What McMaster Health Sci Taught Me: Part 2 (ft. My 2015 Application)

In Part 2, we talk navigating burnout and medical school applications – enjoy!

Starting from where we left off:

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 —

Lesson # 3: Undergrad burnout can and should be prevented.

I started med school with what I felt was less burnout than some of my peers who did other degrees. This left me with a sense of imposter syndrome. Did I only get accepted to medical school because my program was “easier”? Will I be able to cope with new stressors?  

Going to Health Sci or having an “easier time” in undergrad does not seem to be making me or any of my fellow graduates any worse a medical student or future health professional. The notion that this could be the case relates to an even bigger discussion – the normalization of burnout and a culture that feeds into it. With this being said, I do not think going through a more rigorous undergrad has made other students any less equipped to be a doctor either. No matter the route you take, your capacity to learn is not defined by the degree you chose to pursue out of high school.

Most people have nothing negative to say about Health Sci. I always remind myself that it was a privilege – truly like winning a lottery – to be accepted into this program. In Health Sci, many of your professors know you by name and the office is quite invested in student wellness – in a way a lot of other programs could take notes from. There was flexibility to take time off if needed and to reset deadlines when life happened.

The courses offered in Health Sci, especially the third- and fourth-year courses, were always dynamic. I, and many others, can remember the rush of course selection days, hoping my WiFi would connect quickly enough to secure some very sought after classes. Well-known courses among students and alumni alike include:

  • Inquiry
  • Artistic Explorations of Community Issues
  • Theatre for Development
  • Written Communication (the reason I write today!)
  • Work, Self, and Purpose
  • Body, Mind, and Spirit
  • Music, Health, and Community
  • Communications
  • Superbugs

Health Sci fuses the humanities and the arts throughout the curriculum of its courses. My exposure to this in undergrad is part of my belief that health and the humanities are inextricably related. How can we approach health and wellbeing without learning about people’s lived experiences? The arts are tools for story-telling, reflection, and seeing the world through someone else’s mind. The arts are for everyone.

Written Communication facilitated by the lovely Bob Spree is the reason why I started putting pen to paper again. You had to buy a notebook, preferably a moleskin, for this course. His class connected me to language without any pressure, strict rubric, or need to be told I was doing it “right”.

Communications was my first exposure to counselling and meaningful dialogue with patients or clients. It is a favourite among Health Scis for good reason and it was course that I was happy to see students in other programs be able to take.

My housemate and I made a verbatim theatre piece for Hartley’s Theatre for Development course that I look back on now with so much gratitude. It was a video reflection on our experiences in our house of seven – entitled House to Home. We recorded interviews with our housemates and then re-enacted them verbatim – right down to filming in their bedrooms. It remains a perfect reminder to me of the emotions I felt living in Hamilton. This class drew people way beyond their comfort levels. Another major assignment in the course was to act out a scene from a script we were assigned in groups of two to three. Watching my peers invest time embodying their characters, memorizing their lines, and finally performing was a special space to me as a Health Sciences student. Other than my time in Mac’s One Act Club, I had not performed like that since my school theatre production in grade 5. Theatre has great applicability to the “real world”. Even practicing in the mirror how you want to talk through a conflict with your significant other or your best friend is essentially a theatre exercise! Hartley also intentionally spent time highlighting prison theatre and how performance has been used as a rehabilitative tool. Drama and the arts in general expose the capacity for people to express and simply be – without judgement. Whether an incarcerated individual or a university student, theatre can be transformative.

Across the majority of Health Sci courses, the common element was reflection. If you ask anyone in Health Sci how many reflections they wrote throughout the course of their undergrad, the number is probably upwards of 20. Some courses had weekly reflections and lengthy exit meetings where you presented evidence of your progress to your facilitator. I will disclaim that students also do not have to fill their schedule with BHSc courses. The elective space gave students the choice to take more traditional courses if they decided to.

Not only did I come into medical school feeling prepared with a background in Anatomy & Physiology, Critical Appraisal, Health Policy, and other more traditional courses. I also came in with years of experience on the “soft skills” – you know, all the group processing, group presentations, and arts-based education. In addition to this, I had early, albeit skeptical, exposure to mindfulness practices (meditation, yoga, self-reflection) that I further developed since graduating. I have found that it has helped me come into my career with strategies to prevent burnout and maintain my wellness. I am thankful to have learned these tactics through formal education.

It is intuitive to many that we need formal education to understand basic sciences. Yet, it slips our minds that perhaps we need the same level of teaching on how to keep ourselves grounded. Just because topics are easy to conceptualize does not mean that they are easy to practice or prioritize intentionally. Someone could probably get 100% on a multiple choice quiz about wellness (conceptual) but would “fail” if they assessed how much they applied these skills in their own life (practice). This practice takes repeated exposure – it is why I stand by required reflections and non-anonymous group feedback sessions as practical tools to learn these skills.

