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Crystal Munguia: The Pandemic, the Symposium, and the Llama

Dr. Crystal Munguia at the 2023 Awards and Scholarships Celebration

Dr. Crystal Munguia was drawn to the veterinary field because it combined “healing animals, interaction with people, and impact on the world.”

She grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada, and is the first in her immediate and extended family to go to college. Now she is also the first to become a doctor.

Dr. Crystal Munguia in the Atrium of the Basic Sciences Building
Originally from Nevada, Crystal Munguia became an Illini during her four years at the University of Illinois.

“Nevada does not have a state [veterinary] school,” said Dr. Munguia, “so I took the opportunity to explore the Midwest through veterinary school.” The Illinois veterinary curriculum, with its quarter system, early introduction to clinics, and system of having one midterm and one final per quarter, appealed to her.

Her years at Illinois held many challenges, but she relishes the connections and growth that came with her experiences.

The Pandemic

COVID 19 upended the start of veterinary studies for Dr. Munguia and her classmates. With it came mandatory testing multiple times a week to gain access to campus buildings. Even with testing, social distancing policies prohibited having the entire class together in one lecture hall. Instead, students were assigned to one of five classrooms. Their instructor lectured in one while the other four rooms got a simulcast.

“I was lucky enough to be [assigned to] a room with very talented people,” said Dr. Munguia. “It was there that I met Max Paulson and Gracie Wischmeyer. If it wasn’t for them, I would not have been as driven to become [Student American Veterinary Medical Association] president and be as involved as I became.”

“Working alongside some of the most talented clinicians really fueled different interests… Whether it’s behavior, emergency, or bee medicine … this field lets you do whatever you want.”

SAVMA and the Symposium

Dr. Munguia says she loved serving as the president of the Illinois chapter of SAVMA because “I was able to meet and interact with my classmates in ways many people don’t get to.” The role has oversight over dozens of student clubs and organizations within the veterinary college.

However, because the second half of spring semester in 2020 was all remote, the leadership transition among student organizations that typically takes place then did not occur. That led to disruptions in the fall.

Dr. Crystal Munguia speaking at the 2023 SAVMA Symposium
The annual symposium of the Student American Veterinary Medical Association was held on the Illinois campus in 2023. Dr. Munguia, then president of the Illinois SAVMA chapter, jumped on whatever task needed to be done.

“We had the challenge of rebuilding [SAVMA] and supporting all the clubs to help them rebuild,” said Dr. Munguia.

And then came the huge undertaking of hosting the 2023 SAVMA Symposium. Students from earlier classes had won the bid to host this international conference, which brought nearly 1,000 attendees to Urbana. It fell to the Class of 2024 to do the bulk of the work required to put on the symposium.

As president of the Illinois SAVMA chapter, Dr. Munguia wanted to support the symposium team. Her friend Gracie served as lead organizer, while Max was to be inducted as national SAVMA president at the event.

“[Gracie] said she needed help with transportation and other things, and I said, ‘Say less.’ I jumped on whatever task she needed to be done,” recalled Dr. Munguia. At the same time, she and others needed to attend to their rigorous third-year studies, making for a very challenging year. (And a very successful symposium!)

The Llama: Princess

In addition to her leadership roles within the college, Dr. Munguia worked with the anatomy team.

“I had so much fun being a part of this team. It was one of my favorite experiences, and the best thing I did for myself while in veterinary school,” she recalled.

The team had long wanted to expand their collection of large animal teaching skeletons. It so happened that Princess, a llama owned by the university, died during Dr. Munguia’s tenure on the job. After the llama’s bones were “processed” in a bug room, the bones were to be reassembled into a teaching tool.

Dr. Munguia said that as soon as she heard about this, she “knew that I was going to be the one to build her.”

Crystal Munguia poses with the llama skeleton she built by herself.
In January 2024, the soon-to-be Dr. Munguia posed with her very symbolic “final project.”

The project took a long time.

“Having to wait for parts, order things, and build a base made it a stop-and go project. I finished late into my fourth year. I remember doing the final touch-ups and then taking a couple of minutes to just look at her.

“There had been so many ups and downs, putting her together and taking her apart. When she was finished, she symbolized my final project as a student here at Illinois.”

What the Future Holds

After graduation, Dr. Munguia joined a small animal and exotic general practice that has plans to offer urgent care and eventually ER services. She hopes to make a similar progression in her own career.

She credits the University of Illinois with fostering her interests and positioning her for further growth.

“Some professors at this university have not only contributed to my learning and growth but have become long-term mentors and friends. They have been there to support my crazy llama-building projects, celebrate with me over small victories, and counsel me through hard times,” said Dr. Munguia.

“The best thing that the University of Illinois did for me is open my interests to the world of possibilities.

“Working alongside some of the most talented clinicians really fueled different interests, and the sky is the limit from here. Whether it’s behavior, emergency, or bee medicine, with enough mentorship and CE, this field lets you do whatever you want.”