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Class of 2023: The Dr. Mom Squad, COVID Crisis Edition

First-person essays by Sam Zurlinden, Sharon Daley, Jazmyne Maxwell and Heather Collins, all of whom were simultaneously mothers and NC State veterinary students.

Sharon Daley, Heather Collins, Sam Zurlinden and Jazmyne Maxwell
Sharon Daley, Heather Collins, Sam Zurlinden and Jazmyne Maxwell

“I don’t know how you do it.” A well-intentioned phrase we have heard countless times during our veterinary school careers from classmates, friends, family members and professors. Honestly, we have even asked ourselves this question at times.

The simple answer is that we do it because we have to. We do it because we want to, and because we can.

And now that graduation is here, we can say, “WE DID IT!”

The truth is, motherhood looks different for everyone who embarks on the journey just as much as vet school looks different for each student. During our years at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, we have witnessed firsthand how life does not pause during vet school. 

We have experienced our own significant life events during vet school and have been there when classmates have experienced them as well — life events such as sickness, family changes, loss and grief and new relationships.  

We wanted to share our stories and how motherhood and vet school brought us together, though our journeys all have been different. Our hope is that our stories show solidarity and support to other aspiring moms.

Sam Zurlinden and her family; Sharon Daley and her family

Sam Zurlinden has focused on small animal medicine and will be working in shelter medicine after graduation. She is a mom to Gavin, 5, and Trevor, 3.

By Sam Zurlinden

My vet school journey started when I received my acceptance into vet school — two days after finding out I was pregnant with Gavin. I started vet school when Gavin was 10 months old. Trevor was born the summer between my second and third years and three months after the COVID-19 pandemic started. 

When fall 2020 was approaching, classes were about to start, and there was no end to the pandemic in sight. Trevor was only a few months old, and day care access was basically absent at this point in the pandemic. With these challenges, I made the difficult decision to leave the Class of 2022 and join the Class of 2023. 

I then split my third year of veterinary school over two years so that I could meet my needs and  my family’s needs and still focus on becoming a veterinarian. During the pandemic, I would often spend the days caring for my two busy young boys and then scramble during nap time and after bedtime to catch up on schoolwork. It was a relief when childcare became more available during my fourth year and allowed me to have a better balance between family life and veterinary school.

Being a new mother while working to become a veterinarian has been both the most challenging and most rewarding time of my life so far. The academics of veterinary school are very demanding. However, having my own goals and identity to focus on really helped me thrive as a mom. 

I cherished the time I was at home with my family but at the same time also felt fulfilled when I was able to focus on my veterinary education. It sounds crazy, but school and walking my dogs were my self care. When I had time allotted to be at school or studying, I made sure to use my time efficiently and effectively so I could get home to my family. Because I was able to focus on myself at school, I felt more energized and engaged when I was with my family. 

One of my hardest struggles as a mom in vet school was feeling like there was never enough time. I had several morning commutes where I shed tears because I felt guilty leaving my boys, especially when one was sick. I had some late nights on clinics when I would sneak into my boys’ bedrooms to watch them sleep for a few minutes because I missed them. 

During vet school, I also worried that I was missing out on some of the vet school experience because I was not able to be as involved in clubs, social events and other activities.

However, what I have realized at the end of vet school is that I didn’t miss out at all. I am exactly where I need to be. I have learned that it is all about striving for balance, and the balance changes constantly. I have found an incredible support system with classmates both from the classes of 2022 and 2023  and mentors. 

I have two happy boys who are excited to hear stories from my day taking care of animals. My heart nearly melted when, on my ophthalmology rotation, I found Trevor with a flashlight “examining” our cat’s eyes  (I practiced a lot on my own pets during rotations).

I am proud of the example I am setting for them by achieving my goals. I am so grateful for this adventure and those who supported me through it, especially my husband Todd, my family (including my pets), my mom squad and classmates.

Sharon Daley will be graduating with Barbara, Grace and Mary being 23 years old, 21 and 17, respectively. She will be practicing traditional Western medicine, as well as veterinary acupuncture, in a small animal general hospital in a rural community in North Carolina.

