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Class of 2021: Big Change, Exciting Future

On top of a mountain in Maine, far above the tree line and far away from home, Dylan Harver proposed to his girlfriend, Emma.

The newly engaged couple was hiking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail three years ago, all the way down to Springer Mountain in Georgia. The proposal was just the beginning. Six months, 14 states, and 2,200 miles later, the journey would end and another would quickly begin.

When they started on the trail, they had both just left their jobs — Dylan had spent the past four years teaching middle school math, Emma was with a nonprofit — without new jobs waiting for them. They had given up their house in Asheville and all of their belongings were in storage in his mom’s basement. After the trail, they planned to live with her parents in Charlotte as they figured out what would come next. They were, in a sense, free.

They hiked together during the day and talked at night, setting up their tent nightly and stopping once a week to buy food and take a real shower.

Then one day, Emma asked, “What are you going to do when we get back?”

Dylan had a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in teaching so he talked a bit about going back to school, but the plan was dispassionate and amorphous. He couldn’t say what he thought he wanted to study.

She asked again, “OK, but what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. What do you think I should do?” he responded.

And she said, directly and simply, “You should be a vet.”

He scoffed at first. A career in veterinary medicine wasn’t at all on his radar. He had never thought of it. Suddenly it was all he could think about.

“The office manager told me, ‘I knew to take you seriously when you came in because you were wearing a suit even though you were applying to clean poop,” Harver said.

During the hike, Emma would stress that he’d get to work with his hands, which he loved, and that it’s also intellectual work. She reminded him that he had a passion for animals, one he didn’t quite recognize in himself. She said being a vet also involves problem solving and figuring things out analytically — and that was him completely.

Then, he finally said two fateful words: “You’re right.”

“You know, when she first said that, it was almost kind of silly,” Harver said. “And then it slowly was just this seed that grew and grew. It seemed like all the skills I’ve learned in my life were lined up to be this thing. To do this.”

Going All In

Harver’s rigorous trip on the trail was followed by a challenging road toward becoming a member of North Carolina State University’s Class of 2021.

But it was a self-designed path, precisely planned to include as many veterinary medicine-related experiences as possible.

It was like another mountain to climb. He didn’t have much lab experience. While getting his degrees at UNC-Chapel Hill, he had only taken geology and astronomy as required science credits. So he went to get his associate’s degree at Durham Tech, signing up for introductory chemistry and physics courses.

The pre-requisites were only part of the plan. At the same time he was enrolled in prerequisite courses, he sought out the hands-on experience he needed and craved.

He put on a suit and went to every veterinary hospital in the area until he got a kennel attendant job at Triangle Veterinary Hospital in Durham.

“The office manager told me, ‘I knew to take you seriously when you came in because you were wearing a suit even though you were applying to clean poop,” Harver said.

Within a month, he moved up into an assistant role. After another month he was promoted again to technician and was running the ICU. He was always asking questions — how to do this procedure, what that surgery is like. He would come in to work on his days off just to observe. All told, he estimates logging 2,400 hours of vet experience before even setting foot on campus.

He immediately liked all of it. It felt right and it felt natural. And that felt wonderful.

“It was really one of the greatest things that ever happened to me,” Harver said. “It was the first time I think in my life that I realized I was in the place I was supposed to be. I was fiercely independent growing up so I didn’t have a lot of guidance, people telling me, ‘Oh, you should do this or try this or you’re good at this.’”

It wasn’t that Harver had ever disliked science. It was just an academic area he never actively explored. While attending high school at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, he was more likely to become engrossed by a history class or participate in a theater production than spend time behind a microscope.

“I like to do puzzles,” Harver said. “Right now I have all the pieces of a new puzzle. I’ve put in the corner pieces and I’m building the rest.”

What he did get from high school was a passion for teaching. Born in Long Island, N.Y., to a car mechanic father and stay-at-home mother, Harver moved to Mooresville, N.C., during fourth grade after his father got a job at an auto shop in NASCAR country. “We were the only ones on Long Island who watched NASCAR every week and listened to Garth Brooks,” he said.

Harver always loved reading about history — he gobbled up historical fiction — and yearned for intellectually challenging courses and teachers. He got that at Science and Math, and when a recruiter from the Teaching Fellows program visited campus, he signed up.

“I love teaching. It’s a really tough profession but it was something I always felt drawn to,” Harver said. “I wouldn’t take back my four years of service. But with animals and vet med, it was a part of me that I almost didn’t notice. It operated in my internal software and I didn’t know it was in there until Emma stood on the outside pointed it out.”

In the years leading up to enrolling in the CVM, Harver hasn’t just gotten the experiences he so wanted — he has been transfixed by them. Moving into a veterinary technician role, he has worked on iguanas and helped spay rabbits and miniature pigs. For two weeks one summer, he rode along with a large animal vet helping with herd checks, treating foot rot, and herding cows in and out of fields.

He had also found a mentor at Triangle Veterinary Hospital. When Cora Beth Lanier, a class of 2012 CVM alum, left to open her own practice, Middle Creek Veterinary Hospital and Exotic Animal Clinic in Raleigh, she asked Dylan to come along. While there as a vet tech, he brought a blowfish with an eye injury to the CVM and watched as Greg Lewbart, professor of aquatic animal medicine, and his team perform a CT scan and an ultrasound on the eye.

Harver stood to the side and yearned to be in the thick of it.

“There really hasn’t been an area so far that I haven’t been interested in doing,” he said. “I can see myself working at a hospital and maybe I do farm calls in the morning and then go see somebody’s rabbit and a couple of dogs in the afternoon.

“I considered being a veterinary dentist,” he said, “but then I wouldn’t get to spay a pig.”

A New Beginning

As eager as Harver is to do as much as possible during his four years at vet school, he said he’s committed to maintaining a balanced life. It’s hard for him to sit still, even on weekends. When he has a day off, he’s likely to be outside taking his motorcycle apart and putting it back together again.

He plays the guitar, the ukulele, the mandolin, and the synthesizer — as well as trying out some “light drumming.” Emma plays the violin, and the couple perform as a duo at weddings, including their own in 2015.

But veterinary medicine is what is primarily on his mind right now, as it has been for years. There’s only one thing left to do: start.

“I like to do puzzles,” Harver said. “Right now I have all the pieces of a new puzzle. I’ve put in the corner pieces and I’m building the rest.

“It’s not overwhelming. It feels exciting to be starting a new life.”

 Following the class of 2021:

Our look at Dylan Harver is the first in a series of seven profiles looking at 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