Story By Kendyl Hollingsworth
Photos Contributed to LIVE Lee
It has been said that all pets deserve great vets. But providing quality care for our furry, feathered, scaly and slimy friends doesn’t just benefit them — it benefits all of us.
It’s no secret that east Alabama is home to one of the nation’s best schools of veterinary medicine at Auburn University, but there’s a new vet tech program in town that is set to bolster that reputation even higher.
“Our goal has always been to produce quality health care professionals who will make a significant, positive impact on their communities,” said Rhonda Davis, dean of Health Sciences at Southern Union State Community College (SUSCC). “This program will open a different career path for students that have a desire to care for animals. … SUSCC is excited to bring this incredible new program to the Valley campus, and we are looking for students that are ready to take their next steps towards a rewarding career.”
Hayley Pritchard, director of the new Veterinary Technology Program at SUSCC, has hit the ground running since her appointment to the position in April 2023. Though relatively young, Pritchard’s long-spanning and wide-ranging veterinary career has given her plenty of ideas to build a state-of-the-art program from the ground up.
“It’s definitely still a program in development,” she said. “We will be working with multiple clinical sites across the area. The students will come to campus for their lecture, and we’ll have a clinical skills laboratory on campus as well so they can do different skills and techniques … in a laboratory setting, and start learning some of those essential skills that they need to be a veterinary technician. And then they’ll be placed throughout their different semesters in real-world practice.”
Both Pritchard and Davis said there is a great need for veterinary technicians not only in the area, but across the United States. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that employment for veterinary technicians and technologists is projected to grow 21% from 2022 to 2032 — translating to about 14,800 job openings each year during that timeframe. That’s much faster than the average growth for all occupations. In addition, the Alabama State Board of Veterinary Medical Examiners reported in 2023 that there were 1,859 veterinarians registered in the state, yet only 478 veterinary technicians.
“As a community college, it is important that we are responsive to the business and industry needs of our service area, and this program has been a need for several years,” Davis said. “Offering the vet tech program will help meet local employers’ demands in a variety of settings. SUSCC is well known for the success of the various Health Sciences programs we offer, and this program will meet the high standards that our graduates and employers expect.”
The team at SUSCC needed to make several preparations before the program could begin accepting students. At the top of the list was accreditation, securing funding and finding a top-notch director.
Davis was tasked with the program proposal and application to the Alabama Community College System (ACCS), the Alabama Commission on Higher Education (ACHE) and finally the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). Then came securing resources and funding, as well as hiring the program’s first director.
Pritchard was a standout candidate, according to Davis. She not only had the career experience, but she is also involved in several national and state veterinary organizations. Currently, Pritchard is set to begin serving as president of the Alabama Veterinary Technician Association in January 2024.
“Hayley’s expertise as a licensed veterinary technician with over 15 years of clinical experience and her educational background made her an excellent choice to lead this program,” Davis said. “She has the initiative and drive to take on this challenge, and has already developed key partnerships with a variety of clinical sites for the students.”
Pritchard’s passion for helping animals stretches back before her college days. As a teenager, she worked as a veterinary assistant in Jacksonville, Florida, and went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in animal sciences at Auburn University. Later, she worked at a couple of veterinary hospitals in Opelika while working toward an associate degree in veterinary technology. Then, after becoming licensed, Pritchard worked for several years at Auburn University.
Now, Pritchard can say she is the first veterinary technician to hold a permanent, full-time directorial position for a vet tech program in the state of Alabama.
“That’s really exciting because veterinary technician program director positions in Alabama have only ever been held by veterinarians,” she said. “Now, two of the three Alabama program director roles are held by technicians.”
SUSCC’s program is also the first on-campus, in-person vet tech program in Alabama in several years, joining two other online programs currently active in the state.
Pritchard is already in close communication with her colleague directors at Jefferson State and Coastal Alabama community colleges. All three directors are working toward the same goals.
“We bounce ideas off of each other,” she said. “We are in multiple organizations and things like that together. … [The Coastal Alabama director] is a veterinarian, and so we — all three of us — as program directors now in the state kind of have a running discussion happening, and hopefully we’ll all kind of work together to help the profession across the state in general because there’s definitely a need for veterinary technicians, and honestly, more importantly for the education behind it.”
