An annual return by alumni to reconnect, learn

Group of students and educators in discussion.

In its thirty-first year, a Washington State University tradition continues to bring alumni back to campus to benefit animals in need of veterinary care and their owners.

The annual event, known as the Diagnostic Challenges, is a series of simulated case-based exercises featuring real-life experiences with volunteer clients and stuffed patients early in the second year of WSU’s veterinary curriculum.

Doctor of Veterinary Medicine graduates from WSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine work with students to diagnose and treat the cases. This year, 35 veterinarians from around the country returned to WSU’s Pullman campus to serve as facilitators and advise the more than 100 students in the Class of 2025 through their cases.

Nicholas Paulson (DVM ‘12), area chief of staff at Banfield Pet Hospital, visited Pullman for his third Diagnostic Challenges as a facilitator. Just as for the students, he said it offers the veterinarians participating opportunities to sharpen their communication skills.

“I learn something every time I watch a student interact with a client,” Paulson said. “We don’t spend a lot of time reflecting on how we interact with people on a day-to-day basis, but I’ll watch the students and I’ll think to myself, ‘how would I have handled that situation?’ It’s a great opportunity to look introspectively at how I interact with colleagues and clients.”

The gathering brings together WSU alumni and their past professors and their classmates.

“We all hang out and catch up with some of our professors from vet school. I might not have talked to them in years, but the camaraderie is still there,” said facilitating veterinarian Christina Easton (DVM ‘16).

Easton said at first, she was nervous about participating in the Diagnostic Challenges. “A lot of these facilitators have all these extra letters after their name, but once I got there, I never felt nervous; we were all working together to ensure the best experience for the students — it’s a friendly group.”

In addition to sharpening communication and reconnecting with old friends, the students also bring a contagious enthusiasm.

“You get to interact with students that are really nervous and stressed, but you can feel that energy and that excitement about being a veterinarian,” Paulson said. 

He said he carries that enthusiasm back to work with him. He’s not the only one.

“I came away from the Diagnostic Challenges last year and I was on a high for like two weeks,” Easton said. “It felt good to see students grow throughout the week, and I know just how they felt because that is what I felt as a student.”

From their time as veterinary students at WSU, Paulson and Easton can attest to the benefits of the Diagnostic Challenges.

“It’s the first time you have to be a doctor for a week,” Easton said. “You try your best, but it’s intimidating to suddenly talk to a client, do a physical exam, take bloodwork and know what that all means. At the end of the week, you look back and you realize you know way more than you thought you did.”

For those interested in becoming a facilitator, the Diagnostic Challenges also provides volunteering veterinarians continuing education credits critical to the ever-evolving veterinary field.