CAWA: When you see those 4 letters after someone’s name, it means they have distinguished their skills in an already demanding field—and that they’ve studied for and passed a very comprehensive exam. Yes, they’re superstars—and every month we celebrate them here AND share practical info and real-world experiences for those interested in joining this group of professionals. In the spotlight for October, meet Maria Solacito, DVM, CAWA, Senior Veterinarian at County of Los Angeles Department of Animal Care and Control.
The Association: How long have you been a CAWA?
Maria Solacito, DVM: I earned my CAWA certification last year, 2020. It was my pandemic achievement.
The Association: How do you explain the concept of CAWA to folks who aren’t yet familiar with it?
Maria Solacito, DVM: Being a CAWA is like having a guarantee that comes with an assurance that one has the knowledge and skills to be an effective administrator in this unique industry. Veterinary professionals are already familiar with certifications and the processes behind it—and we bear the certifying letters added to one’s name with pride, as it is a testament to a standard of excellence. Being a CAWA is a personal commitment to a higher standard of practice as an animal welfare administrator.
The Association: How did you prepare for the CAWA exam?
Maria Solacito, DVM: Upon signing up, I accessed the resources on The Association’s Learning Center and used the practice exam to determine which areas were my biggest gaps. Then I created a list of the key topics to be covered, ranked them according to my need to review and set a time at the end of each workday to study.
I joined the CAWA Study Group on Facebook, but I do not do well in study groups, so I was more of a lurker—but I did pick up useful information here and there. Most of the recommended reference books, I found out, can be rented from Amazon! That saved me a lot of money.
However, I have to say that my preparation for the exam started way before it was scheduled. My engagement in conversations and processes in decision-making in our organization through the years provided me a solid foundation to build upon with the additional readings.
The Association: What’s one of the most interesting things you learned as you prepped for the exam?
Maria Solacito, DVM: Learning about nonprofit organization management was very interesting to me, particularly studying the business models, resource management and key factors for efficiency and effectivity. Having been with a municipal organization all these years, learning the nonprofit perspective broadened my understanding of the industry.
The Association: Walk us through exam day. How did you feel before, during, after?
Maria Solacito, DVM: I decided the best time to take the online proctored exam was after work hours, as I knew I would be so busy during the day that I would have no time to be anxious. The proctor was very friendly, gave clear instructions, and requested that you give him a 360 view of the exam area. And then you proceed to take the exam. It helped that I tried the practice exam in The Learning Center. I finished with a lot more time to spare, which allowed me to go back and review my responses. I tried very hard not to self-doubt my initial responses and change my answers. In my experience, that usually gets me in more trouble.
After the exam, the proctor acknowledged the completion of the process, and I walked away, letting it go because it was now beyond my control. I felt good, knowing I did my best. And getting the news that I passed made me so proud of myself. It was a personal affirmation that I am deserving of my seat in the Executive Team of my agency.
The Association: Who is a current CAWA you look up to, and why?
Maria Solacito, DVM: Definitely Marcia Mayeda, our Director at LA County Department of Animal Care and Control. I have been working with Marcia for 13 years now, and I have seen firsthand how her leadership reworked an 80 plus-year-old conservative enforcement agency into the more professional and progressive organization it is now. Through the years she has shown support for the veterinary team, and recently for the behavior team, promoting a shared leadership model across the board. This has created an environment for continued growth.
The Association: How has becoming a CAWA impacted your career?
Maria Solacito, DVM: Last March, I was given the opportunity to act as Deputy Director of North County, concurrent with my role as Senior Veterinarian for North County, which gave me first-hand experience in overseeing three of our seven animal care centers. Although it was a short-term role lasting 3 months, I was able to confidently and comfortably step into the role and was able to provide support to our ACC Managers. Personally, I believe being a CAWA gave me more confidence in seeing myself acting in a different capacity other than being a veterinarian.
The Association: Right now, there are a little over 200 CAWAs, and you are especially unique because we don’t have many shelter veterinarians. Why is it important for shelter veterinarians and other veterinary professionals to become CAWAs?
Maria Solacito, DVM: One of the biggest and most common frustrations I’ve heard from shelter veterinarians is the disregard for our opinions or input in regard to operational matters. I believe veterinarians are easily placed in a technical box, mostly seen as a resource to perform medical tasks, but we have more to bring to the table.
Being a CAWA can take away any assumptions as to what our “lane” is, and gives us credibility when participating in key decision-making processes for our organizations, not just for clinical or health programs. Having veterinarians and other veterinary professionals earning a CAWA status can earn us that seat at the decision-making table, which can pave the way for more shared and cohesive leaderships in the animal welfare industry.