I never expected to show up to my first day of my senior capstone class and receive a laptop sticker and a light-up key chain from my professor. Both of these souvenirs were in the shape of a pig, and the pig even had the quote “Pigs are cool” emblazoned on its side in all caps, mirroring the message my instructor left us with at the end of her introductory email. For context, I am majoring in pre-veterinary medicine, and the course I am enrolled in for my senior capstone is entitled “Swine Production.”
In this course, we are split into small groups entirely responsible for the care and well-being of a pregnant sow. We are expected to be there when our sow gives birth, which in pig jargon is called “farrowing,” and are henceforth responsible for the health of her litter of piglets. Essentially, this class is the culmination of all the courses I have taken throughout my college experience. I do not think I ever actually recognized how much I was learning while I was learning it. I took classes freshman year that built on my high school knowledge. Sophomore year, I took classes that built on my freshman year knowledge, and the pattern continued on into junior and senior year. Somewhere along the way, I managed to build quite a foundation of knowledge regarding animal health without realizing that it was happening. Learning can be funny that way – you may learn something for the first time, and then hear about it again in various forms throughout a multitude of courses, all the while not realizing how your understanding of it grows each time you learn it. Another way that I have discovered just how much I have learned up to this point is in my ability to share it with others. In the Honors section of this course, each senior Honors student serves as a mentor for a couple of freshman Honors students. We introduce them to our pigs and invite them to watch the miracle of life, which may include Ubering them to the barn at any hour of the night and letting them cut some umbilical cords if they are lucky. We update them on what we learn in lecture about various aspects of swine reproductive physiology and health concerns, and we introduce them to what it is like to be a pre-veterinary student at UD.
Sometimes I forget what is normal to talk about at the dinner table and what I should refrain from saying around my less animal-inclined acquaintances. I have found that some people just get it, and others do not. To engineers, a capstone requires a project where you are building something; to wildlife conservation majors, the course involves writing a personalized management plan. These seem to many students more of the conventional paths to follow in taking the quintessential course of one’s college career. I am thrilled that my experience has been so much more. Not only am I given the respect of being charged with an animal’s quality of life, as well as her fifteen to twenty-seven children (the accurate range of litter sizes within the class), but I am also allowed to open this course up to my friends and family, as well as the public, to educate them on relevant issues in animal health and welfare. Our teacher encourages us to educate any guests we bring to the barn on what we have learned, and I had the time of my life bringing my family in to meet my pigs this weekend. They even got over the smell enough to hang out with me for an hour, likely to experience in person what I have been bombarding them with in pictures for over a month now.
This class has challenged me on multiple levels. Piglets do not live a life of luxury, as cute and playful and seemingly perfect as they seem. Not all of them even make it into the world alive, and the ones that do must overcome enormous odds to make it to the stage of weaning, even with thirty eager pre-veterinary students tending to their every need. This morning I faced one of the hardest parts of the class thus far when I had to say good-bye to my sow. Our teacher told us not to get attached to our sows, even encouraging us to name them after a food product coming from pork so that we would not forget where they were going after our class. However, it was obviously not that easy. While it was hard for us humans to bid farewell to the first and likely the largest production animal we had spent the last month of our lives bonding with, the piglets were fine. Their mother had been their main and vital source of food for their entire lives, and all of a sudden she was replaced with a bucket of grain. Some of the piglets responding by diving for the grain instantaneously, while others took advantage of the increased space in their crate to run around and play. This response was another unexpected learning experience I am grateful for in this course.
I am going to be devastated at the end of this course, and not just because I’ll have to say goodbye to the first nine lovely beings that I saw brought into this earth. This class marks the end of an era in my learning; I have come full circle, even mentoring the freshmen whose same shoes I stood in only three years ago. And I have not made it here alone. My major and future career are built on reliance on others, and I will never not be working in a team. I have traveled throughout my undergraduate experience with largely the same group of individuals, and sharing this final experience together is making me nostalgic in a way that represents how I feel about college coming to an end. I know I will continue to bond with people the only way I know how: over a shared love of animals. While I will miss this course and the friends in it, I will carry with me the lessons learned and many adorable pictures of pigs for the rest of my career.