College of Veterinary Medicine's first class enters home stretch of unique three-year program

A UArizona student interacting with a dog

Students in the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine gets hands-on experience from day one.

Miles Fujimoto

The first cohort of budding veterinarians will soon graduate from the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine, the state's first and only public veterinary medical and surgical program.

The program, which launched in 2020, is known for its innovative curriculum designed to be completed in three years, which sets the school apart from most U.S. veterinary medicine programs that require students to train at least four years.

The college's first class will begin its final semester in May, with its approximately 105 students set graduate in August.

Stepping into the labor pool sooner

Attending veterinary school can be costly, said Julie Funk, dean of the UArizona College of Veterinary Medicine.

"One advantage of a three-year program is that you get into the workforce one year sooner," she said. "So, that means you have one less year of lost opportunity costs from earning a salary."

Cutting out a year from the veterinary medicine curriculum can also help students repay their loans faster, Funk added. The three-year program may also appeal to nontraditional students, she said.

"If you're thinking about veterinary medicine as a second career, or maybe you have a family, you can shorten the time of having a high-pressure degree," she said.

In their three years in the College of Veterinary Medicine, students still complete the nine semesters typical of four-year veterinary medicine programs, said Sharon Dial, a veterinary pathology faculty member at UArizona, who helped conceptualize the curriculum. It's just that the students don't get summer breaks.

Group of students interacting with pet patients

A group of students interact with a feline patient.

Miles Fujimoto

Live animal interaction from the outset

Another unique aspect of the program is its active learning model, Funk said. Students spend a lot of time getting hands-on experience with live animals from the get-go.

"It helps them anchor their learning," Funk said.

In most traditional four-year programs, students don't touch live animals until the third year.

Danasia Lashae Perry, a first-year student in the College of Veterinary Medicine, said the fact that she would be getting real-world experience from day one drew her to enroll in the program.

"I think that's something that I appreciate, instead of just reading a bunch of textbooks," she said.

Arianna Adams, who is in her final year in the program, said the hands-on experience has allowed her to excel in clinics and has prepared for her graduation in August.  

Adams said she was excited to join the College of Veterinary Medicine because of the program's unique structure. It's set up in a way that allows for collaboration with several practitioners in the state, she said, which is important in the veterinary field, since medicine is always changing and no cases are the same.

Surgical simulation

 On top of getting trained to use stethoscopes and do physical examinations, students in their first semester also learn surgical skills such as basic suturing.

The curriculum also provides students opportunities to perform simulated surgical operations using stuffed animals. In their second year, they learn how an anesthesia machine works to control the dose of anesthesia during the surgery. Students practice going through the motion of a spay and neuter procedure on stuffed animals and learn to tackle challenging situations in surgery.

"We walk through the motions as if it were a real patient," Adams said.

The university doesn't have a veterinary teaching hospital as many other veterinary medicine programs do, said Sallianne Schlacks, an assistant professor of veterinary internal medicine. Typically, veterinary students after their third year enter a teaching hospital where they learn to do advanced diagnostics on complicated cases, Schlacks explained.

But most veterinary medicine students go into general practice, which is more about providing primary and preventative care services such as administering vaccines and deworming medications, performing spay and neuter procedures, maintaining dental and oral health, and talking to clients about maintaining their pets' ideal body weight, Schlacks said.

"In a traditional teaching hospital, you don't really get to see the daily activities that occur in general practice," Schlacks said.

She acknowledged that students who are eager to learn clinical applications might benefit from teaching hospitals by being able to interact with upperclassmen during rotations. But there, students don't necessarily see the kind of cases they encounter as a general practitioner, equine vet or small animal vet.

Dial added that teaching hospitals are very expensive and they don't pay for themselves.

"They can get big and cumbersome and difficult to manage," she said.

The College of Veterinary Medicine instead follows a "distributive model." Schlacks said students spend their third year rotating through different practices in Tucson, Phoenix and several other locations in 47 states – even as far away as Alaska.

"Our students will go out and see how a lot of different practitioners who are trained at different institutions manage their cases," Dial said.

Funk said collaboration between practices across the state is very important, and she is grateful for the school's partnerships across Arizona.

Students examine a horse's hoof.

Students examine a horse's hoof.

Miles Fujimoto

Flipped classroom

The college also practices unique teaching methods in the classroom, Funk said. Unlike the usual one-way lectures, students participate in a more active learning model called a "flipped classroom," in which faculty members supply materials to students prior to class and engage them in quizzes and clinical case scenarios during class hours.

Though the school's curriculum focuses largely on clinical applications, basic nonclinical veterinary science courses are tied in with the clinical courses, Funk said. For example, when students study the physiology of the gastrointestinal system, they simultaneously learn about associated microbiological aspects, such as possible viral infections.

"Students learn about pharmacology, microbiology and pathology – all of those 'ologies' that they need to integrate into their understanding of how to make a diagnosis," Dial said.

Dial said she has been in the veterinary medicine field for over 40 years, but her experience teaching in the College of Veterinary Medicine has been especially rewarding.

"I've never had more of a positive, refreshing experience," she said. "I get excited; the students make me proud every day."


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