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Class of 2020: A Nontraditional Path

For nearly a year, Jeffrey Tyrrell led a double life.

Monday through Friday, week after week, he was an associate attorney working on real estate transactions in San Francisco. But on the weekends, he ditched the suit for a volunteering stint at the Oakland Zoo, helping to care for tigers, lions, camels, bison and elk.

It all started as a way to de-stress and spend time outdoors, to interact with some of the animals he grew up loving. But it soon became much more.

“I’m not sure I expected that I would develop such meaningful relationships with the animals, staff and other volunteers. It felt like a big family,” says Tyrrell. “And since I was looking for a new career, the idea entered my head that the zoo would be an ideal place for me to go to work every day.”

Two years after that life refocus, Tyrrell will enter the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) as part of the class of 2020. His is a nontraditional path to campus, forged with drive and roll-with-the-punches optimism.

For one thing, he’s 41 years old, a bit above the average age for DVM students at NC State. He shrugs this off with a soft-spoken confidence. “I think it’s never really too late to make a change,” says Tyrrell. “The fact that I’m going to be finally doing something that I’m really interested in and hopefully will love to do will make me want to continue doing it for the rest of my life.”

About that “finally” part — that’s the other thing that makes Tyrrell a bit unconventional. He boasts a resume that includes an undergraduate degree from Harvard University (concentration: psychology), a stint working for a software company; graduating from UCLA law school and working for two large law firms. Oh, and there was the 15 months living in Buenos Aires and traveling around South America.

But his career plan came down to something simple: It was being with animals that made him the most happy; it was zoological medicine he was most interested in. Though his work as an attorney was challenging and rewarding in certain ways, he just didn’t feel fulfilled while preparing mortgage loan documents.

And he wasn’t going to let obstacles, such as law-school debt or more time in classrooms, stand in his way. “I just kind of got beyond that and said to myself that this is what I really want and nothing had to be insurmountable obstacles.”

Tyrrell’s shift to veterinary medicine isn’t exactly a surprise. He wanted to be a vet since watching wildlife documentaries on TV as a child growing up in Tampa, Fla. He often went to zoos and spent a lot of time with his family outdoors, camping and canoeing. In sixth grade he had to do a project about what he wanted to be when he grew up and he created a big poster about being a veterinarian. He always had pets — dogs and “every type of small rodent you can think of,” he says.

“I had a couple of snakes, although my parents didn’t know about those,” he says with a laugh followed by a relaxed smile. “They were kept at friends’ houses.”

When he entered Harvard, it wasn’t as though veterinary medicine was forgotten. There were so many opportunities academically and socially that Tyrrell felt a bit overwhelmed by suddenly having so many varied intellectual options. After graduation, and a two-year stint at a software company, he found himself out of work after a dotcom bubble burst. Three years of law school eventually lead to a five-year stint with a law firm.

And then there was Buenos Aires. And a recharge.

“I went to Buenos Aires with three goals: learn Spanish, write some fiction and figure out the next step for myself career-wise,” says Tyrrell.

“The fact that I’m going to be finally doing something that I’m really interested in and hopefully will love to do will make me want to continue doing it for the rest of my life…”

He spent four hours a day, five days a week, studying Spanish. He took in the sunrise at Machu Picchu, watched female professional wrestlers perform in Bolivia and sailed on the Rio de La Plata.

“It was a glorious existence for 15 months,” says Tyrrell, “but by the end I was ready to come home and feel productive again.”

He came home to another associate attorney position, but this time he balanced his work with volunteering at the Oakland Zoo. After two years, he knew it was really both the end of his legal career and the beginning of his veterinary career — “there needed to be something else,” he says.

A plan was underway. He spent the summer of 2014 interning at the South Florida Wildlife Center, experiencing different facets of veterinary medicine, from community outreach to clinic work and rehabilitation and release.

Then it was back to school, a year in the post-baccalaureate program at Meredith College. And for the past year, he’s been able to have direct experiences at CVM. What started as a volunteer experience in the Intracellular Pathogens Research Lab led to a position as a lab technician in the Vector Borne Disease Diagnostic Lab. He’s currently producing a manuscript for a research project involving testing a group of Nicaraguan horses for certain pathogens.

Instead of calling this a drastic career change, call it a career 40 years in the making.

“It took me awhile to get here,” says Tyrrell. “And I think it just took knowing it was OK. I managed to talk myself into it and I’m glad I did.”

~Jordan Bartel/NC State Veterinary Medicine