Failed (Almost)

You are a failure. Well, an almost-failure. But hey, you made it! But… barely… You don’t belong. You’re on academic probation. But ¼ of first years go on academic probation after anatomy. But they still probably scored higher than you… You don’t belong here. They do. They studied animal science. They knew they wanted to be vets since they were children. Who are you kidding?! But hey, you got that D! If you can do this, you can do anything! But if you do quit, do it while you’re ahead. There’s NO WAY anatomy isn’t a weeding-out class. But that’s not what the Dean said!

These are the thoughts of someone who has almost failed out of vet school. These were my thoughts. Anatomy crushed me. I wasn’t a 4.0 student in undergrad, but I was decent. I was told veterinary school is harder than anything you’ve ever done before, but it’s not really something you understand until you do it. It is by far, more difficult than any other academic pursuit, or any pursuit really, that I have ventured on (though I can’t speak to childbirth, I would imagine that it is much more painful but a lot quicker than vet school). I was failing anatomy, as in my average was below 60, but I was fortunate enough to be taken under the wing of someone who understood exactly the kind of mentorship I needed to succeed. Yes, I said “succeed.” Because succeeding to me might be an embarrassment to you. Everyone is on their own path. It’s hard to recognize in the moment, when you feel like a complete failure, that even barely passing anatomy with a D is a success. I was so relieved when I got my letter stating that I was on academic probation due to my grade, that I cried. I cried because I hadn’t failed out. I cried because my goal was to get a D-. And I got a D. I felt so happy and relieved, though I mentally tried to prepare myself for the tough road ahead, the one that requires you to pull yourself out of the hole of academic probation. And during my meeting with the Dean and the anatomy course leader, the Dean tried to gauge my feelings: “So, [my name], how are you feeling?” “Actually, Dr. [Dean], I feel great!” She was taken aback. I imagine these thoughts were running through her head: “uh oh, how can she possibly feel great? She almost failed out. She should be scared straight. Academic probation is shameful. How can she not feel ashamed. She said, “And why do you feel great?” “Because my goal was to get a D- minus and not fail this class, and I actually ended up getting two points higher than my goal. So I feel pretty accomplished.” “Well, these aren’t generally feelings people have in these meetings. We should try to keep ourselves to higher standards.” “I don’t set unrealistic standards, because then I’m just disappointed when I don’t meet them. I set realistic standards. There was no way I was even going to get a C in this class. Setting a standard of not failing is a high enough standard for me.” She was pretty taken aback. I was taken aback that the administration was trying to make me feel as though I wasn’t ashamed enough of myself, which I definitely was, but that doesn’t change the fact that I was still incredibly proud of myself. Later, I got a D in neuroanatomy, but thanks to our wonderful administration, I was given a second chance to retake the final, since our original final was around the time that Covid started to be realized as a serious threat in the US. If it wasn’t for that, I would still have a haunting cloud of impending failure hanging over me. Academic policy in my school is 3 Ds in core classes and you’re out. I was fortunate to be given this second chance. Most people aren’t. Now that I’m a bit further along, I’ve realized that anatomy just really isn’t my thing, and I’ve done much better in my other courses. I’ve also recently been diagnosed with ADHD. It’s funny, because when an animal is exhibiting sudden changes in behavior, aggressive or otherwise, the clinician first rules out medical problems before considering behavioral issues. I wish someone told me this should apply to veterinary students (and all people, too), and I had sought the professional attention I really needed.

I am not going to be that person who says your grades don’t define you. The truth is, while they don’t matter as much as you probably think they do, they do define you. But maybe that isn’t a bad thing. You failing a class because your mother was dying, because you were sick, because you were too overwhelmed and had never experienced anything like this before defines you. By “define you,” I don’t mean that you need to call yourself a failure for failing. You do need to step back and acknowledge that you failed, or almost failed, but that doesn’t make you a failure. Coming back from an F or a D is much harder than moving on with a passing grade. If you can keep going after this, you are strong, capable, smart, and you will achieve whatever you set your mind to. After acknowledging this, you need to reassess and figure out what you’re going to do to succeed, whatever that may mean to you. Maybe this was just a terrible year because your grandma died, maybe a global pandemic is not conducive to your academic success, or maybe you just haven’t found your support system. I’m telling you now, you cannot get through vet school on your own. Whether your support system is family, friends, roommates, mentors, professors, or your pet dog, you need something. Some need more than others. I wish I had had something more tangible or substantial earlier on in my studies.

Someone in my class did something very brave… she “came out.” And by “came out,” I mean she came out and announced TO THE WHOLE CLASS that she had been on academic probation. This is someone I saw (and continue to see) as super intelligent, capable, and all-around a better student than me. And she was on academic probation? She had almost failed anatomy, just like me? After her, a few other students, including myself, “came out,” to our classmates. We were tired of feeling ashamed, alone, and made to feel like we were less-than because of the administration and their hush-hush take towards academic probation. This classmate of mine did an amazing thing, and founded a support group for students on academic probation. It’s still a brand-new group, in its infancy, but I am very excited to see where it goes. Imagine having a mentor that went through exactly what you’re going through, knows the shame, guilt, and embarrassment that you feel? That you’re not alone? That you can get through this. This isn’t the end of the world, it is a roadblock of a very long road ahead. This group is supported by the administration, and I cannot wait to see the changes we can make together. If you’re reading this and either failing a class, or on academic probation, please partake in an exercise with me: think about how guilty, shameful and embarrassed you feel. Now, ask yourself, how do these feelings help me? They don’t. Acknowledge those feelings, give them the audience they deserve, and then try your best to let them go. Thousands of people have been in your shoes, and they are successful GPs, surgeons, internists, ophthalmologists, and professors. You just aren’t aware because of their own feelings of embarrassment and shame. Before “coming out” to my class, I had been pretty open about being on academic probation with other students and faculty whom I felt close to, and found out that a lot of other people had been in the same boat as me and made it out on the other side. But I wouldn’t have known this if I hadn’t offered up the information about myself. Making yourself vulnerable opens potentially opens you up to be hurt, but in our field, I can almost guarantee that 100% of the time you will be pleasantly surprised by what happens when you do.

I am not saying you will get through vet school, I am saying that you can, and the most important thing is that you find a way to get the support you need. I have found that “being out” about my academic status has opened me up to avenues of academic and emotional support I didn’t know I needed.

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