A few weeks ago, when Kristen Lucibello and her Utah State University classmates arrived at the Caine Dairy Center in Wellsville, they opened up the trunks of their cars and put on overalls and sturdy rubber boots.

It was a warm, dry and sunny September day outside, but where the class was headed, they would need to stay clean while working for the next two hours. Inside a fairly large barn off U.S. Highway 89-91, professor Rusty Stott quizzed the class of 15 doctoral students on the basics of dairy cow anatomy, using three of the animals housed there as examples.

Stott asked his students the following questions: Do the cows have a normal stride? How much do you think they weigh? How do you know if they’re hungry? What is their body temperature? Then Stott left the students to inspect the cows using a checklist sheet for the lab.

Lucibello and 29 other classmates are part of the first class of the new School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) associated with USU’s department of animal, dairy and veterinary sciences.

The doctorate of veterinary medicine program is the first of its kind in the state. In partnership with the Washington State University (WSU)

College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM), the School of Veterinary Medicine offers a professional degree in veterinary medicine. A bill that was signed into law by Utah Gov. Gary Herbert last year creates a partnership between USU and WSU. The program brings a total of 30 students — 20 from in-state and 10 from out of state — who will spend the first two years at USU and finish their last two years in Pullman, Wash.

The first two years consist of receiving pre-clinical training, and the final two are the actual clinical portion.

The start of the USU fall semester is the culmination of a program that has been in the works for several years.

“It’s just always been something I’ve wanted to do,” said Lucibello, who came to USU from Quinnipiac University in Connecticut and wants to pursue a profession in either wildlife conservation or international veterinary medicine. “We love what we do, but it’s hard work. These last few weeks we’ve been learning everything we need to know (about animal anatomy).”

That “hard work” amounts to 152 credit hours per semester. Just this year, students will take 37 credits, or 18 during fall semester and 19 during spring semester — well above an average college course load.

Ever since USU started having conversations to start the program — which go back some four years ago — it seemed like “the momentum just builds and builds,” said Noelle Cockett, dean of the College of Agriculture and future USU provost.

“Then we got into the 2011 (legislative) session and that was exciting, and the ball of momentum just kept growing,” Cockett said.

Need for a Utah Vet program

A survey produced several years ago showed that a number of veterinarians in Utah were hoping to retire over the next 10 years. At the same time, the WICHE (Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education) program — allowing Utah vet students to attend classes at a reduced rate — was not producing veterinarians fast enough, said Cliff Mitchell, a veterinarian with the North Cache Veterinary Service in Richmond.

But the recession has postponed some of those retiring veterinarians’ plans, Mitchell said. However, he noted it doesn’t diminish the need for a joint USU-WSU program.

“I feel like there will be even more need than what we have now,” Mitchell said. “When the baby boomers and those that are older than them feel like they can comfortably retire, there may be a short period of time when there are many more positions open than there are students graduating from vet school.”

There are currently 350 to 400 vets in the state, he said. Mitchell believes that of the 20 in-state students expected to graduate per year, 10 will probably stay in Utah.

“It will be enough to help us,” Mitchell said. “The question on how many students will be needed is always a challenge to know for sure, but with the number of students currently enrolling every year, that should be enough to provide applicants for the jobs that are available.”

Another reason this joint program was created is that more college students — including pre-vet medical ones — are graduating with more debt, Mitchell said.

“One of the goals of the USU-WSU program is to decrease the student debt so that it’s not as difficult for them to come back to Utah (when they complete the program in Pullman),” Mitchell said. “Utah has many opportunities of many practices that would like to hire young veterinarians.”

According to Ken White, head of the department of animal, dairy and veterinary sciences at USU, the cost of tuition for a Utah resident for the 2012-13 school year is $21,830, plus student fees. A non-resident will pay $52,884, plus student fees.

Program beginning

USU officials have been highly anticipating the doctorate program’s roll-out. So during the first week of fall semester, all of the program’s students, faculty and advisers were invited to the home of USU President Stan Albrecht for a reception. Cockett joked that during the reception, it wasn’t long before students and teachers started talking technical about veterinary medicine.

Then the students traveled to Pullman to get a sense of what class will be like during the second year of the program at WSU.

“The one thing we’re committed to trying to do here is do a good (job) of connecting the students in Pullman to the students in Logan — having them start out together and get to know each other,” said Bryan Slinker, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at WSU.

Slinker said he sees several benefits of USU joining with Washington State.

“One is, we always get great students from Utah, and this is a way to get more great students from Utah,” he said. “We hope there will be opportunities for us to develop additional clinical placements for educational programs, taking advantage of some of the (agricultural) facilities in Logan. We could develop that as a fourth-year placement site to do their final year of training. We hope this (joint program) also leads to some research collaborations.”

 For now, as part of the curriculum at USU, the 30 students will do some distance education with WSU during the first two years, said Slinker. Eventually, WSU faculty will go to Logan to teach their classes face-to-face at least once or twice a semester, he said.

“We think it’s working out fabulously,” Slinker said of the joint doctorate of veterinary medicine program. “We’ve all put in a lot of hard work to make this happen, and there’s still a lot of hard work to do to get it implemented. There’s been a lot of exchange of faculty information (between WSU and USU). The one thing we have to assure here is that we have enough interaction that the outcome for the students’ education there (in Logan) is substantially similar to what we have here (in Pullman). We don’t have a requirement that things be taught the same way, but the content and the outcome has to be substantially similar.”

Curriculum

The 30 students were selected for the program over the summer, most of them majoring in animal science or pre-veterinary medicine programs before applying. There were at least 42 students who applied.

During years one and two, core courses include the following: Animal Handling and Agricultural Animal Orientation, Principles of Surgery, Fundamentals of Pharmacology, and Veterinary Anesthesia.

Students will be able to take electives, but “our main focus” is the core curriculum, said Christopher Davies, director of student and academic affairs for the School of Veterinary Medicine.

“Electives are being added as we judge the demand from the students and figure out the best way to deliver them,” Davies wrote in an email.

Some electives will be taught locally, and others are being given as joint courses with WSU, with lectures originating from both campuses, he said.

There are two electives and one core course the school is currently offering as joint distance education classes using state-of-the-art interactive video conferencing technology available in the new Agricultural Sciences and Distance Education buildings.

Future of the program

USU officials feel confident in the future of the School of Veterinary Medicine. The students’ reaction to having the program is one indication.

Alika Fisher, who came from Brigham Young University, said he chose the new doctorate program because of the low tuition of an in-state school.

“USU is our state-pride agricultural school, and Brigham Young doesn’t have an agricultural science program,” Fisher said. “I like the environment of a small class size. You can approach your professors — you know them, and they know you. I think the quality of the education is higher simply because you can spend more time with the professor.”

Cockett said in the future, there may be more students added to the program, but USU officials feel 30 is an appropriate number. Adding more students would increase the low teacher-to-student ratio and force USU to hire more faculty and create more class sections — an unnecessary burden for the school, according to Cockett.

“When you look at this program, you see the students are living their dream,” Cockett said. “I think Utahns are very proud to have a veterinary school here.”

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Twitter: @KevJourno

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