By Sharon Daley

I wanted to be a vet since before kindergarten, but I had several obstacles that prevented me from making my dream a reality. 

I needed to work in undergrad, so I became trained as a veterinary assistant. I was so excited to get hands-on experience in my field. My grades were mediocre, so I withdrew from NCSU in 1992 to work full-time as a vet assistant and reevaluate my goals.  In 1995, I decided to return to school to finish my bachelor’s in zoology and pursue vet med again. I came back with a renewed vigor and started making the grades required for vet school, even while working full-time as a supervisor at a vet hospital. As graduation approached, I met with the dean of the vet school to discuss what steps I could take to be a competitive applicant. Sadly, he told me I would never get into veterinary school. He told me to find a different dream. 

I continued working as a vet assistant and started dating Bob who I have known since fifth grade. We got married in 1999 and had three daughters: Barbara, Grace, and Mary. I put my career goals on the back burner and dropped to part-time at the vet hospital while focusing on my family. 

When my youngest daughter started school, I started thinking about my goals again. I got my master’s in physiology to increase my credentials for vet school and started working full-time again. I applied several times to NC State College of Veterinary Medicine and even got on the waitlist, but it was not meant to be at that time. 

When I turned 50 and my youngest daughter was in eighth grade, I decided to give applying to vet school one more try. I was happy working as a vet assistant, and I had so many varied experiences with large, small and exotic animals. At that time, I was working in veterinary oncology, which was very rewarding to me. But I really did not want to close the door on my ultimate career goal. 

I applied and got accepted! My husband and children were ecstatic for me. I could not imagine going to vet school with younger children, and I am in awe of my classmates who manage it! They are superwomen! But having older children has not been free of concerns and parenting stressors. 

My oldest daughter, Barbara, moved to her first apartment off campus in St. Louis, Missouri, right before my first anatomy test! My middle daughter, Grace, started her freshman year of college during COVID and was promptly sent home with COVID at the beginning of my second year. My youngest daughter, Mary, still needed me to be present physically and emotionally as she navigated the high school years and adolescence. 

On top of that, my mother’s health started declining. She was the primary caretaker of my oldest sister who is disabled. Now my middle sister and I take care of our sister and mother together. It is truly a labor of love. 

Mary and I will be graduating high school and vet school together this May. We have shared so many ups and downs during our parallel four-year journeys. I cherish sharing this time with her.  I could not have accomplished my lifetime career goal of becoming a veterinarian without a strong faith, the support of my family and friends, and these incredible women who shared the daunting challenge of completing veterinary school as a mom.

Jazmyne Maxwell, an equine-focused student, started veterinary school when Shea was 2.5 years old. Gianna was born at the beginning of her second year, and Jax was born at the beginning of her fourth year. Shea is now 6 years old, Gianna is 2 and Jax is 1. Jazmyne is still deciding where she wants to work post graduation because work/life balance is key for her.

By Jazmyne Maxwell

I have known Veterinary Medicine was where I was meant to be since the eighth grade. I got bit by the horse bug in middle school, and that’s what jump-started my passion for veterinary medicine. 

What started out as trail riding turned into show jumping competitively with my mare. When I came to Raleigh for the State Horse Show, I toured the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine and knew this was where I wanted to be one day.

When I got my acceptance letter from NC State, a wave of emotions came over me, mainly excitement and anxiety. My dream was about to become a reality, but how was I going to do this and be a mother? I have always been the type of person who puts 110% into everything, and the thought of having to do that with vet school and being a mother was daunting. 

Another big decision came next: Should we move the whole family or only me to Raleigh? I couldn’t fathom being apart from my son for days at a time so the whole family picked up and moved. My husband decided to work third shift so we could have our son minimally in daycare. With our nearest family being three hours away, we have juggled the last four years with mainly just us. I don’t know what I would have done without his support and sacrifice of working third shift. 

