Erin Parkinson ’14 has dreamed of becoming a veterinarian since age 6, right after deciding she didn’t want to be a ballerina.
Yet, when choosing a college, she was torn between her career goal and her love for swimming.
“If I went to a state school with a pre-vet curriculum, I could take animal nutrition and animal science classes,” she says. “But I also knew I wouldn’t be able to swim at the Division I level.”
Parkinson decided to attend Willamette University, even though the school didn’t offer a pre-veterinary major.
Now in her senior year, she is well on her way to achieving her dream job by founding Willamette’s Naturalist Club, earning the Fred Wert Collaborative Research in Sustainability Grant, completing a research assistantship at the E (Kika) de la Garza American Institute for Goat Research in Oklahoma and volunteering in Thailand at Lanta Animal Welfare.
“Attending a liberal arts college was definitely the right decision because I didn’t have to choose between my passions,” she says. “At a bigger school I would have missed out on being part of the swim team, and I wouldn’t give up that experience for anything.”
Parkinson got her first dairy goat at age 11, and she discovered swimming at about the same age.
“My parents had to fish me out of the pool at the end of my swim lessons because I didn’t want to leave,” says Parkinson, who grew up in Everson, Wash. “And then I would go home and practice in the bathtub.”
Even as a busy college student, Parkinson says she can’t imagine her life without swimming.
“I don’t have a lot of free time ever, and I don’t waste time,” she says. “Swimming is my hour or two of sanity each day.”
Parkinson isn’t exaggerating when she says she doesn’t waste time.
On a typical day during swim season, Parkinson says she wakes up for practice at 6 a.m. Then she attends four hours of class, her lifeguarding shift, another hour of swim practice and a two-hour choir practice — finally returning to her residence hall after 6 p.m. to study.
“Erin has clear goals for what she wants to accomplish in the pool and in her life, and she is proactive in doing what is needed to achieve those goals,” Shevlin says. “She doesn’t simply hope to get the grades she needs to get into vet school: she does research and seeks out grants to gain experience and knowledge.”
Though Parkinson has personal goals, in the pool, her team comes first. She is a consistent high-point scorer for Willamette, and during the 2013 season, she chose to swim the 1,650-yard freestyle because it would score the most points for her team.
Her determination has also paid off individually. At the 2012 Northwest Conference Championships, she placed and set personal records in all of her events — earning sixth place in the 1,650-yard freestyle and eighth in the 100-yard breaststroke. So far this season, she’s ranked fourth in the conference for the 1,650-yard freestyle.
But in Parkinson’s eyes, her highest honor was being voted “Swimmer of the Year” by her teammates after the 2012 season.
“Being on the swim team is like having 25 of your best friends that you hang out with 20 hours a week. We’re a family,” she says.
While exploring her varied interests at Willamette, Parkinson’s passion for goat research hasn’t wavered.
As a freshman, she decided to go beyond her College Colloquium experience, “Willamette Naturalist 2.0,” by founding the Naturalist Club — which organizes nature walks, tree climbing and off-campus trips to help students learn about Oregon’s plants and animals. She also received the College Colloquium Student Research Grant to identify parasite resistance in goats.
“One of the problems in the goat industry is that goats have worms drugs can’t get rid of,” she says. “My research focused on finding an easy way for farmers to tell if they need to give drugs to their animals, because the more you use the drugs, the less they work.”
To continue this research with an educational approach, Parkinson — a biology major — was awarded a $3,000 Fred Wert Collaborative Research in Sustainability Grant during her sophomore year.
And the following year, Parkinson traveled to Oklahoma for a research assistantship at Langston University’s E (Kika) de la Garza American Institute for Goat Research — the world’s largest goat research facility, with more than 2,000 goats on campus. At the end of her eight-month stay, the researchers at the institute presented her with the Most Outstanding Student Research Award.
As if her research experiences aren’t enough, Parkinson has gained hands-on veterinary experience by working at goat farms in Salem, Ore. and at Lanta Animal Welfare in Thailand. She’s also rearticulating a goat skeleton as an independent project.
Parkinson says excelling in both her academic and athletic commitments wouldn’t be possible without her coach’s support.
“Coach Shevlin understands that I’m at Willamette so I can become a vet, not so I can become a swimmer,” Parkinson says. “She’s more than just my swim coach: she’s improved my public speaking by listening to my speeches, she’s edited my essays and she’s helped me practice for a vet school interview.”
Destination: Vet School
Even though graduation is several months away, Parkinson is already applying for veterinary schools and had her first interview at the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine.
Though getting accepted to this or another vet school is extremely competitive — even more selective than medical school — Parkinson says her experience as a student athlete has prepared her for this demanding field.
“Many people have never experienced having to get up at 5:30 a.m. every day,” she says. “Balancing school and swimming at Willamette taught me how to focus and manage my time, which will help me succeed in vet school."
• Story by Katie Huber ’13, politics major