those who are starting from a position of lower privilege. I am excited for the coming years—despite knowing how challenging they will probably be—and can’t wait for the day that you can all call me Doctora!