Class of 2021: A Destiny Fulfilled

Veterinary medicine is not something Shayla Jackson wanted to do. It’s something she has always said she had to do.

But as vet school inched closer, she got news she never expected. During the pivotal time between the spring semester of junior year and the beginning of senior year, her father was diagnosed with colon cancer. It turned out to be Stage 3. Her dad wasn’t yet 50.

Jackson’s parents never asked her to quit school or take time off. She didn’t expect them to — or want to. She pretended like everything as normal when it wasn’t. She went to class but wasn’t really there.

Up until that point, she had done everything right. Her GPA while earning an animal sciences degree at North Carolina A&T State University had been stellar. Her resume was already stacked with impressive internships, an ER veterinary assistant full-time job requiring 45-minute commutes back to campus at 1 a.m. and assisted with specialized swine research. She tutored in chemistry and held leadership roles in professional development clubs.  

Her GPA began to dip, but she refused to tell her parents that she was struggling, both emotionally and academically. She never asked for help, but instead felt she needed to help them. Jackson’s mom has multiple sclerosis, and she was worried that the stress would exacerbate her own condition.

Then she was told that, because of the lower GPA, she could no longer be a part of the Food Animal Scholars program, which had guaranteed a spot at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine after graduation.

Now she was sure she wasn’t going to be able to get into any veterinary school. There was that crushing feeling of a fully realized dream suddenly and swiftly fading.

At her core a practical person, a planner and an optimist, Jackson forged forward with an alternative. She called Elanco, the animal pharmaceutical company she had a wonderful internship experience with during college.

She asked for a job, and her connections came together to craft a position specifically for her. She accepted. She was ready to go to work right after graduation, with no debt and a good salary in the industry she wanted to be in.

She greatly appreciated the job — and was excited to start. But soon, she’d call Elanco again and tell them that unfortunately she would have to turn it down. She was going to go where she always thought she belonged.  

Pushing Forward

Another email would change her path again. Jackson got it after interviewing at another veterinary school — she had applied to three before being dropped from the scholarship program.

Driving back from the school to North Carolina with her dad, Jackson was told that she was accepted at part of the Class of 2021 at NC State’s CVM. She was floored and had to read it a few times. Her dad was on the phone with her mom, and three were able to share excitement over the unexpected news. Later, she’d learn the other school wanted her, too.

“My mom and my dad, everyone I would tell the non-vet school plan to, they would all say. ‘Oh, are you sure?’ They just felt it. I felt it. It wasn’t right,” Jackson said. “I felt validated after that, like, vet school was where I definitely should be.

The brush with a vanishing dream made the acceptance news even sweeter — and she bounced back academically. The final semester of her senior year was one of her most challenging, but grades-wise one of her strongest. There was a renewal of spirit and a refocus on the type of veterinary career she wanted.

“I got into veterinary school with the help and support of my family and some of my closest friends, through endless conversations with A&T faculty and with lots of prayer and my faith,” said Jackson. “They wanted to see me succeed and helped me regain my confidence.”

“Once I got to undergrad, the entire world of the profession of veterinary medicine cracked open. From that point on, I just wanted to explore. I still do.”

Jackson is the kind of person who can easily make a Plan B and C and D if Plan A somehow goes wrong, but is open to wherever her vet school journey will take her. Though no longer bound to focus on food animals while at the CVM, she’s still very much interested in them. “I love the big guys,” she said. “I appreciate them.”

Jackson didn’t grow up on a farm or have any agriculture experience before starting undergrad. She was born and raised in West Palm Beach, Fla., where lizards and frogs were the most common animals she encountered. But she has always loved the outdoors and at A&T felt at home on farms, working with pigs and other animals.

She has also discovered a fascination with research. During her senior year at A&T, she took a combined microscopic anatomy and physiology course — and “fell in love” with looking at different types of organs through a microscope and learning about the intricate nature of cells. She said she’s interested in exploring more about pathobiology while in vet school.

“I loved animals, so I think I thought, oh, I’ll be a dog and cat vet — that’s really all I had known veterinarians as,” said Jackson, who moved with her family to Greensboro when she was 13. “Once I got to undergrad, the entire world of the profession of veterinary medicine cracked open. From that point on, I just wanted to explore. I still do.”

More than Ready

Ask Jackson about her favorite CVM orientation experience and she won’t just pick one.

“It’s a two-way tie between learning to suture, I was so excited to do that, and then doing the improv comedy the first night,” she said. “Just being out there being silly.”

“We said the Veterinarian’s Oath at the White Coat Ceremony, and that is already playing in my mind,” she said. “It felt so real in that moment. It charged me up to want to be great as a veterinarian.”

Jackson enters the CVM with an infectious happiness. Helping her transition to vet school is the fact that her father’s cancer is in remission. He goes back for checkups about twice a year.

“I’m thinking about how much it has changed me and caused me to have such a more positive outlook on things,” Jackson said. “Looking at my father go through everything and keep a positive spirit and sense of humor had a big impact.

“So when people say that school is going to be difficult, I say that it’s going to be hard, but it’s not the end of the world. It’s going to be amazing and we’re following our dreams and we’re going to be a family.”

High school- and undergraduate-era Jackson would have probably felt nervous about not having a detailed map planned out for her four years at vet school. She’s open, but she does have some ideas that are not set in stone. She talked about her intention to apply for a scholarship with the United States Department of Agriculture that would mean summers working at a veterinarian in a rural, underserved location.

But then she quickly transitioned to discussing her interest in a summer spent in a clinical pathology lab. She mentioned possibly becoming a veterinarian with the military.

But what gets Jackson the most excited is, simply, being here.

“We said the Veterinarian’s Oath at the White Coat Ceremony, and that is already playing in my mind,” she said. “It felt so real in that moment. It charged me up to want to be great as a veterinarian.”

She paused and rubbed her hands together, with the enthusiasm of a mountain climber ready for a challenging ascent. “I’m ready,” she said. “Let’s go!”

 Following the class of 2021:

Our look at Shayla Jackson is the third in a series of seven profiles showcasing the diverse, passionate and accomplished minds of the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine Class of 2021.

Head to the CVM news site over the next few months to read more profiles.

~Jordan Bartel/NC State Veterinary Medicine