In February, PetDesk celebrated Black History Month by learning more about Black professionals in the veterinary community to highlight their stories and discuss what this month means to them. The theme for Black History Month 2021 is “The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity”. As we enter Women’s History Month in March, hearing the stories of women of color takes on new meaning and significance. The varied histories, struggles, and victories showcase experiences that deserve a spotlight in our industry.
Meet Dr. Ruby Perry
Ruby. L. Perry, DVM, MS, PhD, DACVR is the dean/professor of veterinary radiology at the Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine (TUCVM), which is recognized as the most diverse of all schools/colleges of veterinary medicine in the U.S. In May of 2015, she was appointed the seventh and first female dean of the Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Perry claims several firsts, including the first alumna to be named both interim dean and dean of a U. S. veterinary school; the first African American female board-certified veterinary radiologist in the American College of Veterinary Radiology; and most recently, the first veterinary alumna to serve as acting president for Tuskegee University during the president’s medical leave period earlier in 2020.
Dr. Perry serves as secretary on the American College of Veterinary Medical Colleges (AVMC) Board of Directors, Co-Chair of the AVMA-AAVMC Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Commission, and was recently honored with the Zoetis Champion of Diversity Award. She was awarded the 2021 AAVMC Iverson Bell Award in recognition of Dr. Iverson Bell’s outstanding leadership and contributions in promoting diversity in veterinary medical education. Perry has served in various leadership positions to include president of the Tuskegee Veterinary Medical Alumni Association, program coordinator for the American College of Veterinary Radiology, and was recently appointed by Gov. Kay Ivey to the Alabama Environmental Management Commission. Perry is a dual graduate of Tuskegee University, where she received her undergraduate in Animal and Poultry Science in 1976 and the Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree in 1977. She completed the veterinary radiology residency at Michigan State University, and further advanced her graduate career with the M.S. degree in Microbiology from Michigan State University, the Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Keiser University.
She previously served in several other positions at Tuskegee to include interim chief of staff, vice-provost of undergraduate education, associate dean for academic affairs, assistant veterinary radiology professor, and acting chair of the Department of Small Animal Medicine, Surgery and Radiology. Before returning to Tuskegee, Perry was on faculty at Michigan State University for 20 years, where she was section chief of veterinary radiology and earned tenure as an associate professor of veterinary radiology.
Dr. Perry has also served on various professional committees and task groups, and advisory roles for many students and student organizations. She is actively engaged in community service that increases the veterinary profession’s awareness and advances veterinary medical education. She is married to Dr. Winston Felton, a veterinarian and a 1977 Tuskegee University veterinary graduate. They have three children (Benjamin, Alvin, and Christina) and 10 grandchildren.This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Can you tell us a little bit about you, your family, and where you call home?
Yes, but first of all, let me thank PetDesk for inviting me to be a part of your Black History Month, and also for what PetDesk has done for Tuskegee University and our students to support them in their academic journey to become veterinarians.
Ok, now to the question. My birth home is a small town called Tougaloo, Mississippi. I claim Lansing, Michigan as my second home because this is where my husband and I lived the longest and raised our three children, two boys, and a girl. I claim Alabama as my third home because this is the place where I met my husband and began our educational journey together.
When it came to your upbringing and education, did your race or background shape your experiences?
Being an African American female is who I am and proud to be. My mother had the most influential impact on who I am and what I have achieved today. First of all, she prepared me and my four siblings to remain grateful for humble beginnings and stay focused on our academics.
She realized that we would have struggles with racism and social injustices, so the best way for her to show us how to survive was to recognize the barriers we’d face.
For women, she made sure to equip us with the tools so that we could always get a job. As an African American woman, you probably could find a job as a secretary, so she always put me in summer camp to learn typing, even though all I wanted to do was play basketball. Now, I appreciate it, and I see my mother prepared me for that journey.
She also made sure we were part of the desegregation journey. Being from Tougaloo, there was a white high school adjacent, and we were pulled from our Black high school to desegregate the white high school.
My mom is a smart woman of survival. She knew that the freedom activists would come to Tougaloo because we were a strong academic community. For one, they wanted to make sure that these children were academically sound. Number two, they want to make sure you could survive emotionally because people say harsh things and you can’t take that personally.
Those freedom activists taught us how to survive since we were going into a military zone. But, we were prepared for a successful outcome and all of us got through it and did well. We were not invited back to our reunion, so that’s a disconnect; I didn’t have the African American high school group that I could call and say ‘Oh, remember the good old days?’
30 years later, one of our classmates made an effort to find the 6 African American kids in that class and invited us to the class reunion. We had classmates apologize for how they treated us. We never sang in the choir or did any of those activities that we thought we could do, but at that reunion, they asked us to sing in the choir.
