CVJ February 2024 - Convocation address to the Ontario Veterinary College ’23 graduating students, June 16, 2023

February 8, 2024

A graduate of the University of Guelph’s Ontario Veterinary College, Dr. Michelle Lem is a leader and advocate in the field of veterinary and human health. She was a 2023 recipient of a Doctor of Laws degree, honoris causa, at the University of Guelph, and provided the convocation address to the Ontario Veterinary College class of 2023.

The CVJ is pleased to publish Dr. Lem’s convocation address as a Commentary.

Thank you to Chancellor Chambers, members of the University of Guelph Senate, Board of Governors, Board of Trustees, faculty members, and community.

Miigwech. I would also like to acknowledge that the land on which we are gathered is the traditional territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation and ancestral homelands of the Anishinaabek Peoples. I acknowledge my responsibilities as a settler, including a commitment to respectful and reciprocal relationships with the original peoples of this place.

Congratulations to the graduating students, and their families and friends who are celebrating with us today.

Quick poll before I get started: Has anyone here heard of “imposter syndrome?” Has anyone here experienced imposter syndrome? Did anyone seated behind me put up their hand?

Of course, as veterinarians, it’s almost a prerequisite. You know it’s only funny because it’s true. Would you be surprised to know that I feel like an imposter right now? I actually do feel uncomfortable, hearing the citation of “me” and to be standing here in front of all of you and receiving this honor alone. Because when one hears the citation, one might make some incorrect assumptions.

There are two that I’d like to speak about today. The first assumption is that I somehow did all this on my own, which clearly, I didn’t. I am here today because of my parents, friends, family, teachers, colleagues, and mentors. And I am here, of course, because of the inspiring dedication, compassion, and service of our Community Veterinary Outreach family, our Board of Directors, our incredible Regional Directors and volunteers, community partners, supporters, and sponsors.

At this time, I invite new graduates to reflect on who in your life supported you to achieve this accomplishment we are celebrating today. They may be people you knew well or peripherally; it may be someone whose impact you didn’t recognize at the time, but now you do; and they may also not all be people, as perhaps there was a special animal relationship. We need to look around us and acknowledge all those who supported us, past and present, so that we can do our part to support others, give back, and pay it forward. Because the truth is that none of us gets to where we are on our own. All of us have stood on the shoulders of giants. Too often, we take credit for accomplishments that our not solely our own.

It’s important that we acknowledge this, not only for our own sense of individual gratitude and humility, but also because of the global sociopolitical climate that is pervasive at this moment in time. Current individualist social ideologies are truly and deeply problematic, and we are all influenced by these structural and systemic forces because we all have to operate and interact within them. They influence both how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive others, and how we experience the world. The imposter syndrome that I mentioned earlier is a good example of this — how systemic bias and exclusion are the true roots of imposter syndrome, but instead tend to pathologize individuals. But more on that later.

So, how do we get from “me” to “we?” We make choices each day to show gratitude and acknowledge our privilege. We cultivate empathy and compassion with ourselves and others. When we don’t understand the actions of others, we make the most generous assumptions we can, and we action the understanding that our health and well-being are intricately tied to the health and well-being of others, including other people, animals, and our environment. It is ultimately our choices and actions, rather than our words, that define us. And it is our actions during challenging and difficult times that are the true test of our values, beliefs, character, and integrity.

The second possible assumption when one hears the citation is that, somehow, I planned for all this to happen, that my outreach career was a steady and linear path, each step leading towards the next goal. The truth is that I typically don’t know what I am doing next week, let alone in the next 5 years. I know that a lot of popular advice is that, in order to achieve one’s goals, one has to make plans and to stick with them. I’m not opposed to goals or plans, but I prefer to hold them lightly. I like to think that this kind of mindset has contributed to the success of our outreach work and has been critical in identifying and addressing systems gaps that are what I am most passionate about.

“To hold plans lightly” means to have a thought, an idea — really, it’s a curiosity. Knowing the first step to actioning that idea, which, for me, is typically spending time reflecting, researching, or mulling it over with trusted friends or colleagues, inevitably leads to more questions. This whole time, though, it remains a thought, a possibility, a potential goal…kind of like that anatomical “potential space” we learned about but that I never really understood.

I let go of all the steps in between the first step and the potential goal. I let go of how it all unfolds, including how I hope and think it “should” unfold. “Letting go” means letting go of any certainty or knowing if, or how, it’s all going to work out. For me, this has been one of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life and work.

We all struggle with uncertainty, and therefore with the need to try and control it, because uncertainty almost always means expecting and accepting some discomfort. But it is the not knowing that allows for the curiosity and questioning — and therefore, change. If one truly “knew,” then one would not question. However, not knowing allows for reflections, connections, and relationships to be formed that could not have been planned or anticipated. In this way, I learned to see uncertainty as an opportunity for a future I could not have imagined, rather than something to be feared, and therefore intricately planned and controlled.

