Growing up on a dairy farm in south-central Pennsylvania, Lily Stenning learned the values of perseverance and hard work. She dreamed of becoming a veterinarian.
This December, she moved one step closer to fulfilling that goal when she received her Bachelor of Science in biological science from Old Dominion University. Graduating from the University also fulfilled one of her father’s dreams.
Her dad started at ODU in 1976. “He was always very proud of the fact that he sat next to Nancy Lieberman in his English course,” Stenning said. But for financial reasons, he did not finish his degree. He did earn an associate degree from Northern Virginia Community College and became an airline pilot and flight instructor.
“I went to ODU because my dad initially went here,” Stenning said. When she got her acceptance letter in 2019, she and her dad were ecstatic. But in the fall of 2019, during her first semester, her father lost his battle with cancer. Being so far from home during his passing was a struggle, but Stenning relied on her upbringing to focus on her goals.
Originally from Winchester, Virginia, Stenning moved to Pennsylvania when she was 6.
“We had a beef operation in Virginia, and we moved because my dad grew up working on dairy farms and always wanted to own his own farm,” she said. She and her mother and younger sister all worked on the farm. “We milked cows for almost 14 years,” Stenning said.
In rural Pennsylvania, farming was a normal way of life. “We were a part of a small group of students in our school whose families owned dairy farms, so our chores at home included milking regularly before and after school,” Stenning said.
As her father’s cancer progressed, Stenning and her sister were their dad’s sole help in milking cows in the mornings and evenings.
Stenning pulled long days throughout high school that started at 5 a.m., so adjusting to life on campus at ODU was relatively easy. “I was very lucky that I got to go to ODU and experience something different,” Stenning said.
Choosing biological sciences made sense for her because she knew she wanted to go into veterinary medicine or be a medical doctor. “It's also something I greatly enjoy learning about, and my mother has a degree in biology, too, so it's something that I've kind of been surrounded by my whole life,” she said.
At ODU, Stenning was a member of the Honors College, revived a student organization and took advantage of traveling and learning in Europe as part of her Spanish minor.
In the spring of 2022, she studied abroad in Valencia, Spain, living with a family that didn’t speak English. While she was in the country, she also did an internship in Calpe for two weeks where she worked with pinna nobilis, a large mollusk. “They are a very important filter feeder in the Mediterranean, and the scientists are trying to figure out how to save them because they are endangered,” Stenning said.
She said that living and learning abroad helped open her mind. “You are just kind of like ‘wow,’ this is a very different way of living and a very different culture, and I think I'll go into situations in the future having that behind me.”
With her mind set on becoming a veterinarian, Stenning has done two internships with a large animal clinic during the summers of 2020 and 2023.
Both were at Dairyside Veterinary Services in Curryville, Pennsylvania. “I've grown up riding and training horses, so I was very useful to them because I know how to go catch a horse really fast out in a pasture and I know how to work cows,” she said.
She was able to apply her scientific knowledge daily, but one opportunity stood out.
“This summer when we were working on a cow after she'd had a C-section, she developed a hematoma at the incision site and we were figuring out how to put two human belly bands on her to hold pressure against it to help reduce the inflammation,” Stenning said. During this surgery, Stenning realized two things: she enjoyed the surgical environment and she could think quickly on her feet.
Being a woman in science is also something she takes to heart.
“I feel like there have been so many amazing things that women have had to overcome,” Stenning said. “For some reason, we get this stereotypical image of not being able to do things, and that’s not true. I just want to be a good example for future generations."
She also helped bring back a student organization to ODU that had been idle for years. During her sophomore year in 2020, she revived the pre-veterinarian club. At its first Zoom meeting, she said six students showed up. But by her senior year, the club grew to nearly 60 members.
They volunteer at the Norfolk Zoo and various places around Hampton Roads.
“I'm really proud that I was able to bring back the pre-veterinarian club and leave ODU knowing that it's going be able to keep growing,” she said.
Stenning speaks highly of ODU faculty.
“All of my professors at ODU have just been incredibly awesome,” she said.
There are four people she feels particularly supported her. First is biological sciences Professor Doug Mills. “He was my first professor at ODU and we had a lot of open conversations about his lectures,” Stenning said.
Second is Kerri Musick, academic advisor in the College of Sciences. “I would not have been able to be where I am without her. She has helped me so much with my scheduling.”
Third is Reneldo Randall, director of advising in the College of Sciences. “He gave me a really nice compliment last semester, he said that when he wrote my letter of recommendation for veterinarian schools, he had to use size 10 font instead of 12.”
Last is College of Arts and Letters Associate Professor Luis Guadano. “I don't think I could have lucked out with a better Spanish advisor,” Stenning said. “He is the reason I am able to finish my Spanish minor.”
There is one additional person Stenning has had the chance to meet twice: ODU President Brian O. Hemphill, Ph.D. She’s been to two dinners that he hosted for students in the Honors College.
“President Hemphill's just a really cool president, and I'm glad they chose him for the job, and you know his wife speaks Spanish? It's really nice to just see a family like that behind ODU, and supporting ODU and guiding it into the future,” she said.
Now Stenning has her sights set on applying to veterinary schools and as she looks back on her journey, she is grateful for each person who helped play a role in getting her to the finish line.