What McMaster Health Sci Taught Me: Part 1

I started writing a piece on this topic 2 years ago after I had recently graduated from McMaster Health Sciences (BHSc) – which I will colloquially refer to as Health Sci. I am glad that I waited until now to share this reflection. The last 2+ years have been a time for me to see how my undergraduate education manifests in my everyday life.

I usually save this discussion for conversations with my closest friends and  primarily those I met in Health Sci. Now, I think my experiences in Health Sci can be used to share lessons I learned from a program that is often seen as a “Black Box.”

This piece ended up being quite long so I will be splitting it into two parts. Here is Part 1.

Choosing The Black Box 

This notion of not completely understanding what happens within Health Sci is part of why I accepted my offer in the first place. Part of Health Sci’s shtick seemed like being ambiguous from the outside. Besides the medical school admissions stats, word-of-mouth promotion, and excellent work done by the BHSc office over the year, this seemingly elusive branding may be one of the program’s recruitment strengths. When I received my offer in May 2015, it only took an afternoon making a pros and cons list with two of my best friends at a quintessential Starbucks, for me to make what seemed to be the best decision for me. As worried as I was about starting university, there was a sense of exhilaration I had about finally getting to see what made this program so amazing. I had heard it all:

“You get to do yoga in class.”

“You never have to worry about your grades.”

“Golden ticket to medical school!” 

Yet, I was skeptical as to how magnificent this program could actually be. People made it sound like everything and more. The first day of our Health Sciences courses, psychobiology and cellular/molecular biology, I was ready to be wowed.

Term 1 of First Year went by and I can dispel a few things:

  1. I really missed my friends from home.
  2. I had seen no yoga.
  3. I felt very challenged by our group essay project in psychobiology.

By no means am I saying Term 1 of first year was the most academically difficult. In fact, I was probably working harder in first semester of grade 12 than I was at the start of first year. However, as a first year BHSc student, the program did not somehow remove the feeling of missing my friends and eliminate every aspect that makes transitioning to university challenging. Moreover, when reflecting on first year with other students, it is astonishing to hear the individual tribulations that can be faced. Some found out quickly that a one-size-fits-all “bird course” does not exist, their high school chemistry knowledge was insufficient, or that falling behind on discussion posts and homework can manifest itself on your performance before you can get a hold on it. These confessions from Health Scis came later, in my opinion, because many did not want to admit when things were difficult.

Eventually, I learned what most people learn in undergrad: how to hold myself accountable, meet deadlines, prioritize my time and overall take care of myself. Most importantly, I learned to be open with my parents, roommates, and other loved ones when I was struggling.

Here are some other life lessons, Health Sci gave me during my time in the program:

Lesson #1: Group dynamics are not just reserved for school or the workplace.

Thinking of my undergraduate housemates as I write this one and I am sure they know why. Every university has a different culture when it comes to housing after first year. At Mac, most students who lived in residence in first year, find a group to form a house with from second year onwards. I was no different and lived in a little house on Sterling street with seven of my girl friends – 6 out of 7 of us were in Health Sci. 7 girls. 1 kitchen. 2 bathrooms. And plenty of my best undergrad memories.

No one thinks about living with 7 people and says “that sounds easy!” It was easier than you may think but also had its expected challenges. When you put 7 people who grew up in different parts of the country with completely different upbringings together in a small house, you are bound to have some conflict.  So, how does Health Sci play into this at all?

At the beginning of our time living together, all of us noticed that something was not working. Things were being left unsaid and expectations were unclear. What did this group of mostly Health Scis do? About a month and a half into living together, we scheduled our first house dynamic meeting. This meeting completely flipped the atmosphere of our house moving forward. The conversation we had took a lot of vulnerability. Not everything was easy to hear and that was okay. Why did we do this? We did this, at least partially, because we were taught how to do it extensively in first year Health Sci.