The truth is that none of us “knows” the future, and I can say with full honesty that I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up! All I can say is that right here, right now, I am truly happy in my current professional role as veterinary social worker, being a mother to the 2 best kids EVER, and being a super-intense horse lover.

It’s OK to not “know.” Yes, it feels uncomfortable, but we can learn to expect and accept the discomfort, knowing it leads to questioning, and therefore, to change.

In my newest role as veterinary social worker, embracing the uncertainty and not knowing were critical components of the experience that I intentionally sought out. Although I know other veterinary social workers, and veterinary social work (VSW) programs, I also knew that this context was unique and that we had a rare opportunity to build something different. How many times would I have the chance to impact the culture, experience, and relationships in a brand-new specialty and emergency clinic with a new, 95-person team? The practice owners, managers, specialty and emergency teams, and I were committed to doing things differently; this was the opportunity to prove how systems and practices can be changed, that we can do better to meaningfully support team members, clients, and our patients. That we can both do well and be well in this profession.

But for change to happen, we have to be the change, and that often means we have to change. It means no longer accepting the status quo. However, humans generally resist change, and when faced with a choice, often choose the status quo. Because it is the thing that is known, the things that feels the most comfortable, most familiar, and therefore, the safest.

But our new team didn’t want to accept the status quo. We didn’t want to accept the “known” things. In the past, we had just “gotten used to” patterns and processes that have been perpetuated over and over yet are inherently flawed.

For me, resisting the status quo also meant resisting the natural inclination to follow or compare the VSW program I was developing to others that already existed, and to compare myself to other vet social workers. Even though VSW is a new and emerging field, I recognized the uniqueness of this opportunity and my situation, along with what I bring with my own lived experience. I also had strong desire to make my own mistakes. This may sound like individualism or even hubris, but it isn’t, I assure you. I am but one of a large team and have phenomenal clinical supervision and a strong network of support in social work practice. What was important for me was to discover my own path, and that of my colleagues, rather than walk someone else’s. As a team, we are each questioning things, including the influence of knowledge and power in relationships. Through this, we are connecting and relating to each other in new ways and establishing new patterns and processes. Real change happens with others who are questioning, and it is not tied to outcome, but rather to shared values and process.

Even while recognizing the value and need for uncertainty in order to effect systemic change, I still had doubts and uncertainties. Doubts about my capabilities, my knowledge, my ability to help or to create change. I didn’t, and couldn’t, know if we would be effective or successful. Once again, I felt like an imposter. But as before, the gifts of doubt and uncertainty are that it leads to questioning and curiosity.

In a 2020 review, up to 82% of people experience imposter syndrome. The concept was developed in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who were researching the experiences of high-achieving women. However, as Tulshyan and Burey point out in a 2021 Harvard Business Review article (1), “The development of this concept excluded the effects of systemic racism, classism, xenophobia, and other biases, and took a fairly universal feeling of discomfort, second-guessing, and mild anxiety in the workplace and pathologized it, especially for women…Even as we know it today, imposter syndrome puts the blame on individuals, without accounting for the historical and cultural contexts that are foundational to how it manifests... Imposter syndrome directs our view toward fixing women at work instead of fixing the places where women work.”

A personal example is that, at one point early in my career, I considered being a mixed-animal vet. However, there was a discourse in various circles that, as a female, small-framed individual and urban-raised Asian, I may not “fit in,” “be accepted,” or be physically capable. This kind of biased discourse strongly influenced how I thought about myself and my abilities at the time.

What we know today is that imposter syndrome, much like other issues facing our society, is not a failing on the part of individuals, but rather a failing on the part of systems and structures in which we live, learn, and work. Social change always requires action by individuals, groups, and communities.

In order to meaningfully combat imposter syndrome, we need to combat systemic racism, ableism, classism, and gender bias. Individually, pushing up against imposter syndrome means pushing up against the ideals of being or the need to be perfect, an expert, or a hero or saviour, and the need to accomplish or find success all on our own.

I will leave you with this: It’s OK to not know. When you don’t know, try to know yourself, your values, priorities, what you truly believe. When we don’t know what to do, all we can do is be open and curious. To do this, we have to grow our capacity and tolerance for uncertainty and discomfort. Make choices that honor who you truly are, without any labels; honor your beliefs and values and how you want to walk through the world. Lean into the uncertainty, lean into the discomfort, because that is what cultivates questioning and curiosity, and that is what is needed in the world today for innovation and change. Thank you, and once again, congratulations to all of you.