After graduation from Sarah Lawrence in 1970, I joined the exodus of suburban, liberal arts educated, tree hugging soon to be hippies and went to California, where I milked goats on a commune in exchange for room and board. After a couple of years of communal back to the land adventures, I had the wild idea I wanted to be a large animal vet. Since I had never taken a biology course, except in high school, I had to back to school. I moved into a commune located in Hop Bottom, Pennsylvania with my college sweetheart, Harry, his brothers, my sister and her daughter and various other folks, including a St. Bernard named Inga. The guys played in a band, I waitressed and worked at a ski rental store at Elk Mountain Ski resort, and all lived together in the rent-free house in exchange for upkeep. This is the story of my first foray into getting the credits I needed to apply to vet school.
The college closest to Hop Bottom offering biology courses was The State University of New York at Binghamton, about an hour north. I chose to start with a course in organic chemistry, a notoriously difficult course known to weed out the weak from pre-med and pre-vet programs. For my re-entry into the world of academia, it was perfect. If I could manage organic chemistry, I reasoned, I would be able to manage the rigors of veterinary school. And even better, the course started in early June, just enough time for me to save some money, find a cheap apartment, and get settled. I kept my plan to myself. Instead of putting all my earnings into the communal bank account, I started a small savings account of my own. Money was a worry. My parents had made it clear that after my bachelor’s degree, I was on my own. Financial support from Harry was out of the question. He could barely pay for food and replacement guitar strings. He borrowed weed from his brothers. I would need money for my pre-vet classes and piles more money for veterinary school if I ever got that far.
There were only two veterinary schools on the East Coast—Cornell and University of Pennsylvania. I sent a letter to each, requesting admissions materials. Both schools predominately admitted residents of either New York or Pennsylvania. Since I was living in Hop Bottom, Pennsylvania, U of Penn was an option, but I thought Cornell might also be possible because I had grown up in Rochester, New York, and my parents still lived there.
Both schools required a minimum of four courses in biology, one of which had to be organic chemistry, and all had to be laboratory courses—that is, not only textbooks and classrooms, but microscopes, test tubes, and dissection. Luckily, the math, inorganic chemistry and physics I took at Sarah Lawrence satisfied those prerequisites.
The State University of New York at Binghamton, about an hour north of Hop Bottom, was the closest and cheapest place I could get the credits I needed. I found an attic apartment in Binghamton in a neighborhood with trash cans on the curb, cigarette butts and dog poop on the sidewalks, plastic chairs on small porches. It cost a hundred dollars for a deposit and rent for June, which emptied my bank account. I broke the news to Harry and the rest of the gang. No one seemed surprised. I had been talking about my dream of vet school for a while.
In June 1973, I was a student again. Organic chemistry, every day, all day. I allowed myself an hour to watch the Watergate hearings to hear H.R. Haldeman and John Dean testify and Rose Mary Woods tell how she deleted (or didn’t) that eighteen minutes of tape. I wolfed down macaroni and cheese or a grilled cheese sandwich, sat on the dusty couch and watched the noose tighten around Nixon. The summer was steamy. Some nights in the attic were so hot that I slathered myself with mosquito repellant and dragged my mattress onto the tiny balcony to sleep in the night breeze.
I rode an old bike to class and back, as I couldn’t afford a car. Riding back to the attic on summer nights, I felt the evening breeze cool down the hot pavement and looked forward to a shower and my solitary dinner. The solitude was a relief after years of communal bickering. I even enjoyed cracking open my new chemistry text, fresh pages waiting for my neat scribbles in the margin.
My hours of studying paid off and I got A’s on my tests, while half the class, mostly pre-med men, dropped out. Each time the professor handed back the test, and I saw that “A” in the top right corner, I felt it a bit stronger—I was on the right path. After a few weeks, my chemistry teacher pulled me aside after class.
“Linda, you clearly have an aptitude for this,” he said. He gathered his notes from the desk and looked directly at me. “What are your plans?”
“I want to apply to veterinary school.”
“Not medical school?” he said.
“No, definitely not. I’m hoping for Penn or Cornell, but I still have three biology courses to take first.”
“Have you talked to the pre-vet advisor, Dr. Cantwell?”
This was the first I had heard of a pre-vet advisor. I didn’t know anything about applying to veterinary school beyond what I had read in the materials I had from Penn and Cornell. There was a pre-vet advisor?
“You should talk to him,” he said, kindly. “He can help.” He tucked his papers into his leather briefcase and snapped the metal clasp shut. “You might need help deciding what your strategy should be.”
Strategy? Who needed a strategy?
“Okay,” I said. “I will, thanks.”
Dr. Cantwell beckoned me into his office, filled with books and an old wooden desk smothered in piles of journals. His beard and mustache masked a narrow mouth, his skin was thin and papery. He leaned back in his swivel chair.
“Sit down, little lady, what can I do for you?” My brow furrowed. Little lady? Really? I looked at the only chair, covered with file folders, and stood.
“Dr. Cantwell, my organic chem prof told me to come and see you. He said you were the pre-vet advisor.”
“Yes, indeed. How is organic chem going for you?”
“I like it, it’s interesting.”
He chuckled. “That’s not the usual response I get.”
“So, what is this about pre-vet?” he asked.
I told him about planning to apply to either Penn or Cornell.
“You want to be a veterinarian?” He sat up straight and looked directly at me.
“Yes, and I have to take three biology courses before I can apply.”
“What did you say your name was?” he asked. I hadn’t, but I told him now.
“Linda,” he said, looking intently at me, “you have very little, no, let me say, no chance of getting into veterinary school.” His face was solemn. “I advise you to choose a different path.”
We stared at each other until he looked away and pretended to sort the papers on his desk. I took a deep breath and let it out slowly.
Mr. Cantwell asked me no questions about my experience, my undergraduate school, my plans and dreams, or my straight A average in organic chem. He knew nothing about me. I stared at him, and he stared back.
“Very few students are successful in being admitted to veterinary school,” he stated, frowning. He walked to his dirty window and looked out, his back to me.
“It is harder to get into veterinary school than it is to get into medical school.” He turned and leaned toward me like he might put his arm around my shoulders. I took a step back.
“The young men that get accepted are from farm families or their fathers are veterinarians. They have years of experience working with animals,” he said, stroking his beard. “They have straight A averages and majors in biology.” He spoke in a nervous, high-pitched voice. He turned back to look out the window, where I could see a big maple tree, leaves shivering in the breeze.
“And of course, very, very few women are accepted,” he said.
My face reddened and my hands began to sweat. I turned to the door, with a dozen rejoinders running through my head.
“Don’t run out, my dear,” he said. “I can help you figure out an alternative.”
“No,” I said, “I don’t believe you can.”
I walked to my bike, and rode out along the river for miles, legs pumping, mind churning. What if he is right, I thought. He’s been advising pre-vet students for years. Probably knows the admissions people at both Penn and Cornell. I could spend all this time and money and hit a dead end. When I lifted my bike onto the porch, and clicked the padlock on the chain, instead of climbing up to the attic, I sat on the porch and watched the sun set over the garbage cans.
The next morning, I was back in class. In late August, I finished my organic chemistry course. I got an A.