A life-long interest in medicine has taken Ciji Brewer on a rare path to getting selected to participate in one of the most prestigious training programs for second-year veterinary school students.
The Smith-Kilborne training program is a part of the United States Animal Plant Health Inspection Service. Brewer was one of 30 students throughout the country accepted into the program.
Brewer attributes a lot of her fascination with medicine to having open-heart surgery at 4 years old. She said she has always been intrigued by medicine since then.
“Of course, I went through the phases when I wanted to be a music star or whatever, but I always went back to science and medicine,” Brewer said.
The program will begin May 29 and go through June 6 and is designed to give students experience working with foreign animal diseases and look for ways to combat threats of bioterrorism.
A Summerville, Georgia, native, Brewer originally studied at Berry College in the pursuit of a career in human medicine. She said her eyes were opened up to new possibilities when she got a part-time job working at an animal shelter as an undergraduate.
“I hung out with our shelter vet a lot,” Brewer said. “Working with her, I was like, ‘Wow, this is cool. It’s still medicine, but animals are way cooler than people.’”
Family matters took Brewer away from school before officially graduating.
“You know how that goes,” Brewer said. “Taking one year off turns into taking 10 years off.”
During the break from school, Brewer found a full-time job at a vet clinic in Newnan, Georgia. Brewer loved this particular clinic because of how much liberty was given to the assistants, which allowed for a lot of hands-on learning.
“It was the best clinic you could ask for in terms of a startup because they taught me so much,” Brewer said. “It was more of an educational experience than a job.”
During her break from school, Brewer had a job working as an animal control officer. Brewer said this was an interesting experience because she got to see a different side of animal care than what she was used to in the clinic.
Brewer’s husband urged her to go to veterinary school and go beyond being a vet secretary by expanding her career options.
“I really don’t know why he suddenly decided, 'This is it, you got to do it,'” Brewer said. “He knew that’s what I wanted to do, and he pushed me and encouraged me, and I couldn’t say no to that.”
After the encouragement, Brewer went back to take some pre-requisites that were needed for applying to veterinary school.
Brewer was worried, however, that getting into veterinary school would be difficult because she never officially graduated college.
“I had a biology professor who wouldn’t sign me into his class because he said, ‘I don’t know why you’re bothering, you’ll never get into vet school without a degree anyway,’” Brewer said. "And I did and so, you know, I really wanted to go rub it in his face, but I didn’t.”
Brewer, who will soon be 33, is one of the oldest students at Auburn College of Veterinary Medicine. She said, in retrospect, it was a blessing taking the non-traditional path.
“I was dreading it when I was going in, you know, being the old lady in the class,” Brewer said. “But, it really has been very helpful because there has been so much that I can say, 'I’ve seen this before.' I’m kind of glad I’m doing this later in life.”
Much of Brewer’s previous work only consisted of working with small animals so, she had no prior experience in food animal studies or with large animals, which is the focus of her upcoming training program.
After Brewer returns from the program, she will be expected to present her experience to the faculty and students.
“When I got here, I wanted to keep an open mind,” Brewer said. “I didn’t want to stick with [working solely with small animals] because that’s what I knew and I got really interested in food animal medicine and epidemiology.”
Brewer sees a lot of interrelation between animals and humans. She said helping animals and properly managing wildlife has economic benefits for food producers and for all the consumers.
Brewer said her goal is to eventually work for the United States Department of Agriculture, which is the institution that runs the Smith-Kilborne training program.
“I want to make a broader impact on the humans and the animals,” Brewer said. “[I] like that whole big picture of helping the animals, helping the people.”
In addition to being a second-year student in vet school, Brewer is studying to earn a master’s degree in public health in a joint program between Auburn and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Brewer will also have an internship this summer working with the state veterinarian’s office to monitor poultry flocks for avian influenza.
Outside of work in animal care, Brewer enjoys the hobby of canning jams and jellies, which she sells at local farmer’s markets. The label of the products is "Brown Dog," which was fittingly named after Brewer’s chocolate lab.