Even though she grew up in a household where she wasn’t allowed to keep pets, Shamia Onley developed such a love for animals that she has dedicated her adult life to them.

She volunteers at two animal hospitals and even left her hometown of Morrisville, Pennsylvania, to pursue a degree in general agriculture with a pre-veterinary concentration at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore.

Being a veterinarian was a no-brainer for the 26-year-old. She not only saw it as a way to treat animals’ health issues, but she liked how she could be their voice.

“I want to be able to advocate for animals who are not able to advocate for themselves,” she said.

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Now a senior, she is closer to reaching her dream. And she could do it at the same place where she is doing her undergraduate studies.

UMES is poised to become the second historically Black college or university in the country to offer a veterinary school.

The program recently was granted approval by the University System of Maryland Board of Regents and Maryland Higher Education Commission. A consultative visit from the American Veterinary Medicine Association Council on Education is expected to occur this year, according to UMES.

The news comes as the number of people who own pets, and thus the need for more veterinarians, grows. There is a particular shortage of Black veterinarians, said Rondall Allen, provost and vice president for academic affairs at UMES.

“We’re really trying to meet a need for those in the region and the state as well. There’s a dearth of veterinarians,” Allen said, citing a Mars Veterinary Health report that shows that 55,000 additional veterinarians will be needed to meet the needs of animal health care in the U.S. by 2030.

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The veterinary field is looking to experience a 19% projected growth over the next seven years, according to UMES’ dean of the School of Agricultural and Natural Sciences, Moses T. Kairo, who has helped create the new veterinary program. He added that Black veterinarians make up 3% of the population in the U.S., “indicating a tremendous need to diversify the profession.”

The three-year program at UMES will train veterinarians at a faster rate than other programs, which are mostly four years.

“Our goal is to use student time more effectively in order to graduate students a year earlier,” Kairo said in a statement.

Tuskegee University in Alabama is the only other HBCU with a veterinary school. It was founded in 1945, and nearly 75% of Black veterinarians in America are Tuskegee graduates, the university boasts.

The only other veterinary program in Maryland is a joint school formed by Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, and the University of Maryland in College Park.

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Rondall Allen, provost and vice president for academic affairs at UMES. (courtesy of Rondall Allen)

UMES’ announcement comes on the heels of the university announcing a $60 million fundraising plan. Some of the money that is raised as part of the largest financial campaign in the school’s history is expected to go toward the construction of a dedicated building for the veterinary school.

Sharon Blake, spokesperson for Maryland HBCU Advocates, called the announcement “excellent news,” adding the school will be a “great opportunity” that will attract more attention to UMES and HBCUs in general locally, nationally and internationally.

“It will put UMES in a high-profile situation,” she said.

UMES has seen enrollment grow since 2021 to its current 2,840 students in fall 2023.

Allen said the new veterinary school — which expects to enroll 100 students — will only help continue that enrollment trajectory.

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“It’s a huge milestone. We’re doing our part in meeting the needs of this community but also the state and the region,” Allen said, adding that HBCUs such as Virginia State University, Coppin State University and Delaware State University will likely feed their graduates to UMES’ veterinary school.

For students like Onley, Allen encouraged them to consider remaining with UMES.

“We would love to have them,” he said, recommending that they potentially wait a year or two after graduating to apply to the new program at UMES. “If we are going to endeavor to diversify the workforce, we are going to have to start a pipeline.”

Onley plans to apply to veterinary schools such as Tuskegee and Texas A&M immediately after her December graduation. She plans to study mixed medicine so she can treat large, small and some exotic animals. But she will also keep UMES in mind.

“I’m applying to places in the meantime because there are other places available. But, if I need to apply at that time, I’ll do that too,” she said. “So, fingers crossed.”

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years.

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