Throughout all four years, Health Sci students are placed in several groups (much like the real world!). Almost every single Health Sci course has a group component or the option to do final projects in groups. In first year alone, you had your Psychobiology group for two group essays. We also had our Inquiry course groups, including a Cell Biology group where we completed the once infamous “UNSIN Project” – formulating a drug to target one of the seven deadly sins. These groups were never just about the final product, “it was about the process.” At the start of each new group, we set expectations and group norms. We were also expected to have several check-in meetings with each other. These meetings were to give open feedback and discuss our group dynamics. I remember being in first year and thinking all of this was so “fluffy”.

These skills were far from fluffy when they were applied to our housemate relationships. They improved our living situation for the better. In undergrad, your house is definitely an integral part of your day-to-day happiness. We knew how to facilitate a meeting that encouraged listening, honesty, and resetting of expectations because of having these discussions regularly in our courses. I cannot comment on how other housemates deal with conflict. However, I believe we would not have felt as prepared for this type of discussion without our undergraduate experiences to date.

This is not to say we were perfect housemates from then on or always saw things the same way. We didn’t – but we did know how to go about important conversations. We all joked about how funny it was that we were doing something so “Health Sci”. I look back and see that this was the reason we learned this skill at all. Skills in class became skills for life – part of why I love the BHSc curriculum even more in hindsight. It is easy to see soft skills as a waste of time. Yet, we would be remiss to ignore that even by talking about group dynamics or by just writing a reflection, we enhance our understanding of ourselves and others.

My undergrad housemates.

Lesson #2: Adults need to play.

I give complete credit to Hartley Jafine, someone I truly admire, for teaching me this one. I think every program, no matter the field, needs a Hartley. Hartley is a Professor/Facilitator in the BHSc program, Arts & Science program, and within medicine at McMaster. He has a focus on theatre and arts-based courses. I wish everyone got to take classes as enchanting as his are in their undergrad. He is someone who has a gift for making learning less daunting – he showed me how much of everyday life can be our textbook. Recently, he started a course based on the TV show Survivor – “to engage in critical conversations about a diverse range of topics, deepen reflection and develop an awareness of often unconscious assumptions that may impact our own lives.” That sounds special doesn’t it. Some may hear of a course like this and their first instinct is to think “that must be an easy class.” I think about how it probably entails hours of fully-engaged, device-free group conversations, multiple written reflections, and plenty of play.

The Health Sci “yoga course” a lot of people used to reference was a course called HABITS – Health, Attitude, and Behavior In Transforming Self. In this course, we had yoga during one week of it, yes. However, we also had meditation sessions and most memorably, played games in tutorial. I remember playing “What Time is It Mr. Wolf?” for the first time since I was a kid. The fact that it was pass/fail also provided some relief during an otherwise stressful second year.

Hartley discussed in HABITS that for some reason, unbeknownst to many of us, we become adults and we stop playing. I have never forgotten this.  According to Dr. Brené Brown, play is the opposite of work. It can be defined as time spent doing something for the sake of enjoyment. We hear jokes about how much “adulting” is not fun. We reminisce on being children without a real grasp on how the world works. Health Sci reminded me through HABITS and in many other courses, that the people who played as kids are the same people we are now – the choice is ours. Today, some of my closest friends in medical school are people I met through play, a game we all threw ourselves into. The ability to do this – to be present in what others say is “purposeless”, to have the courage to choose play over work, is a skill I started to learn in Health Sci.

Wouldn’t it be great if more people went to class to learn how to play again? We can look at an experience like undergrad and think that play should never intersect with it. Health Sci challenges that notion completely. I never heard anyone speak of the “yoga course” as something that other programs could and should adopt. Rather, it was sometimes used as a way to poke holes in the credibility of the program and its graduates. This leads me into my next lesson —

Coming in Part 2!

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3 thoughts on “What McMaster Health Sci Taught Me: Part 1

  1. I’m excited for part two. Sounds like it will be spicy! But I just gotta mention that ppl are often bitter towards this program because of the things they had to go through in a more traditional program. I think we really need to ask “how can we all benefit and improve by balancing the playing field for everyone?”

    1. Completely agree with you. More commentary on that coming in Part II, the playing field should be levelled! I hope these posts give some insight as to how other programs should be striving to make some changes. Perhaps, even empowering folks to bring these concerns to their faculties. Thank you for reading!

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