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Class of 2021 Story: An Unpredictable Life

Liliya Nusbaum
The class of 2021's Liliya Nusbaum.

Class of 2021 Stories The following by Liliya Nusbaum is the second in a series of Class of 2021 stories running through May 7 leading up to the CVM’s oath and hooding ceremony on May 10.

Read all of the stories here:

Ruth and Lev were 20 and 21 when they decided to leave Russia in 1996.

They were living in the small village of Belorechensk in southeast Russia. The town was tropical, lush with palm trees and warm year-round. Ruth would herd geese and raise pigs to help feed her seven siblings. Lev would find stray cats and toss them vertically in the air so they would grasp at others’ clotheslines and bring down a pair of denim jeans. Denim was illegal then, so he would sell them under the table for some extra rubles. 

Lev and Ruth were persecuted for being Baptist Christian, which led them to flee the country. With two young daughters in tow, they packed two bags, hid their money in the baby’s diaper (that’s me) and moved to a foreign country. They had left Russia because they hoped to give their daughters a brighter future. That was their American dream.

Animals were a part of everyday life in rural Russia, but in a much different sense than they are in America. Keeping your family alive was priority No. 1, so animals were valuable for food and fiber. Stray cats and dogs would occasionally provide company. 

We had pets when I was growing up, but they were not highly regarded. I remember starved dogs on chains in the backyard, cats being left out in snowstorms, birds mysteriously disappearing and our rabbits being released into the local park after they had multiplied. My parents’ rural upbringing led us to not respect animals as sentient in the first place. 

Unfortunately, later on our home was also colored with abuse. Once, Ruth knocked our Australian shepherd unconscious with a broom handle. He lay on the ground in his own feces, and I wept into his fur.

My grandpa laughed and said, “Why are you crying? We’ll get you another one.” 

I was raised to think that animals’ well-being did not matter. But inherently I thought we were equals, so therefore I also did not matter. Young me considered that if neither of us mattered, then we might as well not matter together.

When I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian, my father was silent. After a minute, he said, “Well, I guess Americans are crazy enough to pay money for their dogs.” 

It has been over 10 years since I moved out of my parents house. I have come to realize that little matters more than our relationships with animals and one another. 

Veterinary medicine is my passion because of the meaningful bonds you can form with other people about their animals. Our connections with our pets are so profound and unique that I genuinely believe life would not be full without them. I am honored whenever I get to play a supportive role in that relationship.

I still feel guilt over the animals that suffered in our care growing up. While I cannot change the past, I can at least dedicate my career to helping alleviate animal suffering.

I have come to realize that little matters more than our relationships with animals and one another. 

I am grateful for UNC-Chapel Hill for providing my undergraduate education as a first-generation college student when I had no other resources. I am appreciative of NC State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, which is a community of kind, compassionate and supportive people. 

The veterinary school is a shining gem of North Carolina. We produce veterinarians who help take care of our beloved pets, who do cutting-edge research, who ensure we have a safe food supply. And the list goes on.

Thanks to NC State’s veterinary school, I get to fulfill my own American dream. I am proud to be the first doctor in my family, but may be even prouder to have finally convinced my dad to take his cat to the doctor for regular checkups.

As we approach graduation, I want to extend extra thanks to those who contribute to our college in any way, whether through a donation or even just kind words to your doctors, staff and students. Thank you to all the professors and educators at NC State who shared their enthusiasm for this invaluable field. 

And thank you to young Lev and Ruth, who sacrificed everything for my sister and me to follow our own dreams, even though our dreams ended up being something they never would have predicted. 

Liliya Nusbaum was raised in Charlotte, and focused on small and exotic animal medicine at the CVM. After graduation, she will begin work as an associate veterinarian at Bayleaf Veterinary Hospital in Raleigh.