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Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnanehttps://www.thatsfarming.com/
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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26-year-old’s career U-turn from human medicine to veterinary

That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane, in conversation with 26-year-old vet student, Tina Madeleine Hansen, Hamar, Norway, in a two-part interview in this week’s Student Focus interview.

Best known as ‘The Travelling Vet Student’, she discussed her time in the military, following her dream of becoming a vet, travel stints and student life at Wroclaw, University Of Environmental And Life Sciences, Poland.

“We had a variety of different animals growing up, everything from dogs to rabbits, rats, and guinea pigs.

I started riding when I was around 9-years-old and got my first competitive pony when I was 13.

I realised early that there was something special about the human-animal bond, and every time the world would turn on me, I knew my furry friends would be there to comfort me, regardless of what else was going on in my life.

Later we got a cat and another horse, and I kept competing actively in show jumping until I was 19.

Military

It was not until I was put in a road fork in the military when I was 19 that becoming a vet became so obvious to me.

I was always curious about life and how it all worked, and science classes like math and biology were my favourite subjects.

Although my doctor path was not too clear in high school, I ended up taking up chemistry a couple of years later. I went to the military mostly because I did not quite know what to do with my life, and it turned out to hold all the answers.

Initially, I went in with the intentions of becoming a human medic in the military. A few weeks in, I realised that I could also work with the K9 service in the military (with dogs).

At the time, I was in quite a lack of motivation; the military was tough, I missed my friends back home, and I did not really want to be there at the time.

Should I follow my brain and my plan? It would always be handy skills to have worked as a medic; besides, doctors make more money.

Mixing a hobby and a passion

Or should I follow my heart and what I really wanted to do? I had this thought that I should not mix up my hobby and passion with work – but now I realise that is what makes the best and the most passionate people in the profession.

Moreover, I realized that in life as well, it is important to follow your heart and do what sets your heart on fire.

So, I ended up applying for the K9 service and was among the handful of people of hundreds of applicants that got the position.

I tend to think that the true answers lie within, although being told all your life as a hyperactive sports kid that you would never be able to sit down and study for all those years may have delayed my realisation.

You would not believe the number of times someone would laugh at me if I mentioned studying vet med.

In a lack of clarity for my future, I did one year in the military after high school, followed by a gap year to work, travel, and take up my lacking classes in chemistry.

Veterinary medicine in Poland

But, fast forward, years later, and I am finishing my final semester in Wroclaw, University of Environmental And Life Sciences (UPWr), Poland.

I enrolled in the course in 2017 and will graduate in 2023.

When I decided to follow this career path, my plans were quite optimistic. I always knew I wanted to leave Norway (I would not have the grades to get into vet school there, regardless).

My first thoughts were to study at a fancy school in America- the country of opportunities.

I realised quickly that this would take me almost double the amount of years and that the costs were impossible to fund by a student coming from a low-income family.

So, I started looking into England and Australia but found this difficult with costs, too, as well as schools being hard to get into.

Eventually, I bumped into an old fellow equestrian friend in my hometown who was doing her veterinary studies in Poland.

She told me how everything was held in English; it was easy to get in, and that you get very easily adapted to the language.

Moreover, she told me how our governmental scholarship and loans would cover the costs nicely and that we could live a comfortable and fun life over there.

She had stars in her eyes as she was explaining to me what a beautiful city Wroclaw was and how cool and fun life down there was. So, she completely changed my view of the country, and I ended up applying.

So she convinced me to the point that Wroclaw was the only uni I applied to, and I got accepted.

Placements

Since starting my studies in Wroclaw, I have spent most of my summers working so I can travel and do volunteering and externships all over the world.

I have volunteered with wildlife and occasionally horses in Thailand, Namibia, Zimbabwe (x2), and South Africa.

One of my most memorable externships was when Bondi vet star, Alex Haynes, responded to me on Instagram, had a chat and invited me over to Australia.

I spent my Christmas holidays of third-year vet school in Australia and got to hang out with and follow her, Gerardo Poli, the other hospital directors and Dr. Brooke Schampers at AES.

I owe them a huge thanks for the opportunity and for inspiring me to aim higher and even start up a social media appearance.

From there, I started expanding my network, sending out loads of networks and looking for any opportunity that could bring me closer to where I wanted to be.

US and South Africa 

Also, I did placements in the US with some distant family of board-certified veterinarians and clinic owners.

This took me to further opportunities like working with board-certified dermatologists and radiologists, and even vets from Shark Week in Las Vegas.

Along the way, I have met up with other influential people in the industry, like Gemma Campling in Zimbabwe (the founder of World Wide Vets).

I did the wildlife VetX course in South Africa at UmkhondoBig5 – which later turned into the series now known as Tina in the Wild.

Also, I have visited clinics all over England, spent Christmas holiday in Egypt at Egypt Equine Aid, worked as a vet nurse at Blue Star Animal Hospital in Sweden, and worked as a small animal/equine vet on a temporary license in Norway.

Recently, I also just volunteered with small animals in Zanzibar and planning to do an equine externship in Dubai soon.

Like-minded and highly influential vets

The highlight has been meeting up with like-minded and highly influential vets around the world has been some of my biggest highlights, which, in turn, has inspired me to follow my passion and inspire others on the way too.

Seeing how medicine works in different countries gives me a bigger tool belt and perspective for my future endeavours, which I am very excited about. I also ended up meeting the love of my life, in fact, in vet school.

Accomplishing things like having several media interviews, being nominated for international student of the year two years in a row by uni, and being awarded a veterinary inspiration award by Vet Candy are also some big highlights for me.

Commitments

Coming from a life where I made myself so busy that I barely had time to sleep, starting vet school was actually a pleasant surprise.

I was told that all you do is study and that you do not have time to have a life – so I was 100% dedicated to spending every awake moment studying.

Although the majority of your concerns and focus goes to your studies, I was pleasantly surprised at how much free time we had if you spend your time wisely.

I had time to meet up with friends to study/shop etc., on weekdays, go to social events and parties on the weekends, and even travel for the holidays and our long weekends.

Being a vet student does not necessarily mean you will not have a life – being a vet student is your life, and it can hold so many great memories.

Some years and some exam sessions are definitely worse than others, but many would argue that they are still among the best years of their life.

Lack of practical work

Course-wise, I must say I am quite disappointed by the level of practical work we really get to do in school.

Just about all of my practical skills comes from the externships I have spent my holidays and sometimes lots of money on.

I am unsure if this is because I am part of the pandemic generation of students or if this goes in general, but I hear this complaint from most students I know around Europe.”

Stay tuned for part two of this interview.

To share your story, email That’s Farming editor, Catherina Cunnane[email protected]

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