Julia helping a young Guinean girl receive new shoes

MindLeaps is proud to introduce our newest volunteer from the Guinea team, Julia Sawatzky! She is a former dancer turned medical student. After graduating from University of St. Andrews in Scotland, she went on to receive the R&A scholarship that allows her to travel on a year-long trip around the world to volunteer, gain insight as a medical student, and grow as a person. Her project involves three crucial themes: public health, global health, and how culture and art tie into medical practices. She has been to Myanmar, Laos, India, and Tanzania so far and look where we are now: Guinea!

We had the pleasure to do an interview with Julia about her inspirations, why she chose MindLeaps, and what this trip has meant to her. Here is Part One of the interview. Part Two… coming soon!

Q: What prompted the change in career path from a dancer to a medical student?

Julia: “While it may appear that this change was pretty sudden – moving directly from deep in the dance world to full on medical studies – in reality the shift in my focus has been a gradual learning process and I still find that the two disciplines are intertwined. Like medicine, dance is not just science/athleticism; it also has a very distinctly important human element: it is a way to communicate, explore and celebrate the human experience! In my medical studies, I channel those two components that I first learned to love in dance – the biology of movement and the sharing, understanding and honouring of peoples’ stories – with every single patient that I meet.”

Q: How does dance contribute to/inspire the kind of work you do right now or in the future?

Julia: “During my time with MindLeaps, I have discovered that dance is a bigger part of my identity than I am even able to fully recognize, and I am sure that there are skills I have learned from dance that contribute to everything I do in ways that I don’t know. As I watch the MindLeaps kids foster cognitive skills through dance, for example, I realize that my own ability to learn is derived in a whole host of ways from every experience I had standing at the barre or on stage.

Dancing in a professional environment certainly nurtured my drive, discipline and work ethic, as well as my ability to think creatively, communicate in unique situations, and express myself. I would say that the creative, story-telling and cultural aspects of dance have stuck with me most strongly in the years since I left the scene. I really hope that in my future, as a doctor and an advocate for health, I remain inspired to understand patients and communities in the broader contexts of their unique stories and cultures; just as one can through dance.”

Q: How important do you think dance is in the learning and development of a child?

Julia: “Very important! I don’t even think I have the words to describe how strongly I feel about this. In this year, I have come to understand that there are countless ways in which children can learn and develop across various settings. What sets dance apart in my eyes, however, is how fun and engaging it is – especially for youth. Children have such a natural affinity for music and ability for creative movement, and so many of the kids I see here really can’t help but start grooving when the music comes on. With this built-in enthusiasm, children feel so far removed from a traditional classroom setting that they don’t even realize that they are learning. The enjoyment in music, rhythm and dance allows development to happen subconsciously, while outwardly giving children a chance to express themselves and experience pure joy.

Q: What prompted you to choose MindLeaps as an organization you wanted to work with for your R&A scholarship project?

“I first heard about MindLeaps in the planning stages of this project, and immediately felt that the MindLeaps projects held a perfect combination of two of my key interests: dance and the power of the arts to create change, and community-based and culturally-relevant approaches to improving childhood wellbeing. Further, it was an opportunity for me to step outside of the hospital settings and reconnect with that artistic and human element of dance.

It was also very important to me when selecting the organizations to devote my time to one that works responsibly and thoughtfully in their environments, with respect and sensitivity to the culture they are in – and MindLeaps does this to a huge and wonderful extent. I was hooked even more to the organization when I began to speak to Rebecca, the Director/ Founder, and other members of staff, who are all immensely inspiring individuals and tackle this work with such dedication and passion. There is a lot to love about MindLeaps!”

Julia Sawatzky, originally from Edmonton, Canada, is a medical student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.  She is volunteering with MindLeaps Guinea in June-July 2017 as part of a university scholarship program.  The interview was conducted by Helen Liu, PR Coordinator at MindLeaps.