By Kyle Ann Stevenson, DVM
In 2018, my friend and colleague, Dr. Sue Ettinger, spoke to me about a phenomenal conference and community she had recently become involved in – the Uncharted Veterinary Conference. She recommended I check it out. At the time, I thought that UVC sounded amazing, not to mention the fact that Dr. Andy Roark is one of my veterinary idols. I didn’t sign up. I was worried I wouldn’t fit in or have anything significant to contribute as a shy and introverted associate veterinarian.
Flash forward to the spring of 2019, my friend and coworker finally talked me into listening to the Uncharted Veterinary Podcast. I was hooked the moment I started listening, and I thought, “I have to join this amazing community.” Amidst the intensely funny banter between Dr. Andy Roark and Stephanie Goss, there was an immense amount of helpful information about creating and maintaining a better work environment and a more positive experience for clients and patients.
I officially signed up to be an Uncharted member last fall and thought my friend would be following close behind. We made a plan to attend the April 2020 conference, but unforeseen circumstances led me to book a solo plane ticket and a room at the Westin Poinsett in Greenville, SC. While I was nervous about attending the conference alone, I told myself it would be alright because I knew at least two people who would also be there.
Then, COVID-19 happened.
The conference in Greenville was canceled. I had mixed feelings. Part of me was relieved I didn’t have to travel to another part of the country all by myself to meet new people all by myself. The other part of me was sad. I was sad I wasn’t going to be able to meet all of these amazing-sounding people I had been reading posts from on Workplace, sad I wasn’t going to be learning new ways to grow and maintain a positive practice, and sad I wasn’t going to have the chance to “get away” for a few days to recharge.
Then, in what I would later learn to be true UVC fashion, Dr. Andy Roark and his amazing team thought outside the box and came up with a virtual version of the conference – claiming it would be like no other virtual conference anyone had ever experienced before.
In the few weeks leading up to the Uncharted Virtual Veterinary Conference of 2020, I will admit I had my reservations about sitting in front of my laptop for three-and-a-half straight days in June, crossing my fingers my Wi-Fi would be decent enough to view all the workshops – not to mention missing out on gorgeous weather outside. Perhaps I would attend a few workshops here and there, but otherwise wait for them to be uploaded to the UVC website and view them later? There were other projects and things on my plate. Did I really want to put all of those things on the back burner?
But, at the kick-off Thursday evening, I listened to Dr. Andy Roark talk candidly about his intermittent struggles with depression and what the UVC community means to him. He was open about the letdown of spending a great deal of time and effort on the April conference only to be forced to cancel it. He told us of the joy of creating something different that would fit more appropriately with the current state of our country, but also fill the needs of the UVC members.
That opening ceremony speech was all it took for me to realize this conference – virtual or not – was going to deliver all it was meant to. He wasn’t kidding when he said this was going to be like no other virtual conference anyone has ever experienced before!
Being a first-time UVC attendee, and being extremely shy, I struggled somewhat at the beginning. Luckily, there was a pre-conference workshop on how to navigate the technical aspect of the conference led by the incredible Jamie Holms. Her pre-conference workshop, which only took about 30 minutes, definitely helped me to be better prepared for the conference and feel more at ease about attending it.
What I was truly unprepared for was the sheer camaraderie and thoughtfulness of the members that make up this amazing UVC community.
At a “live” conference, I would have likely glommed onto a familiar face until I slowly gained the courage to introduce myself to other people, most likely one at a time. So, when we were told that we would be heading into smaller groups to introduce ourselves to each other and answer a few questions. I completely panicked! My mind went completely blank, except for my name and my geographical location.
And, then, I cried.
I felt so bad for the people in that first room with me. How were they supposed to interact with a crying and blubbering stranger on a computer screen hundreds of miles away?
But, something truly amazing and unexpected happened. Kindness and understanding emulated from everyone. Nobody acted ashamed of me (other than myself) or acted as though I were crazy or foolish.