SUSCC’s goal is to welcome the vet tech program’s first class at the Valley campus in 2024. It will be a competitive two-year program, capping at 24 students to begin with — though Pritchard said there’s a possibility to accept larger classes in the future. Accreditation standards require certain teacher-to-student ratios, which factored into the decision.
According to Pritchard, SUSCC President Todd Shackett and the rest of the faculty have already shown great support for the new vet tech program, trusting Pritchard to take the reins and helping bring her ideas to fruition.
“I’ve been at Auburn most of my career, but Southern Union — for not having any kind of veterinary program, they have really been supportive and encouraging to me,” Pritchard said. “… Everybody has been very supportive about this program and excited about this program. They’ve really trusted me and allowed me to be the subject matter expert, and build it the way that I feel it should be done, and to the best of my ability.”
Part of those efforts include planning and coordinating with local clinical sites, as well as scouting out potential clinical partners and lining up everything for the program’s SACSCOC and American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) accreditation. The program earned the SACSCOC accreditation in June 2023. Now, the team is actively pursuing the AVMA Committee on Veterinary Technician Education and Activities (CVTEA) accreditation.
Pritchard has also been building the curriculum and outfitting the program’s facilities, which include newly renovated classrooms and a clinical skills laboratory. She has taken care to include not just the fundamental veterinary tools and equipment, but also the newer, state-of-the-art technology students will be expected to use in their future careers.
“Veterinary Technology may be new to the Health Sciences Division, but we have a strong foundation that will contribute to the program’s success,” Davis added. “As the dean, I am committed to the program’s establishment and ongoing growth within our college. … Our graduates will be well prepared for their licensure exams and will gain the skills to be qualified, competent veterinary technicians.”
Licensed veterinary technicians are a crucial part of the veterinary team, Pritchard noted. They can be compared to registered nurses in the world of human health care.
“A veterinary technician employed in a veterinary clinic or hospital handles many of the same responsibilities that nurses and other professionals perform for physicians,” according to AVMA.
In fact, the title of veterinary technician carries special legal protections under the Alabama Veterinary Practice Act — in effect since 1986, but amended recently — so anyone operating falsely under that title could face criminal penalties.
And, like veterinary doctors, veterinary technicians are trained to care for a wide variety of species in a wide variety of environments — not just our domestic canine and feline friends. They might care for large livestock animals like cows and horses, as well as smaller critters like mice, fish and chickens.
While she was serving as the veterinary technician for Auburn University’s attending veterinarian, Pritchard was involved in the veterinary oversight of caring for all animals owned by the university, including the eagles that soar above Jordan-Hare Stadium at football games and other special events. Before she accepted her current position at SUSCC, Pritchard also served as the animal care unit manager for Auburn University’s Harrison College of Pharmacy.
“When people think of veterinary medicine, they usually think cats and dogs, but there are so many career opportunities that are outside of that,” Pritchard said. “There’s humane societies and shelters and rescues. There’s laboratory and research. There’s drug discovery and development for human medicine. A lot of times, there’s a lot of veterinary professionals that collaborate on things like that with different research projects. Anywhere there are animals, there is veterinary medicine, and a place for veterinary technicians.”
Research and understanding is especially important for zoonotic diseases like rabies, Pritchard said, which can easily be transmitted back and forth from humans to animals.
“And then, of course, there’s the general practice, and then the specialty practices and academic practices and things like that,” she added. “So there are just so many different avenues, and Lee County’s got a real need.”
Davis and Pritchard said they hope to partner with several veterinary schools and clinics in the area to prepare students to effectively fill those empty shoes. With the new equipment and facilities on campus, they are confident their students will have bright futures in the veterinary world.
After all, Pritchard has been there. She can pinpoint what these students need to succeed in this ever-expanding field.
“I’m really excited to use my background to help the next generation of vet techs, and I’m really passionate about it,” she said. “… I hope that the students will find a lifelong, fulfilling career in veterinary medicine and realize that there are so many aspects of veterinary medicine.
“Veterinary medicine is a tough career. It can be mentally, physically, emotionally exhausting, and it’s also extremely rewarding, and so I hope our students feel equipped to take the knowledge that they learn in school, and the experiences and opportunities that they’re exposed to, and go out and have a fulfilling career.”
To learn more about SUSCC’s Veterinary Technology Program and its requirements, visit www.suscc.edu/programs/program-overview.