Higher education radically changed her life, and now, she works to inspire students to be bold and take risks to pursue their dreams.
Julie Funk, Dean of The University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine, believes in the transformative power of education because it changed her life. Growing up on a farm, Funk was familiar with the persevering and demanding work necessary to care for the welfare of animals and applied those aptitudes as a first-generation student at Michigan State University, beginning a journey she would never forget. Higher education offered a world full of promise with endless opportunities driving Funk to pursue a path intent on inspiring the same sense of possibility for future students.
Funk’s experiences on her family’s farm taught her that the best way forward is continuous learning. This foundational belief is evident through her pursuit of education (Dean Funk holds a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree, a Master of Science, and a Ph.D.) and in her previous and current leadership roles. For example, before coming to Arizona, Funk worked to make food science education accessible for online learners, directing an online graduate program at Michigan State University. This example of her excellent work in academia and beyond exemplifies why she received the Distinguished Alumni Award from North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine. In an interview with NC State, Funk expressed her gratitude for the award and for her opportunity to play a role in academic veterinary medicine:
“It is a real privilege to have a career in academic veterinary medicine. My favorite component is helping people achieve their dreams and goals, whether it is students achieving the dream of becoming [veterinarians] or faculty and staff career development. Supporting people and advancing the profession is a privilege I get every day. I am a first-generation college student, and quite frankly had no idea about academic careers. It was definitely not my plan when I started veterinary school.”
Although Funk had not been aware of her opportunities before entering higher education, many inspiring mentors played significant roles that encouraged her to open doors and take risks to see the outcome. For example, while pursuing her master’s degree in veterinary clinical sciences at the University of Illinois, she discovered her passion for work in academia and met advisers who played a part in her decision to seek further education. Following her passion ultimately led to North Carolina State University, where she earned her Ph.D. from their College of Veterinary Medicine’s comparative biomedical sciences program. Based on her own experiences in higher education, Funk saw the valuable role mentors play to help students recognize and pursue opportunities they may consider impossible. Moreover, she discovered joy in encouraging students to achieve new dreams.
Enticed by the prospect of serving a diverse student population and constructing a new college focused on helping students actualize their dreams, Funk jumped at the opportunity to lead the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine. As a young program overflowing with occasions to serve students, Dean Funk has embraced innovation to model a new way forward for the next generation of veterinarians. The College of Veterinary Medicine is designed to incorporate new knowledge into the many facets of our program, such as curriculum design, student affairs, and professional development. This proactive mindset drives our college forward and empowers students to explore their aspirations and transform the veterinary medical career field. Serving as a role model for current and future veterinary students, Funk is determined to model the same support she encountered as a student.
To women considering an education in STEM, Funk’s advice is to “jump in.” She suggests that students begin by exploring and experimenting. “Try different areas,” she said.
“If you see an opportunity you’re interested in, go do it! Remember that it is okay to try something and realize it’s not for you. That is not failure—it’s successfully exploring an area of STEM and finding out it may not be for you. There are valuable things you can take from [those experiences] and walking through one door does not mean other doors are closed to you. There is a lot of diversity in STEM; move around in the various STEM fields to find [your] fit.”
In addition to exploring interests within STEM, Funk encourages future students to take an interdisciplinary approach to their education and profession and believes that erasing the harsh delineation between STEM and non-STEM fields is essential to the career field. “The world has a lot of complex challenges, and we really need people who can. . . break down current categorizations and create new spaces,” said Funk. When each student builds their own unique path, they are more equipped to find innovative solutions and to be able to share those ideas collaboratively. There are limitless paths leading to an interdisciplinary approach to STEM. “If you can be comfortable in spanning these boundaries [between STEM and the arts and humanities], you’ll have no dearth of exciting career opportunities,” Funk shared.
Most important, said Funk, is knowing the difference between certainty and clarity. It may not be possible to attain certainty about a choice one is making but becoming clear about one’s goals is necessary. About the College of Veterinary Medicine, she shared, “I may not be certain about the exact path we will take to achieve our goals, and we often need to adjust and take different routes, but I do have real clarity about where we want to be.” Future students, too, do not need absolute certainty of the finer details; they simply need to find their clarity and begin moving toward that vision.
The College of Veterinary Medicine is a place of continuous growth, guided by a clear mission. This clarity affords the College the freedom to consider new ways of solving problems, modeling the importance of seeking opportunities that are in alignment with one’s vision. Dr. Funk’s vision for accessible veterinary education comes to life at CVM, exemplified by our diverse student population and innovative teaching strategies. The future is bright for women in STEM, and there is room in the field for anyone willing to jump in and embrace opportunity.