Making Connections for Student Success
March 23 was the first day on the job for Dr. Sara Connolly in the newly created position of assistant dean for student success. Although she’s currently forced to work in isolation imposed by the “work from home” mandate, Dr. Connolly sees her new role as one that facilitates connections:
- Connecting current veterinary students with opportunities to explore careers through internships and externships;
- Connecting students from populations not proportionately represented in the veterinary field (including males, people from lower economic strata and rural areas of Illinois, as well as under-represented ethnic populations) with opportunities to envision a veterinary career; and
- Connecting practicing veterinarians with opportunities to mentor prospective veterinarians as well as current veterinary students.
A clinical assistant professor and boarded clinical pathologist in the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory since 2015, Dr. Connolly grew up in the Hammond, Ind., area and earned her veterinary and master’s degrees from Purdue University. She spent a year and a half working at the Illinois veterinary college after finishing her residency.
From there she accepted a position as lecturer at the University of Melbourne. (“I loved Australia, but it was too far from home,” she says.) Two years later she returned “home” to take a position at Antech in Chicago, and within a year, she had taken a faculty position at Illinois. (“I missed being around students!” she says.)
‘Passions for advocacy and … helping students’
The 50 percent appointment as assistant dean in the Office of Academic and Student Affairs appealed to her in part because she saw it as a way to incorporate her personal commitment to community engagement into her professional life.
“I love the service part of my job in clinical pathology, but I realized that teaching and working with students on rotations was actually my favorite part,” says Dr. Connolly. “This new position allows me to combine my passions for advocacy and volunteering in my personal life with my passion for helping students.”
When she arrived in Champaign-Urbana in 2015, she sought out activities to become integrated into the community. Kiwanis Club, the Tom Jones Challenger League (a baseball league for youth with special needs), and coaching aquatic sports for the Special Olympics are a few of the causes she has embraced.
The remaining 50 percent of Dr. Connolly’s appointment is split between continuing her service and teaching roles in clinical pathology and completing the research portion of her PhD in the Department of Pathobiology.
(Her research explores the aging process as it occurs in a population of canine athletes—Iditarod sled dogs—compared with sedentary pet dogs. She collected data and/or served as a veterinarian at the Iditarod race in Alaska in 2017, 2018, and 2019.
As is obvious from her choice of volunteer activities, Dr. Connolly is an athlete herself. She is an avid triathlete, and has persuaded veterinary students to run the Chicago Triathlon with her.)
Student Recruitment a Priority
Dr. Connolly knows it will take some time to adjust to the new distribution of time in her academic appointment, so she plans to start by setting discrete goals for her assistant dean role.
“I don’t want to take on anything that I can’t accomplish to the best of my ability,” she notes. “My first priority is to improve our web presence for prospective students, which I hope to accomplish over the summer. I’m also going to focus on building a statewide network for student recruitment.”
Illinois veterinarians will play a key role in the student recruitment plan. Not only are they on the front lines in terms of personal relationships with would-be veterinarians in their communities, but they are also geographically distributed to attend career fairs at schools throughout the state to reach students who may not otherwise have considered a veterinary path.
“I’m already preparing a talk for Fall Conference, on October 1 and 2 this year, where I can reach an audience of engaged veterinarians and recruit them to be advocates for the college and for prospective veterinarians in their areas.
“My message to them will be: if you know someone who is interested in veterinary medicine, contact me to get that person connected to the college; if you are willing to host veterinary students in your clinical practice or other professional setting, contact me to connect with students.”
Her message to students is similar: contact her for career advice and help getting connected to practitioners in the field you are interested in.
Given that a disproportionate number of Illinois veterinary deans have hailed from a pathology background, does she think her assistant dean role could lead to being dean of a veterinary college some day?
“That’s never going to happen!” she replies with a laugh. “Although it would be funny if it did, and I was quoted in print saying otherwise.”