Growing up in Boston as one of nine children in a blended family, India Napier, V20, didn’t know what a veterinarian looked like or what it took to become one. Though her family often had pets such as parakeets or cats, visits to a veterinarian were not in the budget. Still, she always had a love for animals and for science.
“We weren't the richest, but something that was always instilled in me is the importance of education. It's something no one can ever take away from you once you have it,” she said.
She graduated from Boston Latin Academy and stayed close to home to study biology at Boston University. As an undergrad, she needed a job, so she cold-called a veterinary hospital in Kenmore Square and asked if they were looking for a part-time secretary. This led to her first real interaction with a veterinarian.
“A lot of my veterinary school classmates have been one or two degrees of separation away from a veterinarian. Either their parent is a veterinarian, or a family friend, something like that. I didn't really have that,” she said.
After earning her bachelor’s degree, she headed south to Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, developing her passion for research at graduate school. That passion grew as she saw how laboratory research manifested in veterinary medicine.
“I got to work in a veterinary hospital and see that fusion of research and medicine together. As I started interacting more with veterinarians and saw the different roles that they had, I became interested in wanting to pursue research through a veterinary context,” she said.
Napier earned both a master’s and a Ph.D. in biomedical sciences at Auburn, but she wanted to come back to Massachusetts to be closer to family and to the biomedical research hub of Boston. She applied to the D.V.M. program at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. “Luckily, Tufts accepted me,” she beamed.
Starting at the top
When Napier arrived on the Grafton campus, she already had extensive experience in and passion for higher education, said Deborah Kochevar, Dean Emerita who led Cummings School for twelve years. She got to know Napier particularly well—for two reasons.
First, Napier quickly became the co-president of her class, and as a result, met regularly with the administration. Second, Kochevar said, Napier’s determined nature made her stand out among her peers.
“There are fun things about being a student leader, but they also have to deal with controversy,” said Kochevar. “I got to watch India be proactive in a positive sense, but I also watched her make tough decisions. She has not only the leadership skills, but an unbelievable level of energy.”
Kochevar credited Napier with launching an ongoing program called “This Is How We Role,” where Cummings School veterinary students (i.e. the role models) visit the Belmont Elementary School in Worcester and introduce veterinary-related topics to elementary-aged children, many from diverse and immigrant families. .
The goal is to expose the students to the veterinary world “and show them people who look like them,” Napier said. “We tend to get elementary students who are of color or who can relate to having humble beginnings. Why not give any kid an opportunity, regardless of their socioeconomic status, to get to have that early relationship with veterinary medicine?”
Napier’s dedication to diversity and inclusion is the reason the program exists at Cummings, according to Kochevar. The funding comes from a grant, she said, and at first, the school didn’t think it could secure a public elementary school partner quickly enough to meet the application deadline. She warned Napier they might have to wait a year.
“India was having none of that,” chuckled Kochevar. “India being India, she was successful and found a wonderful elementary school partner with very enthusiastic teachers.”
The whole thing is a labor of love—all the students and faculty involved are highly motivated volunteers, and the program will continue even after Napier graduates.
On commencement and the future
As class co-president, Napier said she understands the many emotions surrounding this year’s commencement, which will be virtual given the COVID-19 pandemic, and said the lack of control over such an unusual situation can be frustrating.
It’s okay to mourn the loss of an in-person graduation, Napier said, while keeping the bigger impacts of COVID-19 in mind: Jobs are being lost, loved ones are being lost, and people are suffering. As future veterinarians, she said many students are thinking ahead about how to help their communities after they graduate.
“We’re asking questions like, what can I do to help other people? How can we help our furry patients as the epidemic continues or dies down?" said Napier.
It’s that vision, that ability to look beyond the current situation toward the future, that Kochevar said makes Napier a natural leader. After graduation, she’ll head to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s laboratory animal medicine program to continue working in the research industry.
Someday way down the road, she can see herself returning to higher education as an administrator. Maybe even as Dean at Cummings School. What does Kochevar think about Napier taking her old job?
“I think she would be fabulous.”
Angela Nelson can be reached at email@example.com.