Witnessing the stillbirth of a calf would make many 7-year-olds turn and run.

Grace Phinney saw a career path as a veterinarian instead.

As a child, Phinney spent many summer days at her grandparents’ beef and buffalo farm down the road in Mitchell. She had seen calf births before, but never one with complications. Her grandmother ushered her younger sister inside and tried to bring Phinney as well, but she wanted to stay.

What she saw was not the dismemberment of the stillborn calf, but the veterinarian doing what was necessary to save the life of its mother. That is the day the Mitchell High School graduate points to as the beginning of her quest to become a vet, helping animals and their owners.

Along the way, Phinney joined 4-H and trained a dog before venturing off to South Dakota State University, where she will be a junior in the fall. Phinney has an endless list of community service endeavors and clubs at SDSU, which helped earn the $1,200 Folkerts Family Scholarship through the state 4-H program and an internship at Creekside Veterinary Clinic this summer.

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“It felt good to be able to help someone and I’ve been like that since a young age, but I never had the opportunities until I was in 4-H,” Phinney said. “My club, Dakota Kids, required quite a bit of community service, so I didn’t realize how much I liked it until I was in 4-H and was able to do so many different community service projects.”

The Phinneys always had animals around, mostly dogs and cats — save for the farm down the road — and Grace, 20, loved them from a young age. In fact, her mother, Ranae, often makes a joke that Grace always had a cat in her hands.

At the age of 10, a friend convinced Grace to try 4-H — at one time she wished to be a Boy Scout — and even though she did not have a wealth of experience with livestock, she decided to go for it and put her focus on dogs. Her parents agreed on the condition she would show the dog and it did not take long for Grace to fall in love.

“They’re man’s companions. I love that each of them has a different personality,” Grace said. “Now that I work at Creekside and we see so many different dogs each day, I feel like no dog is the same. They all have a different personality and they like and dislike different things. I think that’s really cool.”

Ranae realized within the first year of 4-H that Grace had found her passion when she proved just as stubborn as the puppy she was training. Truman, a Shiba Inu — originally bred by the Japanese to be hunting dogs — was not motivated by food or affection like many dogs and Grace was forced to find alternative ways to train him.

The four 4-H show categories are showmanship, agility, rally and obedience, but when it came to teach Truman to walk off a leash, his natural instinct was to take off. Grace was forced to learn what was important to the dog and developed a plan to train him, while following the 4-H trainer’s suggestions and working outside of meetings.

“She really had to find a way to make it his idea to do the tasks that are required for 4-H dog showing,” Ranae said. “When I saw how difficult it was and how determined she was and how she figured it out, I thought, ‘Boy, she really loves what she’s doing.’ She’s passionate about it because the level of difficulty just increased every year.”

Helping people through animals

While 4-H brought out Grace’s passion for animals, the community service requirements also helped realize her desire to help others. She has volunteered at Love Feast, while writing cards for nursing home residents and aiding with the Special Olympics.

She has also assisted with her 4-H club’s chili and bingo night at LifeQuest and served as the Davison County 4-H ambassador in 2018-2019, along with being a camp counselor at 4-H camps. At SDSU, Grace is the prexy council representative for the pre-vet club and was part of LeadState, a program in which sophomores are nominated by faculty for a semester-long program to build leadership skills.

Grace has always been interested in donating her time to worthy causes, something not only instilled by 4-H, but her parents, both of whom work in health care and her father, Brian served in Afghanistan as a member of the 196th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade in the South Dakota Army National Guard.

“I have time that I can dedicate to helping other people,” Grace said. “I do take time for myself, but I don’t need that much time. So why not help out the community a little bit? I have time to give.”

Grace’s internship at Creekside four days per week gives her an inside view into what the rest of her life could look like, and it has not disappointed. The job has allowed her to adjust to handling the general public and their views, but her love comes out when she is eager to share the highlights of her day when she comes home.

“I don’t feel like she ever has a bad day,” Ranae said. “Even when things happen unexpectedly — which happens all the time in animal care — she is excited about her day and ready to share her day, even those times that might be unexpected or scary. She’s totally excited by it.”

Grace has two years remaining in her undergraduate coursework for a bachelor’s in pre-veterinary medicine, with minors in Spanish and animal health.

Her desire is to attend veterinary school at Iowa State or the SDSU 2+2 partnership with the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, which sees each student complete two years at SDSU and two years at Minnesota in a program that focuses on mixed-animal medicine in rural communities.

She will also apply to Colorado State and Missouri, but her 10-year plan involves returning to the Midwest to open a veterinary practice and own a hobby farm.

“I like living here, I like the people who live here, so I’d probably have a mixed-animal veterinary practice somewhere in the Midwest on a ranch with a hobby farm,” Grace laughed. “I always thought I’d be one of those people with a couple horses, a couple goats, a couple sheep and a couple dogs.”