Chasing down a childhood dream

by Tom Morlan,

  • Sarah Pope with her terrier mix
  • sarah pope

The pre-vet studies of Sarah Pope ’13 took her from Willamette to a biodiversity hotspot in South Africa.

A love for animals and a fascination with science transported Sarah Pope from a biology lab at Willamette to a biodiversity hotspot on the other side of the globe. Now she’s a student at Oregon State University’s Carlson College of Veterinary Medicine, and she’s well on her way to achieving a lifelong goal.

“Ever since I was a kid, becoming a veterinarian was a dream of mine,” Pope ’13 said. “It's one of those fantastical jobs where you can work with animals. Who wouldn't want to do that? And it didn't hurt that one of my heroes, my dad, was also a vet. So I knew what that kind of life looked like, and it looked wonderful.”

That idea followed Pope throughout her childhood, and her interest in biology grew as she made her way through high school. When it was time to choose a college, she narrowed her list to universities with exceptional science programs. Willamette was the first school she visited.

“As soon as I was on campus, it felt really comfortable — it kind of felt just like home,” Pope recalled. “Even when I went to other universities in the area, Willamette was still in the back of my mind. It was a really good fit and a place I was excited about.”

It didn’t take long for Pope to declare a major in biology. She said her science classes were rigorous and comprehensive, and they challenged her on multiple levels.

“When I came out of high school, I thought I knew exactly what kind of student I was,” Pope said. “Willamette made me reanalyze my abilities and my skill level and what I would need to do to rise to the occasion.”

As she gained invaluable knowledge in the realm of science, Pope took courses in anthropology, religion, journalism, and women’s and gender studies. Her classmates and professors opened her eyes to diverse perspectives and new career opportunities beyond the world of veterinary medicine.

“I was like, ‘I could do anything – is this really what I want to do?’” Pope recalled.

Her interest in the natural world rose to a new level during her junior year, when Pope studied abroad at Rhodes University in Makhanda, South Africa. She explored diverse environments teeming with wildlife, and she examined life systems in detail as part of her zoology course. After that, she was all in.

“Going there just reignited my passion for sciences, and specifically working with animals,” Pope said. “I had this newfound focus. That was really when I started to dig my heels in and say, ‘I know that I want to work with animals. I know that I want to work in science. And veterinary medicine is what I’m going to go for.’”

Sometimes the going got tough as she ramped up her studies. But Associate Professor of Biology Emma Coddington was there every step of the way.

“I loved her style of teaching, and I loved the way she challenged us,” Pope said. “She became a mentor and ended up writing me letters of recommendation to get into veterinary school. All the while, she was so supportive of my journey and everything I was doing. She was a critical part of my time at Willamette.”

The relationships Pope established across campus were just as important. Whether she was dancing, playing soccer or studying with her sorority sisters, Pope bonded with people who inspired her and informed her view of the world.

“Coming from a small town, I feel like there were a lot of aspects of life that I just didn't know about,” Pope said. “Thanks to Willamette University, I was able to meet so many different types of people, and I truly think they helped me become who I am today.”

At OSU, Pope is studying everything from animal behavior to surgical techniques, and she’s just one year away from completing her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree. Her goal is to work at a small-animal practice where doctors come together to provide the best possible care for their patients.

Pope lights up when she talks about her future career. It’s clear that her love for animals — and her appreciation of people who share her commitment to pets — is only growing stronger.

“My absolute favorite thing about veterinary medicine is the ability to connect with people from any background over our precious pets,” Pope said. “That connection with people and that connection with animals is so precious to me and so exciting, and it’s something that will always stay with me.”

The lessons she learned at Willamette will remain with her as well. Her undergraduate experience — at a small campus in Salem and an expansive learning environment 10,000 miles from home — gave her the confidence and clarity she needed to realize her vision.

“I think of my time at Willamette University as preparing me for my future career and where I am today,” Pope said. “There were times where it was really uplifting. There were times where it was really hard. But that entire process was incredibly, incredibly beneficial once I got to veterinary school.

“I feel like I came in with a set of skills that I was comfortable with. I knew what I was capable of. And I think it was the rigor of my undergraduate degree that really helped me prepare for something as wonderfully challenging as veterinary school can be.”

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