That was a very tearful moment for me; it’s never too late for change.
You briefly touched on mentors, but are there any other mentors or teachers that impacted you in a positive way?
Oh absolutely, there are three. One is my sixth-grade math teacher who inspired me to pursue mathematics. He taught math and tried to be a model so people could follow in his tracks. That’s what we do; we love what we do and try to find somebody that we can be a model for. He saw potential that I didn’t even see. I knew I loved numbers; when I used to balance my checkbook if I noticed I was short a penny I’d stay there until I found it. Most people would write off that penny, but if you keep counting pennies they add up.
So, he knew I loved working with numbers and he also realized that inspiring young people early was the key to their persistence.
Number two is my high school bus driver who loved music. We were bussed to this school as a part of desegregation. At the end of his route, it was me and about three others who loved to sing, and he would always start a song. It was so inspiring because it helped me get through the day. At the end of the day, we would sing and it would prepare me for the next day to go back into that environment. He helped us face desegregation in a way he probably didn’t even know.
And last but not least is my mentor who influenced me to pursue medicine. I worked for this veterinarian as I was pursuing my career in math, and seeing his inspiration and passion for the care of animals and animal welfare was a light bulb that went off in my head. Seeing how he was able to care for them and be the voice for them when no one else could, or seeing the owners being so overjoyed when the veterinarian was able to solve a problem so the pet could go home and be part of the family again. So I thought, ‘oh my gosh, how do I get in this career?’, and he put me on the track. He mentored me, prepared me, and the rest is history.
Speaking of the veterinary industry, do you have any advice for young students who want to follow in your footsteps.?
First of all, do not let anybody tell you that you’re not good enough. If you know you’re good enough, then you never give up on your dream. You’ve got to prepare yourself; veterinary medicine is a rigorous program. Take courses in science and math early, and if you realize, ‘oh my gosh, science is just not my cup of tea’, well, then you don’t need to pursue a career where all of it is science and math. Go to health fairs and see what a veterinarian actually does – it is not glory every day.
For veterinary students who want to specialize, realize that it’s going to take extra time and money. You have to do an internship and a residency, which is what I did at Michigan State. I didn’t know I wanted to be a radiologist until I took that course with my mentor. That’s the key – people recognize things in you that you can’t recognize in yourself. He was the very first board-certified male African American veterinary radiologist, and I followed as the first African American female.
He and I stay in contact with each other, which is the other piece; when people help you along the way, show some gratitude. For those people who have gone before us, who have sacrificed their lives, who have been advocates and mentors for us.
That’s another thing my mother taught me – try not to be selfish and try to show some appreciation to others. So, that is what I give to the veterinary graduates: network, network, network! Don’t wait for people to come to you, go seek those people out! I developed that courage when I was growing up. When those freedom activists had to tell us, ‘you’ve got to be courageous, you’ve got to stay the course, and you’ve got to be successful’.
Are there failures? Absolutely, you’re not gonna get it right the first time. But, you don’t stop – you go back and you try to fix it. So, courage is part of that journey; go seek out your advocates and your champions. Champions come in all sizes, all shades of color, all ethnicities; They are out there for us to grab on to.
Any tips or advice for the I.D.E.A. team at PetDesk?
First of all, you’re going to be an example yourself. You’re going to be the first to be inclusive, to be courageous, to start a conversation with someone in your organization who is different than you.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are extremely important in the workplace because that is how organizations and educational systems are measured. It is easy to just reach out to those we know and see every day, and forget that there are people from various backgrounds that we need to seek out.
It is not only the right thing to do, but it is the best thing to do to impact change in our society.
Diversity is about representation or the makeup of people in an organization. Inclusion is about how well the contributions, the presence, and perspectives of different groups of people are valued and integrated into an environment. An environment where many different genders, races, nationalities, sexual orientations, and identities are present. But, if you only listen to the perspectives of certain people, because those are the ones you feel comfortable with right, then you may be diverse, but you’re not inclusive.
Equity is knowing that I do not have to work twice as hard to get half the pay. This is a major challenge for women in organizational and educational environments. In general, if you look at all the salaries of everybody in an organization, you’ll find that the women are at the bottom. A change agent looks at that and says ‘how are we going to adjust salaries so that women don’t have to work twice as hard for half the pay?’
I’m going to leave you with this one pearl of wisdom – come out of your bubbles of comfort, take off your shades of not wanting to see, not wanting to do, not wanting to hear, and recognize and realize that people are marginalized, mistreated, and not given opportunities because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, age, sexual orientation, and all those characteristics that are different than our own. You can’t see it if you’re not conscious of it, so first, start by asking the question ‘what am I doing to make PetDesk a more inclusive organization?’ And then, you model the way.