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Western University Grows Up Fast

By Ken Niedziela

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.”

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


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.

“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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Reader Comments
The article was very informative as a 76 year old I am in the process of joining' most of the paperwork has been done and I was interviewed in East Kansas by the lovely Holly. because I have mostly Brit qualifications things have been a wee bit slow. I did suggest that as my tertiary education covered attending Harvard Summer school in 1981 and gaining A- marks that perhaps the fact that I do not have a GED may be overlooked. I am really looking forward to achieving my life's ambition and hope to be starting an Associateship in the near future - wish me luck!
Roberta, Denison, KS
Posted: 3/23/2014 3:58:45 AM
As a 2008 graduate of Western University of Health Sciences CVM, I would like to clarify the extent of the Banfield hospital experience in the curriculum. It is used as an "on-campus" wellness hospital to start learning clinical skills in the first two years of education. It is not as if we are forced to practice corporate medicine nor practice "the Banfield way." In the grand scheme of the curriculum, it is only a drop in the bucket of veterinary experience gained during the 4 years of training. In fact, I found Western's emphasis on life-long learning and student centered learning a far cry from what most feel Banfield's practice style is. So, while I learned blood draws and catheter placement, among other technical skills at the Banfield wellness center during my first two years, there was no molding us into Banfield doctors. The fact is that Banfield gave a very large sum of money to be a presence on campus and for a veterinary school that was just getting it's footing. I don't think the university could have turned it down.

This happens to be a very common perception of a lot of people in the veterinary community (however, it is getting better as the school graduates more). I urge those who have concerns about the curriculum to ask current students, faculty, or graduates what the curriculum was really like instead of perpetuating incorrect assumptions and misconceptions. Go visit the campus for a day--they are always welcoming to individuals who would like to learn more about the curriculum.

My own personal opinion is that even as the second class the school graduated, even with all the curriculum tweaks and changes during my time there (truly, the first few classes were guinea pigs!), the veterinary education at WesternU was phenomenal (but I will add, not a curriculum for everyone). It truly prepared me not only for the practice of veterinary medicine, but also fine tuned the other "soft skills" that are just as important in making up a competent practitioner.

For the record, I was accepted at Angell Animal Medical Center (Boston) where I completed a rotating internship in small animal medicine and surgery after graduation and I had no problem finding a job in small animal practice, even in the current state of the economy.
WUCVM2008, Vancouver, WA
Posted: 1/2/2010 7:22:15 PM
I am concerned about the extent of the described use of Banfield Veterinary Hospital as a training gropund. The quality of care that I have seen coming from their corporate decision driven practices is often less than would be acceptable at my practice and others where outstanding quality and client service come first.
Students will not likely ever achieve a higher plane of practice than the example set within their school.
John, Morgan Hill, CA
Posted: 12/31/2009 3:15:23 PM
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