When Orlando Garza enrolled at Texas A&M’s School of Veterinary Medicine in 1979, he was the only Latino member of his class.
“I wasn’t the first one, and behind me came others,” Garza, 57, told Fox News Latino. But when he first arrived at College Station, he was the only Hispanic, “in the entire veterinary school.”
In fact, he doesn’t remember a single African-American who attended during his three years there.
“That has changed substantially” in the 35 years since, Garza said, but not as much as might be hoped for.
At the East El Paso Animal Hospital in Texas, which Garza opened in 1986, a large percentage of the clientele are Mexican-American, and many of them speak Spanish better than English.
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Even so, of the 7 or 8 doctors the animal hospital employs, only two are Latinos. And of those only Garza is fluent in Spanish.
The 'Whitest Profession'
The lack of diversity in the profession is an issue in more places than El Paso, of course.
In 2010, according to the book “Changing Texas,” Garza was one of just 84 vets of Latino descent in the state out of 5,728. That’s less than 1.5 percent in a state in which Hispanics make up about 38 percent of the population at large.
One of the book’s co-authors, Steve Murdock, 66, is now the director of the Hobby Center for the Study of Texas and a sociology professor at Rice University. Previously he has been the official demographer for the state of Texas and a former director of the U.S. Census Bureau.
“There’s been a little bit of an increase in Latino representation in the profession over the years,” Murdock told FNL, “but they are still very much underrepresented.”
In fact, veterinary medicine has been referred to as the whitest profession in the country.
According to figures from the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges (AAVMC), only 4.0 percent of the 2013-14 incoming class at the nation’s veterinary schools were Latino.
One obvious reason is cost. Tuition ranges from $15,000 to more than $60,000 a year.
"You'll find it's true of all people who have less resources," Murdock said, "they are underrepresented across all advanced degree programs like law and medical and veterinary school."
Another issue, as Garza pointed out, is that "there are only a limited number of seats" at the nation's veterinary schools. There have been 28 such programs in the country (two – Midwestern University in Glendale, Ariz., and Lincoln Memorial University in Harrowgate, Tenn. – began accepting students this fall), which accept around 3,000 students a year.
Compared to around 140,000 students who enroll in human medical programs every year.
To combat that problem, the AAVMC launched a minority outreach program in 2005 called Diversity Matters which, according to associate executive director Lisa Greenhill, hit a few unexpected stumbling blocks.
For one thing, she said, "We looked into the amount of financial aid that the schools were making available to minority students. For some schools, it was as little as $1,800. If a student has to finance the rest with loans, obviously that's a lot of debt to leverage."
And students aren't the only ones experiencing a financial pinch. "Colleges have limited resources," Greenhill pointed out. "We'd like all our universities to be more diverse, but many are grappling with budget cuts."
She also noted that some schools, such as Purdue in West Lafayette, Indiana, "are in locations with relatively few minorities."
One thing that the AAVMC realized is that outreach needs to keep in mind cultural differences.
“In communities of color,” Greenhill told FNL, “families tend to have a much bigger influence,” and many times, schools found that the minority students they were recruiting would be pointed toward human medicine by family members.
Now the AAVMC encourages schools, Greenhill said, to “invite families to come on campus along with the students so that they can see the societal value to the profession.”
Garza said that he had noticed that "to some degree" Latino clients wait longer to bring their animals to him than Anglos do. "Something that might be corrected earlier," he observed, "by the time they come in for treatment, the animal is already very sick."
But, he added, "times are changing and people are more aware now of what's required to take the best care of their animals."
Murdock is emphatic in stressing the effect of money and resources.
"The reasons are not cultural but socioeconomic," he told FNL. "If you have to pay 2 to 3 percent of your income on your pet's health, it doesn't mean the same thing to you if you make $200,000 than if you make $15,000. You simply don't have the resources available to take your dog to the vet if he is just acting a little bit down."
The Dark Side
In some cases, Garza said, language plays a big part in keeping people away from the animal hospital – people are less likely to visit a people doctor, too, if they have a hard time understanding what they say.
Greenhill said that the AAVMC had come to a similar conclusion. More than the potential student, language was frequently an issue with his or her family. Bilingual recruitment or even something as simple as a translation button on the school’s website, she said, could make a big difference.
Garza, who served as the president of the Texas Veterinary Medical Association until 2012, believes that by and large, "Schools are doing what they can to recruit minority students."
Everybody who spoke for this article said that, in their experience, the situation has improved over the last decade. And every one agreed that there's still "a lot more work to be done," as Greenhill put it.
Garza also has a more personal take on the situation. "I would be willing to bet that Hispanic students," he said, "are migrating more to human medicine than veterinary medicine."
Why does he think that?
Possibly because his own daughter, with no shortage of positive Hispanic veterinarian role models and no possibility of not thinking that veterinary medicine has cultural value, recently chose a different career path.
"She decided to go to the dark side," Garza said. "She's decided to go to human medicine."
Bill Vourvoulias (@bvourvoulias) is an editor at Fox News Latino.
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