Raena Eldridge is a dreamer with a plan, someone whose seemingly lofty goals have always been reachable because she never thought otherwise.
When Eldridge wanted to swim when she was 4, she did. Her parents cheered her on from the hot, humid pool decks during countless team meets.
When she knew she wanted to work with animals from an early age, she did. She shadowed her family’s veterinarian, taking in every animal she encountered, filing away every procedure she watched, listening to the ways veterinarians talk with animal owners, how they connect, how they earn trust.
When Eldridge decided to swim at Texas A&M University, she eventually was made a captain of the team for two years. At the same time, she stuck to a pre-veterinary medicine track, balancing her class load as a double major in animal science and genetics with a grueling athletic schedule. She worked in a genetics lab while also notching impressive times in the 50 free and 100 back.
Eldridge was named the 2020 Arthur Ashe, Jr. Female Sports Scholar of the Year not long before finding out she was admitted to the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine’s class of 2024. And on Tuesday, just one day after she began classes at the CVM on Aug. 10, Eldridge earned a nomination for NCAA Woman of the Year. She’s one of just 59 student-athletes from the Division I level to receive the honor.
“My whole life has been swimming and veterinary medicine — they’ve always gone together,” says Eldridge. “I wouldn’t say there’s anything magical or special about me necessarily. It is just a desire and a commitment. Once you make that commitment, you just kind of make it work.”
The tricky part is deciding what to commit to now. Eldridge enters the CVM with a declared mixed animal focus, often incoming veterinary student code for wanting to do it all. In the same breath, she mentions enjoying small companion animal medicine, but also how much she’s interested in horses and cows, is open to continuing genetics work and also wants to explore zoological medicine.
She also wants to travel. Though a Texas native, a chunk of Eldridge’s childhood was spent in China as her parents worked as missionaries. In college, she took part in a two-week trip to South Africa and Botswana, shadowing veterinarians. One day she helped move a herd of impalas on the ground as veterinarians guided the work in helicopters high above.
“In any veterinary field you look at, for me it all ties back to the people behind it, too,” says Eldridge. “You take care of your companion animals because of their emotional ties to their owners. You take care of food animals because their owners are reliant on them financially With wildlife conservation, you want to keep these animals around so your children can grow up in a world where they exist.
“With all of my experiences, every time I was immersed in it. I just felt so intellectually stimulated. I wanted to know everything. I was fascinated.”
Eldridge needed a veterinary school that could support her passions. At first, it seemed like her alma mater Texas A&M, with its highly regarded veterinary school, would be the place. Her father and her two brothers are also alums. But as an undergraduate, Eldridge kept hearing about NC State from her veterinary mentors, particularly about its affordability for both in-state and out-of-state students, she says.
She applied, and in January she flew to Raleigh straight from a swim meet in Louisiana for an out-of-state students welcome weekend.
“There was just something about NC State that I really loved — the facilities, the library, the different labs,” says Eldridge. “But it was more the people. I felt something I can’t really fully explain in words.
“There was an instant feeling that there’s a collective desire to work well together, that everyone is working for your success, both faculty and other students. Everyone is heading in the same direction. Each faculty member wants to be a person in your life, not just a teacher.”
But one thing sealed the deal for Eldridge. She applied for the Michele M. and Ross M. Annable Scholarship, which covers up to half of tuition each year for CVM students and especially values community volunteerism.
For Eldridge, who’s overarching career goal is not achieving a specific job title, but fulfilling “a purpose in life to serve society, to be someone my community can rely on to make their lives and their animals lives better,” the Annable Scholarship resonated.
“This was something I’ve been working for my entire life, and suddenly I had this letter from NC State saying I’m going to vet school,” says Eldridge. “It is finally happening. It’s no longer just wanting to do this or trying to do this, but now you’re going to do this. It’s a surreal moment.”
But it’s a moment Eldridge is ready for. She always has been.
~Jordan Bartel/NC State Veterinary Medicine