Military veterans face numerous challenges when transitioning to civilian life. Choosing an advanced degree at Colorado State University should not be one of them.

Thanks to a generous gift from Dr. Michael Buffum (B.S., ’70; D.V.M., ’72) and his wife, Kathleen, that is starting to change.

The newly established VetRams Program is a partnership between the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and Adult Learner and Veteran Services to provide academic and financial support to student-veterans pursuing a professional degree in veterinary medicine.

“I believe the attitude of service and the life experiences of our veterans add significant value to the fabric of the veterinarian profession,” said Dr. Buffum, a veterinarian who served in both the U.S. Navy Reserve and the U.S. Air Force.

How it all started

Dr. Buffum’s early years were a mix of purposeful endeavors and doing what was needed to survive. He joined the U.S. Navy Reserve in high school and spent two years on an aircraft carrier in the early 1960s before embarking on an academic path and becoming a student at CSU in 1966. His roommate at the time applied to the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and dared him to do the same. He got in, his roommate did not.

“I knew being admitted to the vet school was a tremendous opportunity,” Dr. Buffum said, and the GI Bill made it possible.

After graduating with his Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 1972, he accepted a commission with the U.S. Air Force and was stationed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines from 1972 to 1974, where he served as a base veterinarian. After he separated from active service, the Buffums settled in Los Angeles, where he eventually became part of a larger, multispecialty practice “and never really looked back,” he said.

Crafting a solution

The success of his 45-year career as a small-animal veterinarian has given Dr. Buffum plenty to reflect on. “It’s been a really good ride, so I started looking at things that could conceivably address how to get more veterans into the profession and help minimize their debt.”

He believes veterans make good veterinarians because “they have a desire to be of service, and they have already demonstrated discipline, leadership, and maturity, and tend to be strongly put together through their military experiences.” The benefits of those characteristics, however, may not be realized if student-veterans don’t have a way to pay for the additional education.

The GI Bill typically covers four years of higher education, and if it’s used for a four-year undergraduate degree, there is less incentive for student-veterans to incur significant debt by investing four more years to earn a D.V.M.

That’s why Dr. Buffum likes how CVMBS considers the admission of pre-veterinary students into the DVM Program after they complete 60 undergraduate credits, including some specific required courses, without completing a formal degree. Reducing the time to enter the DVM Program and offering scholarships to the veteran candidates opens the door of opportunity wider.

Building an effective program

The VetRams Program takes a multifaceted approach to increasing the number of veterans pursuing a D.V.M. and reducing the cost.

For currently enrolled student-veterans, the plan is to identify the ones who are serious about applying to the D.V.M. Program and provide them the support services necessary to succeed. For prospective student-veterans, the focus is on outreach and preparation that promotes a D.V.M. as a viable career option. Once the program is fully endowed at $5 million, the goal is to provide two student-veterans with full-cost scholarships of $65,000 a year for four years.

Adult Learner and Veteran Services is transitioning the VetRams Program from the planning stage to a tangible reality.

“With any program, I start by asking the constituents what they need and want,” said Lisa Chandler, the acting director of ALVS. “It’s a very specific population – student-veterans who want to go to vet school – but if we don’t involve the actual students we’re trying to target, the program won’t be as robust as it could be.”

The new VetRams student coordinator, Ken Schmidt (B.S., ’19), a veteran and second-year D.V.M. student, is assisting Chandler in setting up the program to maximize its potential. With 23 years of service in the U.S. Marine Corps and the Navy Reserve along with a civilian career, Schmidt has a wealth of experience to draw from. He is in the process of determining which student-veterans want to earn their D.V.M. (some have self-identified as pre-vet students, but others have not) and helping them submit successful applications.

“I’m hoping to be a liaison for student advising, to help coordinate what they’re doing academically and to make sure they’re not spinning their wheels,” Schmidt said.

Chandler and Schmidt are planning to host a series of focus groups this summer with current student-veterans in CVMBS; current undergraduate student-veterans planning to pursue a D.V.M.; and postgraduate student-veterans and practicing veterinarians who can identify common themes in their experiences that could be addressed by the VetRams Program.

The importance of mentoring

Stephanie Maloy
Stephanie Maloy

Both Chandler and Schmidt expect peer mentorship to be very popular.

“I think that community and mentorship will potentially be the most successful parts of the program,” Chandler said. “Having mentors is really what helps you feel held, so when you’re in those moments of maybe feeling defeated, there’s someone who can help talk you through that.”

Stephanie Maloy (M.N.R.S., ’14; M.S. ’17) is excited about the mentoring as well. She is a fourth-year D.V.M. student who served in the U.S. Air Force and is one of the first two student-veterans awarded the VetRams scholarship for the 2020-2021 academic year.

“When you’re in the military and nowhere near the veterinary field, you’re kind of shooting in the dark trying to figure out if this is something you can do, what’s required to get in, and how to manage the GI Bill,” Maloy said. “So, I really like the mentorship aspects of the program, where veterans who want to go to vet school have someone to talk to and learn about their experiences and how they managed it.”

“The idea of the program overall,” Chandler said, “is to remove roadblocks and help student-veterans succeed faster. Some of them may have been in the service for six or eight years, and now they’re potentially looking at eight years of school, which can feel overwhelming. When veterans help other students succeed, though, it really becomes another act of service, and that’s such a great opportunity and positive for everyone involved.”