Among those who completed MCCC’s Veterinary Assistants program in June 2013 are (front) Justina Siracusa of West Windsor, Melissa Nini of Columbus, (back) instructor Leslie Sheppard-Bird, students Robin Scheiner of Robbinsville, Trish Donahue of Cranbury, Colleen Reasoner of Ewing, Amanda Briggs of Ewing, Virginia Armstrong-Whyte of Lawrence, and instructor Tina DeVictoria.

Mercer County Community College’s new programs puts animal lovers on track to becoming certified veterinary assistants.

Before she began her career of more than 25 years as an assistant prosecutor in Mercer County, and even before her previous job as a teacher, Robin Scheiner grew up with an interest in animals.

And, after hearing about the Veterinary Assistant Certificate program offered at Mercer County Community College, Scheiner attended an interest session. The Robbinsville resident decided to enroll, and was among the students who graduated in June.

“I loved my job,” Scheiner said, “but it was time to do something that I’ve always wanted to do.”

Like Scheiner, fellow graduate Amanda Briggs, of Ewing, has always had in interest in veterinary medicine. Briggs, who also has a passion for photography, earned a degree in that field from MCCC before returning for the Veterinary Assistant program. She said she would like to work with animals, and pursue animal photography as well.

“I really enjoyed the course. If any other animal courses come up, I’d definitely like to take those as well,” Briggs said.

Virginia Armstrong-Whyte, who also graduated from the program, has worked with animals in various capacities. The Lawrence resident works with Trenton Cats Rescue and volunteers at the Trenton Animal Shelter. She has also provided a foster home for cats and kittens. Additionally, Armstrong-Whyte draws from her background in the fashion industry to design apparel for dogs.

“I will always, in some respect, work with animals,” she said.

Armstrong-Whyte said she heard about the program when looking through a list of courses offered at the college.

“I thought it was something I’d find very interesting,” she said.

Students in the program first go over the basics, like anatomy and terminology, instructor Andrea Pace said. As they advance, they learn nursing skills, such as working with patients during surgery. The course also covers lab work, including x-rays and specimen collections. To apply what they’ve learned in the classroom, the students completed a 75-hour externship at Princeton Animal Hospital. The entire program generally takes about nine months to complete, but the schedule is flexible for students who are holding full-time jobs, Pace said.

Recently, the Veterinary Assistant Certificate program at Mercer County Community College was approved by the National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America. The distinction means that the program’s participants are able to take the association’s national certification exam.

Although recent graduates of the program have varied in age and professional background, one noticeable trend has been in gender: there has been only one male student in the past two classes combined.

Pace, who works as a veterinary technician in an emergency department, said that a majority of veterinary nurses and veterinary assistants are female. There has also been an increase in female veterinarians in the last 15 years, as more women have entered a field that was once predominantly male, Pace said.

Armstrong-Whyte describes the program’s instructors as enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Scheiner remembers when one instructor brought her own dogs to class, so that students could learn in a more interactive way.

Both Scheiner and Armstrong-Whyte said the program was thorough and rigorous.

In addition to her work for the Prosecutor’s Office, Scheiner has started working nights and weekends at Plumsted Animal Hospital in Cream Ridge. Her current job at the hospital is in reception, but she hopes to expand her duties at some point in the future. For now, she is embracing the opportunity to gain experience and learn more about the field.

“Right now, I’m loving what I’m doing,” she said.