Kier Way knew he wanted to be a veterinarian when he was 5 years old, but rarely saw Black veterinarians as he grew up.
“Sometimes I would get discouraged and nearly have a change of heart,” says Way. ‘Sometimes you feel like you’re alone.”
Way, a member of the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine’s class of 2022, was determined to make things better for future generations.
Shortly after entering the CVM in 2019, he approached the pastor of his church, Apex First Baptist Church. which has a predominantly Black congregation, about starting a program to encourage kids of all ages to get involved with science, math and technology, as well as the arts.
And it’s working.
“I wanted to show kids that the opportunities are there and to allow them to be exposed to what’s involved,” he says. Inspired by the example of his own mentors and eager to help open doors for others, Way’s mentoring efforts have involved kids from as young as 5 years old to 18-year-old high-school seniors.
With the assistance of Mat Gerard, CVM teaching professor of anatomy, Way’s first mentoring session at the church involved borrowing specimens from the CVM’s anatomy lab, allowing kids to view the hearts of different animal species preserved in jars.
All were given lab notebooks to take notes as they visited five different viewing stations. Afterward, they were quizzed about what they saw and learned, with prizes for correct responses. “We wanted to create an actual learning environment for them,” Way says.
Although the ability to schedule sessions has been hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Way was still able to arrange for such guest speakers as Lysa Posner, CVM professor of anesthesiology, and representatives from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Adams School of Dentistry. A total of 60 kids have attended one or more of the six sessions Way has conducted so far. Way tries to hold a session every three months.
For future sessions, Way hopes to focus on technology, demonstrate mathematical principles through physics and generally broaden the ways young people at his church can explore the possibilities that can be open to them.
“I remember when I was in my first year of vet school I had one classmate whose parents were both doctors,” Way says. “I felt like I was starting out from behind and playing catch-up.
“These classes give the kids exposure to role models that help them gain knowledge and experience. To see the kids so engaged and see what they remember is amazing. I wish I’d had that kind of early development experience.”
Way says the lack of role models and access to information when he was younger made pursuing a career in veterinary medicine difficult. People of color have been historically underrepresented in veterinary medicine. According to the career research firm Zippia, in 2021 14.6 percent of veterinarians in the United States are people of color, with only 1.7 percent African American. Another recent study from the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges, estimated that 80 percent of veterinarians in the United States are white.
“At NC State I felt included. I’ve never felt more support,” says Way. “They walk the talk on diversity, especially the CVM. The vet school has been amazing. They’ve definitely gone above and beyond.”
Way has had some inspiring mentors. He credits Shweta Trivedi, a teaching associate professor in NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, with being an important adviser who helped him along his academic journey, and Allen Cannedy, the CVM’s director of diversity and multicultural affairs, with providing critical guidance and encouragement. Trivedi was one of Way’s professors in the animal sciences when he was an undergraduate. She also directs VetPAC, NC State’s Veterinary Professions Advising Center.
Way did well in Trivedi’s class and she quickly learned of his interest in a career in veterinary medicine. She assisted him with getting early developmental experiences, like studying abroad at a South African game reserve and attending a pre-veterinary conference. Cannedy, who is also a practicing mobile ruminant veterinarian, let Way shadow him during his work visits and wrote one of Way’s letters of recommendation when he applied at the CVM.
“Kier is a very special young man who deserves the best that life has to offer,” Cannedy says. “He is an extremely hard worker who is dedicated to becoming a veterinarian. His faith and values make him a valuable asset to our CVM community.
“He is a role model for what humanity should stand for and represents the excellence that we boast of in our veterinary profession.”
Way hopes his program will increase young people’s awareness of what career options are available to them, even if they haven’t seen many role models who look like them. He saw the impact it made on a young man who attended a session featuring Posner.
“He was 10 or 11 years old, and he said he wanted to be an anesthesiologist because he likes putting people to sleep,” says Way. “Everyone laughed when he said it, but I watched him as he was talking to Dr. Posner. His eyes got wide, and I could tell that he was thinking, ‘Wow, I could really do this.’
“He’s around 13 now, and he still talks about it.”
~Steve Volstad/NC State Veterinary Medicine