Melissa Stevens has dreamed of being an equine veterinarian since she started riding horses at age 3. But her experiences at Cal Poly Pomona opened her eyes to countless options she might explore after she takes a year off to decompress and catch up on her sleep.
For the past four years, Stevens, who has been on her own since she was 17, juggled a full-time job as a graveyard-shift dispatcher trainer for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and a full-time student workload. She participated in the Pre-Vet Club and the Meat Science Club, competed on the Cal Poly Pomona equestrian team, cared for pregnant mares on campus through the Foal Watch program and nursed sick foals off campus as part of the Chino Valley Equine Hospital Foal Team.
She survived by catnapping in her car between classes.
Stevens graduated in June with a degree in animal science. Her schedule was grueling but her courses and extracurricular activities exposed her to career possibilities she never knew existed.
“When I was in high school, I wanted to be a vet and that was it,” Stevens says. “Cal Poly has opened my eyes to everything you can do with an animal science background.”
For a while, she charted her “life map” with colored markers on a 3-foot-by-4-foot white board in her bedroom where she outlined her future options: vet school, family, grad school, career choices and the unknown.
Pre-Vet Club speakers and this year’s annual California Association of Meat Processors Convention at Chico State, piqued her interest in working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as an animal inspector or biologist. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is another option.
Stevens and three teammates from the Meat Science Club attended the convention in February. They competed against students from four other California universities with meat processing programs to see who made the best fresh sausage. Stevens was named runner-up grand champion for her “Hatzbach” sausage made with pork, white wine, apple-cider vinegar and two key ingredients: nutmeg and allspice. She named it for the German town where her great-uncle, a butcher who was her inspiration, lives.
Stevens, who had never made sausage before, tried five recipes before finding the right formula. She learned the basics from her meat science class and then researched the right proportions of salt and water online. Her great-uncle gave her pointers on the right spices to add for the best taste.
“It was cool to put something together that someone who’s been judging meat for 40 years liked,” Stevens says. “I was blown away when they called my name.”
Shelton Murinda, a professor and one of the Meat Science Club advisors, says, “Melissa’s win demonstrates that we have a very competitive meat science and processing program here at Cal Poly Pomona.”
It also speaks well for Stevens, who took on several leadership roles and frequently volunteered to help with fundraisers or other club activities despite her heavy work schedule and hefty package of classes, Murinda says.
“Melissa is easygoing and one of those students that other students want to be around. She’s always cheerful and always volunteering to help,” Murinda says. “She’s also one of those dependable students that if you want something to be done right, you can depend on her.”
Stevens was event chair for the Meat Science Club and, as symposium chair for the Pre-Vet Club, she planned the annual trip to the American Pre-Veterinary Medical Association Symposium at North Carolina State University.
Bob Karmann, the other Meat Science Club advisor, says Stevens is a natural leader who is respected by the other students and has the ability to handle difficult issues in a mature manner.
“She explains to the other students why this way is better, in a loving way,” Karmann says. “Most of the time she is right on, but she may be the only one who sees it that way.”
Stevens’ work ethic stems from her parents. Her mother works graveyard shift for UPS and was recently promoted to manager, and her father is an L.A. County Sheriff’s Department lieutenant.
Stevens recently purchased a fixer-upper on a half-acre of horse property in Norco, otherwise known as “Horsetown USA.” She’s looking forward to exploring the community’s massive trail system with Blaze and Ruby, her two Appendix horses (half quarter horse and half thoroughbred). If she winds up going to school or getting a job out of state, Stevens says she can always rent it out.
She plans to travel to New Zealand and Europe before applying to veterinary school, grad school and a couple of government agencies in the fall. Then she’ll wait and see where her future takes her.