By: Dr. Karen Stoufer

“Watch this”, said Dr. Murray, the experienced large animal vet who had invited me, a pre-vet hopeful city girl, to go on my first-ever farm call with him.  I stood there in the dark shed, while Dr. Murray approached the old cow with the broken horn in a muddy pen. He gave no indication of what he was going to do and then swung up the large keystone dehorner and removed the horn and top of the skull all at once. Blood spurted out, the cow bellowed and Dr. Murray turned to look at me. I realized this was a test.  Was I going to faint or cry or was I a female worth mentoring toward a veterinary career? The test was unfair but at the time, there were fewer than 500 female veterinarians in the entire country and many practitioners were opposed to women in the profession.  Luckily, I neither cried nor fainted, nor told him what I was thinking about such unfair tests (!), and he and his partner became encouragers and mentors for the next few years, leading up to my acceptance into Cornell’s veterinary college.

I was blessed to have many people who encouraged me, starting with my parents.  When I decided to be a vet at age 12, after a local vet heroically saved my dog from a pyometra, my parents encouraged me to do it.  Of course, lots of 12-year-old girls wanted to be vets, but unlike most, I just never grew out of it.

When I was in high school, I earned a Girl Scout animal care service bar under the tutelage of Dr. Phyllis Larsen, a 1947 graduate of Kansas State Veterinary College.  So when people told me women couldn’t be veterinarians or go into large animal practice, I knew first hand that they could.  The vision of a successful woman vet that Dr. Larsen gave me carried me through all the attempts to discourage me from trying.

I was privileged to be at the turning point for women in veterinary medicine.  When I entered veterinary college, the senior class ahead of me had only five women in a class of 61 graduates.  Yet my class had 22 women admitted to a class of 72, the harbinger of the demographic changes in our profession.  By 2010, 50% of all veterinarians in the USA were women and veterinary students were 80% women.

The significance of role models and encouragers should not be underestimated. None of us would be where we are without those who stood beside us in our struggles, celebrated our achievements with us, and prayed for us without ceasing.

Gender-related challenges did not stop with graduation. When I was pregnant, I was laid off from my job and had an interview cancelled at another when they learned I was pregnant.  I started my own house call practice to get the flexibility I needed to have time with my young daughters.  One of my favorite calls was to a cocker spaniel having puppies with my daughter happily watching from the backpack!

In 1990, my husband, two daughters (ages 2 and 5) and I left small animal practice in California to serve with Christian Veterinary Mission in Nepal. Traditional Nepali culture treats women as second-class citizens at best and often as property at worst. They are more often known as someone’s daughter, wife, or mother than by their own name.  Yet while I was there, we were able to expand our training of village animal health workers to include women, to start a mentoring program for upcoming women leaders in agricultural and community-based programs, and to work alongside some outstanding Nepali women leaders.

Less than 1% of Nepal was Christian, but the impact of the Christian faith and the values we taught based on Biblical principles was far-reaching in our work with communities on gender equity and our empowerment work with rural women’s groups.  I was privileged to see women extend their commitment to women’s equality to ending caste and ethnic discrimination as well.  One high caste women’s group welcomed a low caste “untouchable” woman into their group as an equal participant.  One woman in a livestock raising group chose to pass on livestock offspring to a needier village women’s group rather than to her own village. They did this because they saw these values modeled by the Christians who worked among them, both men and women.

And these women are becoming the role models for the next generation in Nepal.  One low caste woman who worked with me told me she became a Christian because only Christians treated her as a human being rather than property, and they taught that we are all one. (Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.) Helping women recognize that they are made in God’s image, with gifts and talents of their own, opened the door to conversations about the gospel.

Role models are indeed powerful influencers. God has placed every one of us where we are and called each of us to our profession. We need to pray that God will give us eyes to see those whom He would have us mentor, coach or encourage, right where we are each day.

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