Erickson Merkel Foundation: Tell us a little bit about your family and friends growing up, and any positive effect that they had on your formative years.

Claire Mathias: My childhood was spent on a five-acre piece of typical Iowa. Even though we weren’t farmers, we had a garden, apple trees, chickens, a long lane and a little white farmhouse. Perhaps the reason my parents wanted us to grow up with the soil was to get a little grit into our character. They taught us the basics of what it takes to live successfully, such as determination, self-motivation and a hard work ethic. We never had allowances and were expected to diligently complete our responsibilities. My two older brothers and I were homeschooled, which meant we also quickly learned the art of conflict resolution and diplomacy. During those formative years, I was learning how to be self-reliant. At home, I developed the self-motivation to undertake my responsibilities. In school, I gained the study habits to learn a subject on my own. With friends, I understood what it took to be a leader instead of a follower. Without these things, I would not be able to reach as far as I have today.

EMF: When you were going through elementary, middle or high school, did you have a clear idea on what you wanted to do when you ‘grew up’?

CM: Even from a young age, I had a clear idea that I wanted to become a veterinarian. I was always the one tending to the wounds of the barn cats, naming the chickens and collecting enough animal books to fill a library. While there were times I had doubts and considered other options, I always invariably went back to veterinary medicine.

EMF: When was it that you realized that only you could be responsible for your future, and in what ways did you take control of your life after?

CM: I first realized the responsibility for my future during a field trip to a veterinary clinic. It was around the same time early in high school when I began seriously questioning college. As we walked around the clinic, instead of getting excited, my emotions went into a tailspin. Thoughts tumbled around my head about how hard it is to get into vet school, the difficult family life of a veterinarian, the ridiculous problem of student debt., etc. At that point I seriously believed my dream was impossible.

I don’t know exactly what turned everything around. I think it was simply replacing fears with the truth. Yes, it would be very difficult, but it is not impossible. I started thinking of ways I could go to college cheaply, how I could work hard on my grades, and slowly a practical plan began to grow.

I took control of my life in simple, small ways. I began budgeting and figuring out college costs on paper. I studied hard for major tests, which became a source of scholarships. I talked to more veterinarians about how they balance family life and work. Previously, my goals were simply based on an idea, and when my emotions tumbled they had no foundation to continue. When I based my goal on a solid, step-by-step plan, it could last through any storm of doubt.

EMF: Were there any people you looked up to when you were younger, and why?

CM: When I was younger, one of my biggest challenges was public communication. I would get so excited, or so scared, about sharing with people that my tongue would turn into knots. Because of this, I looked up to my aunt, who taught me about poise and fluency in presenting. She made me understand that even if the message is incredibly important, when you can’t communicate it all your efforts are lost. An engaging, well-presented idea is just as important as the research and development that go behind it. Her example taught me to never undercut all my hard work with poor communication.

EMF: Do you have any mentors now? If so, can you tell me about them and what they mean to you?

CM: One of my greatest mentors is a young lady by the name of Grace. Grace and her sister lead an organization called Bright Lights, which is dedicated to training girls and young women to be strong in the Lord during their youth. Until I first met Grace when I was about thirteen, I had never really seen a young person living the bold, Christ-centered life I had always wanted to have. Grace blew me away. She’s spunky, fun, thoughtful, in every essence her namesake, and always inspires me to be bold with my faith. Her example and guidance have been pivotal in challenging my faith and pushing me to follow in her steps.

EMF: Are there any people living or dead who you draw inspiration from?

CM: I always draw inspiration from “Renaissance women.” These incredible women pursue excellence in every area of their lives and challenge the status quo of how much one individual can accomplish. One of my favorite authors, Gene Stratton-Porter, was an environmentalist, artist, musician, architect, photographer, one of the first female movie producers in history, and best-selling writer. Her diligence and passion inspire me to keep exploring new talents and conquer every area with excellence.

EMF: Are there any causes that you feel strongly about, that you would like to give back to someday, or that you’ve been able to help out so far?

CM: This year, I had the opportunity to serve on a short-term mission with Christian Veterinary Missions, providing animal care to underprivileged communities. Our team offered low-cost surgeries, vaccinations, basic animal husbandry, and the ministry of the Gospel. After I complete my education, I hope to continue serving with this organization for many years to come.

EMF:When did you get your first job, where was it, and what prompted you to get it?

CM: My first jobs were various modes of self-employment, from dog-sitting, babysitting, to doll dressmaking. In my sophomore year of high school, I got an hourly position at a local community college bookstore. While I appreciated the money, it was more of a feeling of restlessness that motivated me to start working. I felt I could be using my time more wisely, earning skills, starting a resume, and saving for college. When the position opened up at the college I was taking classes from, it was the perfect opportunity.

EMF: What keeps you motivated through long weeks of work and study?

CM: Sometimes the big picture can seem rather distant when I’m faced with the present reality of a long day at work. So instead of getting lost in a general picture, I focus on the small steps that take me one step farther towards that large goal. At work I remember how the income will help with tuition for next year, and how that will help with being debt-free, and how that will affect my career, and so on. I simply make myself focus on one baby step at a time and enjoy the accomplishment when it’s completed.

EMF: What are your personal and professional goals?

CM: In the past, the mixture of my personal and professional goals was a continual source of bafflement. I could never reconcile how they worked together. For example, I love learning about languages. During my undergraduate, I plan on minoring in Teaching English as a Second Language. I also enjoy traveling and plan on visiting Europe at least once in my lifetime. But my professional goal of becoming a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine seemed completely unrelated to these personal goals. It wasn’t until I started working with Christian Veterinary Missions that it became clearer how these goals all work together. Once I complete my education, I plan to use my various skills in serving with Christian Veterinary Missions, putting these personal and professional goals to work in serving others.

EMF: Why do you think it’s important for today’s undergraduates to have a clear understanding of debt and finances?

CM: We live in a “pay it later” era. My generation is fully convinced that debt is simply the normal way of life—I was receiving credit card offers in the mail as a senior in high school. Very few of my peers can tell me how they are paying for college other than with student loans and going debt-free is simply unheard-of. It is vital that today’s undergraduates clearly understand the destructive nature of debt and learn how to take responsibility for their finances.

EMF: Are you planning on any further academic pursuits after completing your current degree?

CM: I plan to pursue a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine after I complete my undergraduate degree.

EMF: After dedicating yourself to work and study, what do you do to wind down?

CM: When the weather is nice, one of the best ways to wind down is the slip outside with a good book. As long as my dog doesn’t drool over the pages and the bugs don’t eat me alive, I’m free to simply sit with my thoughts.