For Casey Burke of Luray, Va., graduating from veterinary college is a dream come true. Another part of that dream is having the distinction of being the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine’s Class of 2014 valedictorian.
But the part that really makes Burke’s story exceptional is that she’s not the only member of her family to graduate as the college’s valedictorian. Her only sibling, Dr. Nathaniel Burke, graduated as valedictorian in 2011 when she was in her first year.
Such family scholastic prominence is virtually unheard of in any academic major, but especially in professional schools such as medicine or law. “This is the first time the veterinary college has had more than one valedictorian from the same family,” said Dr. Jacque Pelzer, director of admissions and student services at the veterinary college. “It’s not only difficult to get into veterinary school, but it’s even more difficult to have the highest academic scores in your class.”
When the Page County native started her professional training at the college, Burke knew she had some big shoes to fill due to her brother’s success. Although she had earned high marks throughout her academic career, Burke had no idea that she would turn her brother’s accomplishment into a family tradition.
“I just try to take it class by class, semester by semester, and do my absolute best academically,” said Burke, who completed a bachelor’s degree in biology from Virginia Tech in 2010. “My parents are both schoolteachers in Page County who instilled in me a strong work ethic and a respect for the classroom.” Burke’s mother, Carla, teaches elementary social studies, while her father, Jimmy, teaches high school geometry and physics.
Their daughter will be one of 95 new doctors of veterinary medicine to graduate from the college on May 16. She grew up on the family farm and is in the college’s food animal track — one of five curriculum tracking options. The others are small animal, equine, mixed species, and public and corporate veterinary medicine.
“My grandfather, who ran the family farm, retired when I was younger, but in the last four years, my family has started a beef cattle business,” she said. “This keeps me going when I am at home over the summers.”
In fact, a summer experience during her undergraduate years inspired her to pursue her dream to become a veterinarian. “When I was a kid growing up, I thought, ‘I want to be a vet,’” she explained. “But when I got to high school, I moved away from that idea. I knew I wanted to go into a medical field of some kind, so I still majored in biology when I came to Virginia Tech. After my sophomore year of college, I came home for the summer and worked for an ambulatory service with a veterinarian close to home. I had had other jobs before, but this was the first one that made me really excited to get up in the morning.”
Although Burke lived with brother Nathaniel during her first year of veterinary school, the two rarely studied together. Nathaniel Burke was busy with his fourth-year clinical rotations while his sister was in the classroom. That didn’t stop him from challenging his sister’s knowledge of veterinary medicine when she came home for the summers or when she did a clinical rotation at The Luray Clinic of Veterinary Medicine, where he now works.
“I’m not surprised at all that she is a valedictorian,” said Nathaniel, who was also the college’s Outstanding Graduating Student in 2011 and completed his master’s degree in biomedical and veterinary sciences at the college. “She’s very capable both academically and professionally.”
The Luray Clinic team includes Nathaniel, owner Dr. Donna Matthews, who graduated with the college’s founding class in 1984, and Dr. Aaron Lucas, who was the college’s 2010 valedictorian. That makes three veterinary college valedictorians from the same town — a town with a total population of fewer than 5,000.
“Aaron and I grew up together,” Nathaniel Burke said. “We went to the same high school, we were undergraduate roommates, and now we work together at the same veterinary clinic.”
After graduation, Casey Burke will be returning to her hometown and marrying her high school sweetheart at the end of May. She’s also looking for openings at veterinary clinics in the Shenandoah Valley and hopes to work for a mixed animal practice.
“Whether working with companion animals and their largely sentimental value, or food animals, where patients are often the client’s financial livelihood, the value of the veterinarian-client relationship cannot be underestimated,” she said. “I think that is what will make this career stimulating and rewarding far into the future.”
Written by Michael Sutphin and Sherrie Whaley.