Senani Ratnayake reached out to me privately to ask me if I was alright and reassured me that no one would think less of me because of what happened and that she herself, believe it or not, was quite introverted.
That reassurance, followed by similar messages from Jay Thrush and Stephenie Rensberger throughout the weekend, made me feel so much better and made me realize just how thoughtful and amazing this community truly is. I realized that no one was going to judge me, tell me that I wasn’t worthy enough to be there, tell me I wasn’t a good veterinarian, or feed into my impostor syndrome.
Those initial, reassuring messages from community members helped me to somewhat relax for the remainder of the conference, and I am so incredibly grateful for that. I recovered somewhat slowly, but within enough time to really get a lot out of what this conference had to offer.
The UVVC of 2020 was nothing short of innovative. I keep going back to the description of amazing, as well, for lack of any better word or phrase to describe it.
It honestly didn’t feel like a “typical” virtual conference. Yes, I was sitting at my desk for a good majority of the weekend, but it didn’t feel tiring or laborious. There were too many interesting conversations and activities going on BETWEEN the workshops – from knock-knock jokes to dancing to taking “stealth” selfies with Andy to listening to Stephanie Goss’s infectious laughter – that you didn’t want to leave your computer for too long for fear of missing out on something really exciting, let alone important!
What other virtual conferences would give you the opportunity to share pancakes while still dressed in pajamas, be involved in a paint-and-sip session, join a round of Vets Against Insanity, be among other Harry Potter fanatics, share your computer screen with your beloved pet, or simply share a meaningful conversation with a fellow attendee?
And, those were just the “fun” activities!
Now, because of my aforementioned shyness, I did not sign up for any of the “evening out” activities or attend the pancake breakfast, but by the end of the weekend, I was having very serious “FOMO” about that… a term I just learned at this conference!
Even though I don’t own a veterinary practice or have a managerial role whatsoever, my reservations for attending this conference were unfounded. I learned so many helpful things I can apply to practice without being the person “at the top.” I am constantly panicked and overwhelmed by all of the things I have to do, so attending “D.U.M.P. Your Overwhelm” with Dr. Phil Zeltzman was incredibly helpful. I went right out and purchased a nice, big planner so I could map out all of my projects appropriately once the items on my multiple to-do lists are all systematically prioritized!
Kelsey Beth Carpenter’s creativity workshop was also amazing. I learned new ways of thinking about things and creating new material for the three social media sites that I am involved with running. The creation of memes was particularly enlightening!
The “Choose Your Own Adventure” sessions were equally impressive. They really created a way to talk amongst fellow colleagues about problems and situations that are relevant in the here and now.
And, I can’t forget about the famous “Mic Drops!” They were phenomenal and so incredibly heartfelt! It is truly wonderful that a community like this exists and allows a person to share extremely personal and vulnerable speeches in a safe place free of any judgment.
All in all, UVVC 2020 was not exactly what it was advertised to be. It was so much more. The way technology was used to create the live conference “feel” was innovative (and ingenious), and the team gave us an incredibly clever way to allow attendees to collaborate in smaller groups on topics related to the workshops, a signature of the UVC in its “normal” capacity.
The feeling of camaraderie was really my take-home message from #UVVC 2020. I have never felt that feeling before when leaving any other conference. I’m usually left feeling excited about having learned new or updated material, but I often still feel alone – like it’s every man for himself.”
I left this conference feeling that I belong to a community that understands me, who will lift me up if I trip and fall. I felt like I was saying goodbye to an amazing set of new friends. It made me sad enough that I cried when it was all over.
I cried at the beginning, and I cried at the end… for very different reasons. If this is how I felt at the end of the virtual conference, I can’t imagine what the experience will be like at the “live” conference! Until that day arrives when we can actually see each other in person, you can bet I will be signing up for the virtual version! What an amazing and wild ride it was! I do expect – when I do get to attend a live conference, to receive TWO of the extraordinary hugs from Stephanie Goss that I hear so much about since I didn’t get to experience one this time!
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Unchartedvet.com editorial team.