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An Educational Journey

Man and woman in blue scrubs and gloves

The back of Paw Prints Veterinary Clinic in Morgantown is full to bursting on this early summer day in 2016. A handful of students in scrubs, a pair of graduate students and a gaggle of veterinary technicians and assistants are looking on as George Seiler, managing veterinarian at the clinic, demonstrates how to sedate and intubate a young female dog who’s about to be spayed.

Some of the students are giggling nervously, but most are riveted to this very hands-on lesson. “For most of these students, this is the first time they’ve been involved in a spay or neuter procedure,” said veterinary technician Carly Protzman.

A moment later, Seiler asks several students to assist. A few brave hands shoot up.

None of the undergraduate students will take part in the actual surgery, which happens in an adjoining surgical room.

But the experience of assisting — and getting outside their comfort zones — will serve them well this summer, when they embark on a service-learning experience where they will be volunteering at a spay and neuter clinic, among many other experiences, more than 2,300 miles away in the Caribbean.

Taylor Rhodes, Gabbrial Conley, Kelsey VanSickle and Curtis Patton — a graduate of the agribusiness management and rural development program, a forest resources management major, an agriculture and extension education major, and an animal and nutritional sciences major — are preparing to spend 16 days in Trinidad and Tobago learning new cultures, exploring an exotic landscape and, of course, experiencing animal medicine and agricultural business practices abroad.

“I’m just looking forward to the whole thing. I want to see and do everything I can,” Rhodes said.

Marlon Knights, associate professor of animal and nutritional sciences and a native of Trinidad, oversees the students’ prep work at the local vet’s office.

“One thing I always stress to my students is that I believe research should always have a positive impact. It’s one thing to discover something, but how will it translate into helping someone?”

Knights will not only be chaperoning these students on their summer excursion to the Caribbean, he will be leading their entire experiential education — along with animal physiology graduate student Ashleigh Nabers — as he has since the program’s beginnings in 2012.

“I began this trip partly as a way of reconnecting and maintaining my connection to my home. I wanted to bring what I learned back to my colleagues there and share their knowledge with my students.”

It started as a service trip with just a few students, but it has since evolved into a study abroad program tailored to pre-vet students and animal science majors — a program that offers students invaluable cultural as well as hands-on education.

“Study-abroad courses increase our students’ knowledge of the world and their ability to communicate and work among diverse populations, stimulates the development of new business or development ideas, [and] enhances students’ awareness of global issues and their ability to compete globally,” Knights says.

Knights’ study-abroad, service-based course is designed to provide students with hands-on experience with everything from animal health and disease to service learning and development activities. In past years, students have visited governmental and non-governmental farms and zoos; accompanied government and university veterinary and health professionals on service calls; participated in farm tours and student practical exercises; and taken in local culture on the islands’ famous beaches and historical sites.

Service-learning opportunities during the trip run the gamut, from book drives in rural communities to environmental enhancement projects.

In 2016, after a significant amount of preparation, this handful of students embarked on their Trinidad and Tobago study abroad experience and came back with a wealth of knowledge.

The students’ itinerary included everything from a behind-the-scenes zoo experience to a visit at the Caroni Bird Sanctuary. For Kelsey VanSickle, assisting in a local spay/neuter clinic was one of her most memorable experiences.

But interacting with the people also gave her a completely new perspective.

As for the trip overall, she would recommend it to any student with a passion for animals and a desire to experience other cultures.

“My advice to students considering going on the trip would be to do everything you can. I enjoyed seeing the beautiful landscapes, experiencing the culture and trying new things. It was a wonderful experience.”

“My favorite part of the trip was really getting to experience the Trinidadian culture, the people there, and of course the food,” says graduate student Nabers.

She will never forget how quickly she felt welcomed by the people she met.

“The biggest lesson I learned is that people, wherever they are in the world, have the same basic needs, and that based on location, some of those needs are met, some are not and some are met with a different approach than what I’m accustomed to.”

Her advice to students considering the trip next year?

“If they are truly wanting to experience something great, they should go for it. Just bring extra bug spray.”