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May 7, 2020

SVSU class of 2020: With a lifelong love for animals, Midland resident chases a career as veterinarian

MiaThe interruption happens mid-sentence. Before it, Mia Berlanga is describing how her passion in life blossomed while at Saginaw Valley State University, where she made connections and received hands-on learning experience in a career field she’s chased since middle school. Then, suddenly, the interviewer hears an abrupt, mysterious thud from Berlanga's end of the phone line.
“Hold on, I’m sorry,” she says, followed by a sigh. “My dog just jumped into the garbage, and I need to get her out. I’ll be right back.”
Berlanga quickly rescues the black lab mix. Her name is Monroe, or "that stinker," depending on her level of mischief at any given moment. Berlanga playfully criticizes the pup before returning to the phone conversation, resuming telling her still-unfolding story of success.
It’s a story that very much involves Monroe as well as Berlanga's other dog, Esper; her cat, Sherlock; and every other animal on the planet, for that matter. Berlanga is a bona fide animal lover, and she has channeled that affection and desire to help them — from situations much worse than the garbage — into her pursuit of a career in veterinary medicine. She will surpass one important milestone in her passionate chase this month when she graduates from SVSU with a bachelor’s degree in biology.
Her undergraduate experience has included earning prestigious accolades, embarking on international endeavors relating to her chosen field, utilizing contacts at the university to earn a position at a nearby veterinary emergency care center, and taking advantage of many opportunities that contributed to her development as a community-engaged leader.
“College is such a formative point in your life, and my time at SVSU has been formative for me,” says Berlanga, who plans to attend a veterinarian school in fall 2021. “So many people have helped me get to this point.”
Berlanga’s veterinarian ambitions precede her time at SVSU. The daughter of two doctors (the sort who help humans), she was raised in Minnesota. Twelve years ago, Berlanga, her family and their pets moved to Midland.
“I was that kid who was constantly asking her parents for a dog until we got one,” she says. “We always had pets of one kind or another.”
Her love for animals evolved into a desire to keep them healthy and happy. By eighth grade, she and her mother hatched “a plan” for Berlanga one day to become a veterinarian.
“We were looking for schools that had a good science and arts program,” says Berlanga, who eventually graduated in 2016 from The Midland Academy of Advanced and Creative Studies.
While at the academy, she began working at River Rock Animal Hospital in Midland as a veterinary assistant. It was her first hands-on educational experience in the industry. Not her last.
Shortly after enrolling at SVSU, Berlanga joined the Health Professions Association, a registered student organization at the university featuring her peers seeking careers in health care industries. There, she was mentored by Heidi Lang, SVSU’s pre-health professions advisor; and fellow student, Reanna Cantrall, now an alumna.
The supportive network at SVSU connected Berlanga with Great Lakes Pet Emergencies, a full-service hospital for pets located four miles from campus. Lang knew doctors at the clinic — including SVSU alumna JoLynne Grant — and Cantrall worked as a veterinary assistant there. With their support, Berlanga quickly earned her own position at the facility, which she maintains to this day.
“I’ve learned so much since I’ve been here,” she says.
Berlanga serves as a veterinary assistant, a position that can involve different duties at different facilities. At Great Lakes Pet Emergencies, a veterinary assistant is the first point of contact with the pet owners, responsible for recording the information needed before a doctor arrives to examine each animal patient. Berlanga also assists doctors when an examination leads to a medical procedure. She is trained in CPR and performs diagnostic work on animals as well.
“In terms of atmosphere, there’s a really great team dynamic at Great Lakes Pet Emergencies,” Berlanga says. “Everyone there is committed to the goal of helping animals. I’m constantly learning and seeing something new each day. There’s so much exposure to the veterinary world.”
She earned additional hands-on experience in summer 2019 during an SVSU-sponsored study abroad trip to Costa Rica. There, she volunteered at two facilities including a nonprofit wildlife conservation organization called Kids Saving The Rainforest.
Her experience there led Berlanga to apply for a planned 3-month internship in summer 2020 at the Quepos-based facility. The Spanish-speaking Berlanga was accepted into the program. Then the COVID-19 pandemic put a wrench in those plans.
“I don’t know if that’s going to happen now, but I may still be going sometime between June or August,” she says. “Even if I’m not able to go this summer because of the virus, I want to fit in that experience sometime this year before I start veterinary school next year.”
Costa Rica is not the only international trip Berlanga planned in the coming weeks. Last year, she was one of 10 students selected to SVSU’s prestigious Roberts Fellowship Program, a year-long leadership development initiative that concludes with a trip to Asia each May. This month’s trip was canceled because of the pandemic.
“It’s disappointing,” she says. “I still learned a lot from the program, though.”
Berlanga says a number of SVSU engagements helped her blossom as a leader and as a person.
She served as a member of the registered student organization, the Sexuality and Gender Spectrum Alliance, and she was an assistant with the behind-the-curtain crews staging SVSU's theatre productions.
“Working in the theatre department helped me grow into who I am; I’m more outspoken and comfortable now,” she says. “That’s where I met the friend group I have now.”
Still, much of her time is dedicated to helping animals … and children. Berlanga volunteers with PAWSitive Helpers, a program that connects children at the Midland County Juvenile Care Center with dogs from the Humane Society of Midland County. Berlanga helps the children train the dogs.
“There are a lot of unfair stereotypes about kids who have gotten into trouble,” Berlanga says. “Working with them, they love the animals. They’re just kids.”
Berlanga later this year plans to help PAWSitive Helpers extend the dog-training program to classrooms at Saint Brigid Catholic School in Midland.
“I’m excited about that,” she says, before pausing the interview again.
"Monroe is trying to eat something she shouldn’t be, I think,” Berlanga says.
A moment passes; she confirms her suspicion.
“Hold on a second. I need to take care of this.”