Alison’s Story in the Fremont Argus

Want to be a vet? It can be done

By Jaime Richards
Fremont Argus Columnist

This article first appeared in the Fremont Argus, September 6, 2008

I’ve never known a student who actually became a veterinarian. But that may change in the very near future.

Alison Stambaugh, Mission San Jose High School, Class of 2004, is on her way to the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

When I heard that Alison was really going to become a vet, I had to meet her because when you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, a disproportionate share of them say “veterinarian.”

Then reality sets in. They learn that it’s tougher to get into vet school than med school, that there are only two veterinarian colleges in California, only 28 in the United States, and only 31 in North America.

Still, “It’s doable,” Alison says.

How? Last year, more than 1,200 vet hopefuls applied to UC Davis. Just 131 got in. How do you get to be one of the less than 11 percent selected?

Here’s how:

1. Start young. Alison knew she wanted to be a vet when she was 9. Photos of her as a child also include some sort of creature. She grew up reading and being inspired by the stories of veterinarian/writer James Herriot.

2. Don’t just dream. Act. Starting in high school, Alison began working with the Ohlone Humane Society. She helped rescue and heal sick and hurt animals. She learned. She gained experience.

“The more I learned about veterinarian work, the more I wanted to become one,” Alison says.

Nobody required Alison to find opportunities to work with animals. She went looking for them.

3. Get good grades. In high school, Alison got “a few B’s but mostly A’s.” In college, at UC Santa Barbara, she also did well, graduating with a 3.7 grade-point average in biochemistry.

You don’t have to be perfect, though.

“I got two C’s and some B’s,” she says. “They just want to see that you can handle challenging curriculum.”

4. Do more than expected. You can’t apply to vet school unless you have 200 hours of “animal experience.” UC Davis requires that at least 180 of those hours be “veterinarian experience” (working for a vet, usually as an office intern.) When Alison applied, she had accumulated more than 2,000 hours of experience.

5. Be able to write. To get into vet school, applicants must write a personal statement explaining why they want to practice veterinary medicine. Alison’s statement was beautifully composed. It was written from the heart. It clearly portrayed her passion for working with animals. (She especially loves turtles.)

6. Find a mentor. Alison’s was Michael Rittenberg, a Santa Barbara-based veterinarian. Vet schools ask for three letters of recommendation, one from a vet.

But it’s not about that. It’s not about kissing up to eminent professionals so they’ll give you a recommendation. It’s about learning all you can from someone you respect. Someone who’s already doing what you hope to do.

Someone like Alison.

Jaime Richards teaches in Fremont. Visit his Web site: