Julia with MindLeaps’ students in Conakry

Last time we found out why Julia decided to partner with MindLeaps and how important dance had become to her. This time around, with the second part of our interview (if you haven’t read the first part, you MUST!), we discuss her recent trips as well as what she will do with the knowledge she has acquired.

Julia is our newest volunteer working in Guinea. She is a dancer and medical student traveling to developing countries on a R&A International scholarship to study public health, global health and how art and culture can contribute to the studies of medicine.

So, where were we last time?

Q: How has your recent trips (Myanmar, Laos, India, Tanzania, Guinea) affected/ inspired you as a medical student and a person in general?

Julia: In their own way, my experiences in each country I travelled to this year have been incredibly informative and deeply changing, and I have no doubt they will impact everything I do from now on. One of the biggest parts of this has been as “simple” as developing awareness. I had never been to any of these countries before, or to many countries at this level of development, and I often found it heart breaking when confronted with the realities of health and healthcare in low-resource settings and areas of extreme poverty. I am consistently reminded of the huge privilege I have in pursuing my education and to have been born in a country where I have had nothing but support in that endeavor. As a result, my sense of responsibility to use that education to contribute to responsible and sustainable change has consistently been nurtured.

I have also become increasingly aware, in each country I have visited, of the ginormous number of factors that influence health and well-being beyond science: the historical, political, social, economic, environmental, and cultural realities. In particular, I have been struck so often by how a country’s historical and recent traumas – from the extensive bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War to Guinea’s struggle for independence and more recently the Ebola crisis – influences a country’s collective psyche and the way in which they develop and face the future.

As a medical student and a person, this has really inspired me to keep thinking outside of the box and learning broadly across lots of disciplines, from history to politics to agricultural science to music and beyond. There is so much more to a person and community’s health than just biology, and becoming aware of these other factors has allowed me to immerse myself so much more deeply and learn volumes more than I ever could have dreamed of about how to adequately and respectfully respond to healthcare issues.

Q: Please summarize your experience in Guinea so far in one sentence.

Julia: In the past two weeks, I have felt warmly welcomed, challenged and stretched, inspired and increasingly more immersed and informed, and have had some serious fun getting to know MindLeaps’ staff and the children they work with — I can already tell you it will be totally heartbreaking to leave!

Q: What do you expect to take away from this experience working in Guinea with MindLeaps?

Julia: Perhaps above all, I hope to take away with me a deeper and more genuine understanding of Guinea as a country. Through the wonderful relationships I am forming with kind and generous friends and colleagues here, I am continually being offered precious insights into Guinean language, culture, history and everyday life. I am also hoping to depart with even marginally better French than I arrived with and to be encouraged to keep learning this language in order to engage more fully on future trips to French West Africa.

I am hoping that I will leave with a meaningful understanding of the MindLeaps curriculum and how it functions in the Guinea-specific context, and that I will have developed knowledge and skills about how to conduct qualitative research and develop research tools that are useful in exploring a country/community’s issues and needs.

I sincerely hope that I will be inspired by that knowledge in the future to turn first to research, learning, and awareness before embarking on future international development and healthcare projects in countries and communities that I am foreign to, and follow MindLeaps’ model of informed and ever-evolving culturally-relevant work. Last but not least, I hope that I will go back to Canada with some new and totally unique dance moves!

Q: Are there any funny stories/occurrences from the first weeks you’ve been in Guinea?

Julia: More than any specific funny stories, I am noticing after a few weeks that my sense of humor is beginning to evolve. I find myself now, on the phone to someone at home in Canada or the US, sharing a laugh about how, after a super sweaty dance class, we don’t have any water for a shower so I end up frolicking in the rain to try and alleviate my stickiness. I often laugh with the night-time security guard as we huddle together under the centre’s one working light bulb, when the same sporadic electricity that fried my poor laptop on day one caused our other light bulbs to erupt in a shower of sparks. I laugh with our country director about the fact that I sleep with a frozen water bottle at night to try and stay cool. Without fail, I laugh daily about the fact that the one thing I can always plan on, is that nothing will go according to plan!

The MindLeaps kids are also a constant force of hilarity and laughter, and I know that my attempts at French and African dance are an abundant source of the giggles. While it is humbling to recognize that many of these challenges will remain here for my Guinean friends once I have returned to the comforts of home, I am extremely grateful to them for teaching me to tackle these struggles together, with optimism and a healthy sense of humor.

Q: What do you plan to do with all the valuable knowledge and experiences you’ve acquired in conjunction with your future medical degree?

Julia: At the moment, my plan is to pursue a career in global health, guided by the knowledge I’ve acquired this year and the experiences I hope to continue having throughout the rest of my medical education and beyond. This also means carefully considering a medical specialty that will allow me to work ethically, responsibly and sustainably in direct collaboration with local colleagues in developing countries, listening to and learning from them about the needs of their country, and remaining mindful that so often the best way to “help” is to show up with the mindset of a student, instead of as the teacher.

I have learned more than I ever could have imagined from this rich and fascinating year, and I know that that is far from over. In Guinea alone, I still have so much exploring to do! It is really fascinating to imagine returning one day with even more knowledge and skills, and continuing to work together with the same people who have made this first experience so overwhelmingly positive.

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.