Three Western College of Veterinary Medicine students are recipients of WCVM Pride and DIVERSE Awards. From left to right: Dr. Charlie Wyatt-Swain, Dr. Azy Behnam-Shabahang, Dr. Billy Anderson.
Three Western College of Veterinary Medicine students are recipients of WCVM Pride and DIVERSE Awards. From left to right: Dr. Charlie Wyatt-Swain, Dr. Azy Behnam-Shabahang, Dr. Billy Anderson.

New awards honour student leaders of groups celebrating diversity

During the past few years, two new student-led groups at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine (WCVM) have strived to celebrate diversity through educational awareness and events in a time when discrimination is all too common in society.

A student organization called WCVM DIVERSE (Diversity and Inclusivity in the Veterinary Environment: Respect, Solidarity and Empowerment) and the WCVM Pride Club have both played crucial roles in creating an inclusive learning environment for all students regardless of race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity at the college and on the University of Saskatchewan (USask) campus.

In recognition of the organizations’ positive impact, the WCVM has introduced two new scholarship awards: the WCVM DIVERSE award and the WCVM Pride Award. The awards, which will be annually awarded to the groups’ leaders, are worth $2,000 each.

“We need to celebrate and reward activity that works toward social justice and inclusion. As a college, we wanted to show how much we value their work,” says WCVM Dean Dr. Gillian Muir, reflecting on why the awards were created.

She adds that the awards highlight the outstanding leadership commitment of these students.

“The students are only here at the WCVM for a short time, and their schedules are very busy. Their involvement and leadership in these groups demonstrate the kind of actions that we are very proud of.”

Co-recipients of the 2023 WCVM DIVERSE Award are Charlie Wyatt-Swain and Azy Behnam-Shabahang, who both graduated from the college’s Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) program in 2023.

The classmates and close friends created WCVM DIVERSE in 2020 after hearing about the pressing need for a dedicated, inclusive space at the veterinary college.

“We had numerous students and even staff of the college reach out to us to discuss important issues such as racism and discrimination,” says Wyatt-Swain.

“Azy was the one who put the idea forward to start a club to promote diversity, equity and inclusion at the college. She did so much of the groundwork that was needed to start a club like this, and I immediately hopped on board.”

In the past few years, WCVM DIVERSE has been involved in planning a variety of education and social events, in addition to providing a safe space for students and other members of the WCVM community.

“We’ve hosted important talks such as an ‘Intro to American Sign Language (ASL) in veterinary medicine’ and ‘Indigenous Animal Welfare: Understanding the Rez Dog,” says Wyatt-Swain. “Our ribbon tying ceremonies were also proud moments for us.”

Behnam-Shabahang says that the presence of WCVM DIVERSE is critical for a college with a growing number of students from a variety of backgrounds.

“We have students at the WCVM who are coming from all over Canada and around the world. Some of these students may have had limited opportunities to interact with people from other cultures and religions, or ways of thinking,” says Behnam-Shabahang.

“As such, it is necessary to create awareness of both overt and covert discrimination surrounding race, ethnicity, religion, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity and to foster an environment for cohesive allyship.”

Behnam-Shabahang adds that the club’s ultimate aim is to instil confidence in WCVM members to proudly and boldly promote a student and work environment free from discrimination. The organization also encourages the college’s administration to enforce policies that mirror this objective.

This year’s recipient of the WCVM Pride Award is Billy Anderson, a 2023 WCVM graduate from Port Coquitlam, BC. She was instrumental in starting the WCVM Pride Club in spring 2021 after seeing the impact that the DIVERSE club had made on the college’s community.

“The Pride club really branched off of WCVM DIVERSE because we saw the need to create a space for 2SLGBTQ+ students, staff and our allies,” says Anderson. She adds that WCVM Pride’s active presence in Saskatoon allows for 2SLGBTQ+ individuals and their allies to come together and build a sense of community.

“One of my favourite things we did was walk in the Saskatoon Pride parade as a group. It was really special for everyone to gather and represent the WCVM,” says Anderson. 

The WCVM will celebrate the award recipients’ contributions later in September when Anderson, Wyatt-Swain and Behnam-Shabahang are officially honoured during the WCVM’s annual fall awards banquet.

All three award recipients have moved on to new challenges in their veterinary careers, but their efforts will endure as both organizations continue their critical work in supporting and celebrating diversity at the veterinary college and on campus.

Contact wcvm.diverse@gmail.com (WCVM DIVERSE) and wcvmpride@gmail.com (WCVM Pride Club) for more information about both groups.