Commentary: The power of mentorship: Knowledge is not enough

April 8, 2021
Peter Eyre, DVM&S, BSc, BVMS, PhD

“Education is what remains when you have forgotten all the facts you ever learned.” —Albert Einstein

Veterinary education involves more than just acquiring special knowledge and skills but must also convey a broad array of values, attitudes, and behaviors that cannot be taught using the didactic curriculum. Mentoring, a crucial part of veterinary education, is more vital than ever as the profession continues to experience major socioeconomic challenges.

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has significantly impacted financial resources for higher education. Just like other professional schools, veterinary colleges were forced to shift most of their curriculum from in-person to online. Given the ongoing budget cuts, it’s no surprise that virtual teaching continues to monopolize veterinary education today. However, the increasingly remote connection between students and teachers is a major concern—not only in the clinical disciplines— but in biomedical sciences as well. The veterinary colleges must do more than transmit information and ensure that students participate actively in their professional education and training.

Whey mentorship matters

In my limited discussions, many veterinary students say they have supportive online instructors but admit that the lack of in-person interaction with teachers and fellow classmates is a significant deficiency in their education.

Students are unique individuals conditioned by a variety of past cultural experiences. Optimal opportunities for personal development require a flexible support system that offers effective in-person relationships with mentors who can guide students through the educational process. All students must cope with pressures, personal life disruptions, and in some cases, excessive educational debts. These issues demonstrate a dire need for mental health counseling as part of the mentoring process.

Developing a mentorship program

We tend to think of the mentor-mentee relationship as one-sided, but it is (or should be) a partnership. For me, there was nothing more rewarding than discussing contemporary issues with younger colleagues, many of whom had keener minds than myself. This “reverse mentoring” allowed me to gain new perspectives that changed my thinking and improved my leadership capabilities.

Developing a comprehensive mentoring program isn’t easy and might be approached differently by various institutions depending on the number of available advisors, budget limits, and more. Most colleges engage veterinarians outside the university—in general practice, government agencies, and corporate organizations —to serve as teachers and mentors in clinical rotations. Student engagement in the real world is a unique form of educational mentoring that may include business and political experience.

The willingness of busy faculty members and practitioners to devote significant time and energy to students’ general professional education will depend on whether or not their contributions are recognized and rewarded. In this regard, the values and attitudes of deans and department heads can be more important than the mere numerical assessment of teaching effectiveness. Strong collegiate leadership and dedicated resources are necessary for successful mentoring.

The bottom line

Veterinary education as we once knew it is gone and not coming back anytime soon. Irresistible changes are already overtaking us with high stakes. As we move forward, we have an unquestionable duty to maintain the excellent scientific and technical education that is the acknowledged strength of the current system. However, we must also fortify the professional development of veterinary students so they can make the best possible contributions to the field in the future.

Peter Eyre, DVM&S, BVMS, BSc, PhD, is professor and dean emeritus at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary in Blacksburg, Virginia.