Being at school came with a lot of time management and re-evaluation of how I wanted to be as a student. I struggled in the beginning of first year. I had a huge wakeup call when I didn’t do well on my first set of exams. I instantly thought that I had made a mistake and that I would never make it to where I am today. I used to think I had to have a certain grade on an exam or I would be extremely hard on myself, but I learned to let that go. When I did learn to cut myself some slack, I began to enjoy the journey a lot more. 

I realized that, at the end of the day, I would be a DVM as long as I passed, and so I set the goal to try to learn everything I can and simply pass. I didn’t spend every waking moment studying. If my kids wanted to go to the park, well, we were going to the park no matter what I had to do. My kids are only small once, and once that time is gone, it is gone. 

It has been a wild ride, adding not only Baby No. 2 to the family but also Baby No. 3 22 months later,  but if I could go back in time, I wouldn’t change a thing. My journey through vet school has been nontraditional, but I have learned so many valuable lessons along the way.

A lot of sweat, tears and maybe a little blood – because who hasn’t accidentally jabbed themselves with a needle? – went into this DVM, but it was worth it. I love sharing my stories with my kids, and when schedules don’t line up, I haul them to school with me. Shea watched me castrate a horse while I was 32 weeks pregnant with my third child.

All of this organized chaos in my life is a part of the process, and I have learned to take it day by day. My support system of my family and the other moms at the college has played a huge role in my success. Nothing ever goes to plan when you throw kids into the mix, and being able to have Sharon, Sam and Heather in my corner has kept me going. It’s nice to have other women who can relate to what you’re going through. We all have each other’s backs, and that has been something I will always be thankful for. 

To any moms who are considering pursuing a career in veterinary medicine, I say go for it, full steam ahead. Reach for your dreams and know that they are possible with hard work and perseverance.

Sam Zurlinden, Sharon Daley, Jazmyne Maxwell and Heather Collins celebrate their last day of clinics before Oath and Hooding.
Sam Zurlinden, Sharon Daley, Jazmyne Maxwell and Heather Collins celebrate their last day of clinics before Oath and Hooding.

Heather Collins will be working in small animal general practice after graduation. She started vet school with Scarlett, 3, and Maddox, 1. Scarlett is now 7, and Maddox is 5.

By Heather Collins

My husband was transitioning out of the military and had just received a job offer in New York City when I received the email from NC State. This was my third and final attempt.  

ACCEPTED! Tears of joy fell down my face, shortly followed by tears of sadness. Getting into school meant I could no longer stay home with my babies. This was going to be a difficult transition not only for me, who hadn’t been in a classroom in almost 10 years, but for my whole family.  

The first year was not easy. We decided that a nanny would be the best option for our family since my husband worked in New York City. Everyone sheds some tears in vet school, but I did not expect to be crying the first week. My well-drawn plans were not going as planned. My nanny quit, and my husband was 500 miles away.  

I am lucky to have an amazing support system. One call to my parents and they were driving the three hours to help, even if that meant they had to call in sick to their jobs. This was the first of many times they saved me. 

When COVID shut down the whole world the spring of my first year, it was a blessing in disguise for my family. Ryne, who was flying home every weekend, could work from home — and look for a job in Raleigh.  

These past four years have flown by, and, yes, they were difficult with two small children at home, but they were absolutely worth it.  I could have not accomplished what I accomplished without my amazing support system which includes my parents, my in-laws and, most importantly, my husband. My husband spent many hours entertaining our kids so I could study.  

Yes, I felt I was missing out on time with them, but it made my time with them more precious. I would be lying if I said I didn’t question whether I was being a good mom, but I always remembered that my dream was not only to be a mom but also to be a veterinarian.

If I could go back in time to when I received my acceptance letter, I would let myself know that Scarlett and Maddox are stronger than you think, they are resilient and they will be cheering you on every step of the way.  

I can’t help but smile when Maddox asks me, “What animal are you going to help today?” or when my daughter brags, “My mom is becoming a veterinarian.” Anybody who wants to follow their dreams can do it. It will not be easy, but nothing is ever easy that is worth it.