June 18, 2024

From as early as he can remember, Dr. Mason Irvin ’18 ’21 has wanted to become a veterinarian. The fourth-generation resident of Godley, Texas—a small city southwest of Fort Worth—achieved his dreams when he earned his bachelor’s degree in animal science from Texas A&M University and his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) from the School of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.

After graduating, Irvin returned to Godley and started his own mixed-animal practice. “I wanted to return to my hometown when I graduated, but without a clinic open there at the time, I knew I’d have to start a practice,” he said. What he began as a start-up mobile clinic has evolved into a brick-and-mortar facility that now provides local veterinary care for all species in Godley for the first time in nearly 25 years.

Irvin is one of the many Aggie veterinarians embodying Texas A&M’s mission to address the veterinary shortage in rural communities across Texas and the nation. To help accomplish this goal, the veterinary school has established a series of programs that help its students explore every facet of veterinary medicine, including opportunities in rural practices. Through this intentional approach, Texas A&M’s emphasis on practical exposure, hands-on experience and influential mentorship is equipping Aggies like Irvin to meet critical animal care needs and shaping some of the most professional, prepared and passionate veterinarians across the state, nation and world.

Rural-Life Readiness

As part of an interprofessional partnership with the Texas A&M School of Medicine, one of the veterinary school’s newest initiatives is the Rural Veterinary Preclinical Externship Program. Beginning this summer, students in this pilot program will be placed across eight underserved counties in Texas to complete two-week preclinical externships under the guidance of mentors and community leaders in rural veterinary practices.

Spanning across several rural communities in the state, 20 Aggie veterinary students will complete two-week rotations in clinics within the highlighted counties.

“The shortage in rural health care is a national problem,” said Dr. Kristin Chaney, assistant dean for professional programs curriculum and assessment. “When the School of Medicine deployed its Rural Medicine Program to address that issue, a similar need was identified for veterinary care in the process, and it encouraged us to collaborate with the School of Medicine on this incredibly influential initiative. Like the School of Medicine, the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine program also focuses on students who have just completed their first or second year of veterinary school to begin exposure and networking within rural communities early in their DVM training.”

Aside from the experience gained in predominantly mixed-animal practices, the Rural Veterinary Preclinical Externship Program will allow students to explore potential careers in rural veterinary care through immersive community involvement that showcases the reality and importance of working in rural settings.

“This partnership with the School of Medicine is the key we haven’t explored yet,” Chaney said of the veterinary school’s curriculum. “I think working in an interprofessional, educational space along with other professional students from the Texas A&M School of Medicine, School of Nursing and School of Dentistry will be really powerful in demonstrating to students how they can fit into these communities and the immediate colleagues they’d have in the health care professions there.”

As explained by Dr. Glennon Mays ’75 ’76, director of professional programs recruitment and student services, the magnitude of this program has life-changing potential for Aggie veterinarians. “By tapping into these students before their clinical rotations begin, this program provides an experience that could redirect the entire trajectory of their career,” he said.

Inspired by the weight of that possibility, former students and Texas A&M Foundation donors Judy ’78 and Dr. Tim Turner ’74 ’77 were eager to contribute to the program’s success. To alleviate financial aspects of participation, the Turners established a Rural Veterinary Scholars Fund to offset costs of housing, meals, travel and other necessities for each student participating in the two-week externship.

Rural Rotations

Another key partnership within the veterinary school is the Veterinary Education, Research and Outreach (VERO) facility in the Texas Panhandle. Established in 2009, VERO was initiated as a partnership between the veterinary school and the Paul Engler College of Agriculture and Natural Sciences at West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas. “There’s been a need for veterinarians in rural areas for decades, so VERO’s location is strategic to deliver agriculture veterinary medicine to the Panhandle and neighboring livestock-rich industries,” said Dr. Susan Eades, VERO’s associate dean for administration.

The VERO site is one of many rotations the veterinary school has in place to help students gain invaluable experiences with rural veterinary medicine, particularly in the large animal sector. Located on the campus of West Texas A&M University, this initiative includes cooperative efforts of local industry leaders and clinicians to provide Aggie veterinarians-in-training with tailored and engaging learning opportunities.

Before he started his practice in Godley, Texas, Mason Irvin completed a rotation with VERO, where he engaged in a variety of activities that broadened his understanding of rural veterinary practices. One key component of his rotation involved production tours, where he visited feedlots and dairies to learn more about the behind-the-scenes processes in agricultural industries. Irvin also gained hands-on experience working in clinics in the area, allowing him to apply what he learned at Texas A&M’s teaching hospital to a rural setting and exposing him to the unique challenges faced by veterinarians in these areas. “The clinics I worked in are similar to the practice I run now, and I credit my VERO rotations to teaching me how to be a rural practitioner,” he said.

Recruiting From the Root

Texas A&M’s veterinary school has had a long history with rural areas, specifically recruiting students who come from these places. “We’ve had staff on the grounds in the Panhandle, High Plains and other parts of rural Texas recruiting students to veterinary medicine for years,” Eades said. “Our goal in recruiting from these areas is to train students who will be inspired to return and serve their home communities.”