Some may question Health Sci’s structure or we can admit that other programs should actually adopt many aspects of this teaching model as an option for their students. I understand the challenges of providing individualized support with the varying degree of resources allotted to program departments. Budget decisions are the main determinant of what becomes the student experience. However, providing students with a well-rounded educational experience and supportive staff should not be an experience that only some students receive. I hope sharing some of Health Sci’s strengths openly can equip student leaders or administrators to bring them to their faculties.

“Non-traditional learning” taught me just as much as more traditional courses. Facilitating a group dynamic meeting can carry on into any friendships in your life. Being able to write a journal reflection has helped me work through difficult circumstances. I wish more programs valued these skills – they are essential to success in the workplace and just life itself. I have no shame in graduating from a program that provided me with this skillset. I wish I appreciated that more in the moment and soaked it all in.

Conclusions, The Med School Debacle, and Equitable Admissions for Black Applicants

This is a long piece and there is still so much of the experience I feel I glossed over. However, I wanted to make sure I touched on the “pre-med” discussion that surrounds this program. The BHSc program has consistently stated that it is not a pre-med program:

From the BHSc Website FAQs.

When I was a student in Health Sci, it was known that the pressure to get into medical school was a large contributor to some toxicity in the program’s culture. From the outside, people see many graduates being accepted to medical school. Within the program itself, there are numerous students who apply without success their first few tries, students who choose not to write the MCAT or pursue medicine at all – and this is all okay. Discussions at the student leadership level were often on how to alleviate this pressure and improve the culture of Health Sci. I am sure this culture was not unique to our program but was certainly amplified by its smaller size.

Many say that McMaster Health Sciences students only get into medical school because it is easier to have a high GPA. Others believe it is because we had a lot of free time for extracurriculars. In my opinion, more than any single program factor, the most beneficial aspect of Health Sci was having friends within your class and in classes above you that were likely pursuing the same goal and were willing to help each other. The community is what makes the difference. We were quite aware of the types and variety of extracurriculars to get involved in. Students read over each other’s’ applications. When people had interviews, we shared preparation materials and had open practice groups. It still makes me grateful to remember practicing in the library with my peers and feeling included. We were all nervous but we were also there for each other.

Like anything else in this life – the connections you make are at the core of success. This privilege is not unique to a Health Sci applicant. When I look at anyone in medicine, I see not only them but also a pyramid of support underneath. Above all else – I encourage you to focus on this common denominator when we think about how people advance towards their goals. Critiques of Health Sci can be valid but we must also think about how students in other faculties can be better supported to level the playing field.

Finally, as a Black woman in the program, I was one of 3 or 4 in a class of almost 200. Health Sciences recently announced their Equitable Admissions for Black Applicants pilot project. I attribute so much of who I am as a person to my experiences in BHSc. I am elated by the prospect of other Black students entering a program known for its great office supports and a comprehensive curriculum. Moreover, if we are in the discussion of upstream changes to see more Black folks in medicine or health care in general, a program with a reputation and community like BHSc is the place to start.

Thank you Health Sci – for the community support, the interdisciplinary approach to health, and most of all, the tangible wellness education I will keep forever.

Thank you for reading and reminder to take a screen break today if you need. Until next time!


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Bonus: “Why?” from my Grade 12 Application in 2015

Whenever I reread my application, this answer sticks out to me because I still agree with my 17-year old self!

Why? (Please note: This question is simply one word: Why? It is for you to interpret as you see fit.) * NOTE: There is a 1500 character limit for this short answer question (spaces and punctuation are included in the character count). If you exceed this character limit, your application will be rejected. See the ‘Help Notes’ for more.

Every action seems to define the reason we are at our current point. Life can seem based on chance rather than the decisions we make to utilize any possible action. Many do not realize the component surroundings are to how we get to pivotal points in our lives. I excelled to my current point because I changed my outlook on choices. Rather than take actions to make myself appear better, I chose people and places that made me feel that there was nothing better. I went from a point where I felt no connection to my environment to seeing the promise of who and what I had been given. I was motivated, and motivation creates momentum and eventually turning points.

Turning points are the center of why I am in my current position. They are the only way you push past lows, they are the new opportunities. I came into high school without expectation of acceptance or growth. Glenforest Secondary School is my most substantial turning point. My extra-curricular involvements have propelled me to do and expect more of myself. As I expected more of myself, I decided I wanted more from my surroundings. My experience in the last four years seems defined by a single turning point and thus actions may also seem dependent on luck, I say no. I trust I would be satisfied with my high school experience regardless of my choice to do IB at Glenforest because of my adaptability. I am here because I use any turning point to define my surroundings and create the momentum I need to snowball my potential.

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