Western University Grows Up Fast

Posted: December 8, 2009



Published:

The newest U.S. veterinary school isn’t following the tried-and-true paths of its esteemed predecessors, and it makes no apologies.

“Because we’re the newest of the 28 colleges, our original plan was written to incorporate a lot of the educational advances that people had been talking about doing but never really incorporated,” says Phillip D. Nelson, DVM, Ph.D, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences.

The private, nonprofit graduate university was founded in 1977 with a single college: osteopathic medicine. Since then, the university has expanded to nine colleges in Pomona, Calif., with the College of Veterinary Medicine starting up in 1998 and the colleges of podiatric medicine, optometry and dental medicine emerging in 2009.

A problem-based veterinary education is No. 1 from Day 1.

“A problem-based curriculum essentially allows students to largely determine their schedule—how much they’re going to study, what they’re going to study, in which manner they’re going to study, what they’re going to study first and second, etc.,” Dr. Nelson says.

“We tether the facts that they learn to an actual problem. That tends to promote long-term learning rather than learning for an exam and erasing it to learn for the next exam.”

Such an approach, Nelson says, develops “soft skills that traditional curriculum has a tough time addressing.”

“Soft skills include communication skills, the ability to work on a team, the ability to utilize various modes of information management in order to solve problems,” he says.

Clinical learning begins extra early at Western: in Year 1.

“Our goal is to graduate practice-ready veterinarians,” Nelson says. “What better way to have them practice-ready than to train them in clinics as opposed to putting them in a hospital that has all the bells and whistles but primarily is designed to take referrals.

“We start training students in clinical skills from Year 1 because we accelerate putting them in the clinics. They are put in clinical settings in Year 3 as opposed to Year 4.”

The clinics range from the on-campus variety—Banfield, the Pet Hospital, operates next door to the Veterinary Medical Center—to the region’s many private clinics.

“The preceptors make the decision case by case as to how much a student will do … based on how complicated the procedure is and how competent the student may be at the time,” Nelson says.

The 22-acre downtown campus, made up of remodeled storefronts and offices and newly erected buildings, accommodates about 2,300 students, including nearly 400 in the veterinary college.

Its Southern California location is a definite lure. Beaches, mountains and the desert are within an hour’s drive. As Nelson puts it: “You can golf and ski on the same day.”

Large-animal experience happens at the nearby farms of Cal Poly Pomona and Mount San Antonio College. Dairy students are sent to Central California and beef students to Clay Center, Neb.—all for two-week stints.

As a relatively new college, Western’s vet school holds limited accreditation from the American Veterinary Medical Association. Nelson is confident of obtaining full accreditation in March, when the AVMA’s Council on Education next meets.

A January 2008 visit by the COE told Western’s administrators that they had work to do in the areas of faculty numbers, research and some procedures.

The veterinary school had about 36 faculty members at the time. This fall it had 54 and “our goal is to acquire 58,” Nelson says.

Western moved quickly to remedy the COE’s concerns about the research program. “For the past five to seven years our focus has been primarily on developing the curriculum and making sure it was of sufficient quality,” Nelson says. “As of a year ago we began to shift more faculty into research.

“We’ll probably never be a research Category 1 institution,” Nelson says, “but I personally believe that any scientific faculty has an obligation to contribute to the scholarly data and to discover new knowledge in our areas of interest. Our faculty want that opportunity, and if we’re going to retain faculty they must have that opportunity. Our research is embryonic but growing.”

Western’s Petri dish is home to research into avian influenza, SARS and feline immunodeficiency virus, to name just a few.

Nearly 740 students applied for admission to the class seated this past fall. Of those, 308 were granted interviews and about 105 enrolled.

“Like any other veterinary school, we want to make sure the student has a reasonable chance of succeeding in the curriculum, so the student must have a good academic record,” Nelson says of the selection process. “We do not just glean the top GPA students. We believe the best professionals are good people who have a good work ethic, have moral values acceptable to society and believe in giving back to society. That’s difficult to evaluate in a 23-, 24-year-old who has not had a lot of experience.

“We will teach them to be a veterinarian, so animal experience is only important to (a point). We also try to select as diverse a student body as we can. We try to match the face of California and the United States.”

The stagnant economy hasn’t impaired Western University of Health Sciences.

“We’re tuition-driven,” Nelson says. “Unless our applicant pool is impacted by their ability to pay tuition, we’re not impacted.

“The quality of our faculty applicant pool has actually improved,” he says. “We’ve perversely benefited from some of the other schools’ pains.

At a Glance

Location: Pomona, Calif.

Annual Tuition: $40,105

Class of 2013 GRE Scores:

  • Average GRE, Verbal: 494
  • Average GRE, Quantitative: 634
  • Average GRE, Analytical Writing: 4.00

Website: www.WesternU.edu

“I say all this with my fingers crossed because I think everyone in the country says, ‘Is it over?’ I don’t want to wave our flag too high.” <HOME>

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