Story by senior Taylor Lacey

Growing up in asphalt-laden Anaheim, Jonathan Najera’s livestock experience would have been almost nonexistent if it weren’t for visits to his grandparent’s small ranch in Mexico, where chickens, goats, and cattle were the norm.

“Living in Southern California, there wasn’t a lot of agriculture around me, but when we’d go to visit my grandparents, walking out to chickens in the yard was normal,” he said. “That’s just a way of life there and a way to sustain themselves, but I was always excited to help feed and just hang around the animals.”

Although he was never immensely involved, these small glimpses coupled with encouragement from his cousin, a veterinary technician in Southern California, sparked an initial interest that still carries the first-generation student’s career forward today.

“When [my cousin] heard I was interested in veterinary medicine she took me on a visit to the hospital she worked at, and I remember getting to see a mass the size of a bowling ball being removed,” he said. “I always enjoyed learning new things and enjoyed ‘nerding out’ in chemistry and started to have an interest in where food comes from, how agriculture affects me, and where I could fit into it.”

Those growing interests, along with the campus scenery, are what ultimately led the animal science major to Chico State.

Since beginning his undergraduate studies in 2015, Najera has maintained a full course load each semester while working full-time jobs off campus—starting at Rush Personnel and Del Taco, where he quickly rose to management positions. The summer before his senior year, Najera shadowed a veterinarian at Durham Veterinary Clinic in order to jumpstart his experiences in veterinary medicine while seeking employment in a local hospital. In August 2019, the senior obtained full-time employment as a veterinary assistant at Valley Oak Veterinary Center in Chico where he assists in diagnostic testing, x-rays, and pharmaceutical tasks.

Najera has been involved in the Pre-Veterinary Club on campus since his freshman year and now serves as the organization’s vice president. Working alongside Interim Associate Dean Patrick Doyle and animal science professor Kasey DeAtley, he also became involved in conducting undergraduate research. Najera’s current research evaluates Alturas Ranch heifers with the goal of correlating feed efficiency and reproductive success traits.

While juggling a full-time class load and multiple jobs , Najera has found time to give back through involvement with the Manger Clinic each year, caring for pets of individuals experiencing homelessness in Butte County. Through retired veterinarian James Esh and a partnership with the Jesus Center, this free clinic helps to vaccinate and treat the pets of people who are unable to do so themselves and pre-veterinary students gain hands-on experiences through volunteerism.

Without the constant support from his friends and family, Najera said he would not be on the path he is today. With hardworking parents and two younger sisters, his venture to college was uncharted but set the stage for others in his family to succeed.

“I really struggled being so far from home my first two years at Chico and went home a lot, but once I got a job and started to focus more on school, I was really able to find my own independence and support myself,” Najera said.

Jonathan Najera stands by some bales of hay.
As a first-generation student, Jonathan Najera said his college career was not always easy but he was determined to push forward.

Being the first in his family to pursue a degree, Najera said that their unwavering moral support and his personal motivation to set an example for his sisters are what pushed him to make the leap.

His faculty have also been major influencers.

“Not everyone coming into animal science at Chico State has livestock experience, it can be intimidating, and we can feel out of place,” Najera said, “but having faculty that care to take the time and thoroughly explain things make all the difference. [Lecturer Kate Moore] was very influential, and through my upper-division courses and research Dr. Doyle has been a great supporter.”

His professors say the impression has been mutual.

“Jonathan is one of those students that comes along and reminds me why I became an educator,” Doyle said. “I have to always make sure I’m on my A game for research meetings because he’s inquisitive and always brings great research questions. Jonathan has his sights on becoming a veterinarian and works hard to make sure he has the knowledge and skill set to be successful in the field.”

Through a career in veterinary medicine, Najera hopes to combine an interest in biomedical science with a love for animals. After applying to a master’s program for this fall and several veterinary schools across the country for fall 2021, the waiting game has begun to determine the next steps for Najera’s career.

“Not that I want to leave my family, but it’s my time to see what’s out there and explore the next chapter of my life,” he said. “At Chico, beef cattle have found a place in my heart, but I’m also interested in exploring other specialties such as exotics and surgery.”

Doyle said he has no doubt Najera will be successful wherever his next chapter takes him.

“To be honest, there is a selfish part of me, the research advisor, who would like him to pursue graduate school and continue in research,” he said. “He has the mindset and drive that make for a good research scientist, so I could see him doing a combined DVM/PhD program in the future.”

For incoming pre-veterinary students in the College of Agriculture, Najera said the best advice he can give is to not give up on your dreams. He was not accepted in his first round of vet school applications, and he understands the struggle this process puts on students.

“Applying to programs and vet schools, a lot of the time it can feel like we’re all up against each other, but we’re all in our own race,” he said. “We’ve all been dealt different cards and have different experiences that led us to this point, so you should never feel discouraged.”

Portrait of Jonathan Najera
Najera hopes his story will not only encourage his siblings but other students in his program and beyond.

When Najera was not accepted into a veterinary school his first application round in 2019, he said he began to struggle and almost gave up on these aspirations.  

“I really began to doubt myself but my cousin, who’s attending vet school at [Western University of Veterinary Medicine], reached out to me and really pushed me to keep moving forward. I reminded myself that this is something I could do if I keep putting myself out there,” he said. “I don’t mind hard work, and it’s really just shown me that not everyone’s path will be the same and that’s okay. I will keep applying, and when I’m ultimately practicing veterinary medicine, it will all be worthwhile.”

One of the managers of the CSU, Chico Pre-Veterinary Club Facebook page, Najera carries on the tradition of Mental Health Monday started by his predecessor Amber Illescas (Animal Science, ’19) to boost his peers’ spirits. The messages have perhaps never been so important, as they grapple with the transition to virtual learning and searching for jobs amid a pandemic. In a recent Mental Health Monday post, Najera shared a meaningful quote from Dr. Richard Webber, a character on the TV show Grey’s Anatomy.

“The contest is a lion fight. So chin up, put your shoulders back, walk proud, strut a little. Don’t lick your wounds. Celebrate them. The scars you bear are the sign of a competitor,” he wrote.

Taylor Lacey is a senior majoring in animal science and agriculture education. She also has worked as the public information intern for the College of Ag for the last two semesters. After graduation this spring, she has been accepted into graduate school at the University of Nebraska, where she will pursue a master’s degree in large animal stress physiology. She ultimately hopes to pursue a career in teaching.