Open your doors: Why you should offer externships in your veterinary practice


Consider opening your practice to externships for foreign students. No only will you make the difference in the life of a young person, but you'll reap the rewards culturally and personally.

If you’ve been a practicing veterinarian long enough, you may be looking for that spark to reignite your passion for practice. One way to do that and make a difference in young peoples’ lives is to mentor veterinary students and newly graduated veterinarians. For 1980 graduate Dr. Tom Gus, owner of University Animal Hospital (UVH) in Tempe, Ariz., mentoring has taken a decidedly foreign flair. Beginning in the early 1980’s, Dr. Gus began inviting veterinary students to visit his practice. Most of these students had worked for him prior to veterinary school and decided to come back to his practice for externships.

When Dr. Gus’s new facility was featured in Veterinary Economics in 1996, he discovered an opportunity to expand his externship program and give back to the profession. This was important to Dr. Gus because he was strongly influenced by his mentor from his veterinary school days, Dr. Ray Weitkamp. Dr. Weitkamp had been instrumental in Dr. Gus’s choice of veterinary medicine as a career and Dr. Gus wanted to have that same impact on students.

Because Dr. Gus posted externship availability throughout the U.S. and Canadian veterinary schools, AAHA, and the AVMA, foreign students began to show interest in coming to the United States to spend time in his busy veterinary practice. The first foreign extern was a senior veterinary student from Mexico. He spent six weeks at UVH and, after graduation, returned to UVH to work as a technician. After he completed the necessary requirements, he became licensed to practice veterinary medicine in the U.S.

Opening doors for foreign students

After his first experience with a foreign extern, Dr. Gus began encouraging more international students to apply for his externships. Currently, 40 percent of UVH externs are from outside the U.S., from countries like Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Columbia, Costa Rica, Scotland, Malaysia, Philippines, South Africa, Peru, India, Grenada, Korea, Germany, Hungary, France, and Croatia. “With foreign students, our externship program focuses on introducing them to the day-to-day functions of a typical small animal practice in the U.S.,” Dr. Gus says. Once the externs are comfortable with the new environment, Dr. Gus teams them up with each of his 10 veterinarians on a rotating basis. Because UVH’s veterinarians graduated anywhere from three years ago to more than 30 years ago, the externs receive a range of teaching experience. “Depending on a student’s interest and year in school, most tend to develop a specific area of interest where they ultimately focus their time,” he says.

Although UVH has an apartment where students can live during their externship, many take Dr. Gus up on his offer and stay in his home. Dr. Gus says he and his family benefit greatly from this cultural exchange and the informal family setting allows for a deeper understanding on both sides. Often, his family and the externs form a strong emotional bond that results in them staying in touch many years later with letters, emails and pictures. “All of the foreign students have a tremendous desire to learn from their experiences during their externship,” Dr. Gus says. And although their personal and educational backgrounds have varied widely, he says, each student adapts to a typical American lifestyle and the fast pace at UVH. “Each task they perform, no matter how mundane or difficult, is completed quickly and with a smile,” Dr. Gus says. “It gives me tremendous satisfaction to watch the maturation of each student and stimulates a strong desire for me to continue this program.”

Memorable cultural experiences

Many of Dr. Gus’ memories come from his exposure to the foreign cuisine his international students prepared. “I remember on more than one occasion exotic fragrances floating down the stairway from the upstairs apartment as a student prepared his or her local cuisine,” he says. “This became a tremendous benefit for my family as more and more students began staying at my house.”

Katja, a junior veterinary student from Germany, spent three months at UVH and stayed at the Gus home. During that time, she cooked several authentic German meals, including Hackfleischtopf (ground beef and leek stew), Tomatenbrot (tomato bread), and Spaghetti mit Spinat (spaghetti with spinach). “Even my family’s somewhat picky appetite was turned around by Katja’s cooking,” Dr. Gus says. As a bonus, UVH benefited from Katja’s culinary skills at Christmas when her mother sent a care package containing, among other things, Pfeffernüsse (small gingerbread with white frosting), Lebkuchen (bigger round gingerbread with an edible wafer on the bottom), and Christstollen (fruitcake). Katja’s fondest memory at UVH was when she assisted during an endoscopic foreign body removal and broke the biopsy forceps, depositing some of the stomach material on the surgeon’s lap.

For some students, adapting to the Tempe, Ariz., climate is a challenge at first. As part of the Valley of the Sun, the area is famous and infamous for its weather. While winters are truly spectacular, summers can be unbearable. Eddie and Sonny, sophomore veterinary students from Malaysia, spent the better part of a summer at UVH. They expected the Arizona summer weather to be a piece of cake. But comments such as, “This must be the hottest place on earth,” indicated this was not the case. “I have to hand it to them,” Dr. Gus says. “After two weeks of acclimation they spent all of their free time biking and walking all over Tempe.”

Dr. Gus says he’s come to understand through his experiences with these young, intelligent, and yearning-to-learn individuals how fundamentally the same we all are. “We laugh the same way, we hurt the same ways, and our faces reflect our emotions the same way,” he says. “Despite how different we may look or sound, we’re all really similar at heart. I can only hope I’ve affected their lives. I know I’ve received something greater in the process—more than I can ever express.”

Dr. Robert Koch is an associate veterinarian at University Animal Hospital in Tempe, Ariz.

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