Jesse McDonald is preparing for her medical school journey by spending an intense summer on a research project aimed at making life better for some of the most vulnerable youth in South Africa.
Earlier this year the Nelson resident was accepted into Selkirk College’s Rural Pre-Medicine Program and will be part of the new program’s first cohort. While searching out options for the summer break, the 23-year-old came across the Sinovoyu Caring Families Project currently being spearheaded by researchers at the University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence Based Intervention.
“I just wanted to do something that would get me really, really pumped up for the next 10 years of school,” McDonald said on the eve of traveling to South Africa in late-April.
Selkirk College Rural Pre-Medicine Program student Jesse McDonald is spending a summer volunteering on a research project in South Africa.
McDonald was accepted as a volunteer frontline research assistant on the project that is attempting to reduce the risk of child abuse in rural South Africa. The purpose of the project is to develop a culturally relevant, evidence-based parenting and teen program designed to reduce the risk of maltreatment and abuse inside and outside the home. The program is aimed at high-risk families—families affected by HIV/AIDS and those already in child protection services—with children aged 10 to 17.
With the ultimate goal of becoming a doctor in rural Canada and previous volunteer work with Canadian Mental Health, McDonald didn’t hesitate when provided the opportunity to spend four months immersed in hands-on research.
“What I really like about it is that it goes well beyond the generic volunteering in Africa,” she said. “It’s meaningful research that’s going to be used for a long time. My goal is to be a family doctor, so getting to go in and participate in something that is based on family dynamics and interpersonal dialogue between parents and children is going to be relevant.”
Overcoming Adversity of Her Own
By her teen years, McDonald was a nationally ranked boardercross athlete with her sights set on making the Canadian National Team for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver/Whistler. While training in Austria in 2008 she suffered a knee injury that would become a six year ordeal of being misdiagnosed through the medical system.
McDonald was one of the featured student speakers at a TEDx talk in Nelson late last year where she talked about her struggles to overcome injury and anxiety.
While she battled chronic pain and anxiety, McDonald attempted a comeback for the 2014 Winter Olympics Sochi. Unable to regain her form, a year ago McDonald realized the dream of a boardercross gold medal was over.
Last summer McDonald decided to move on with her life and enrolled in Selkirk College where she began charting her course for a career in medicine.
“It’s been hard for me to shift my focus to something else, but it has been amazing,” she said. “I have been given so many opportunities in the last year and that is mostly to do with Selkirk College and the people at the college.”
A Harsh Introduction to Rural South Africa
McDonald arrived to Cape Town, South Africa in the first week of May and has been thrown right into the thick of the research project.
In her first blog post of the trip, McDonald wrote about settling into her new community of King Williams Town where the contrast between life in Canada and South Africa was clear.
“These rural living conditions are horrifying,” she writes. “It seems shocking that parts of South Africa are still living in extreme poverty in this day in age. South Africa is considered very developed in comparison to other parts of the continent.”
Though a volunteer and new to the project, in the first month McDonald has been given plenty of responsibility as researchers recruit families for a series of workshops that will be vital to outcomes of the study. In her blog, McDonald describes what she and her colleagues are up against.
“Teens are tough—yes, all over the world! But the likelihood of a teen developing behavioural problems increases when there is hunger, disease, being poor, etc., thrown into life. Same goes for the caregiver. I saw on my first day a mother who has seven children all living in one room, with chickens and goats. She is an alcoholic and leaves every day to find liquor. The children are left no choice but to skip school and go to the dump to find food for basic survival.”
Preparing for a Career in Medicine
McDonald’s contract in South Africa runs the length of summer. In late-August she will return to the Kootenays to attend for her first year in the Rural Pre-Medicine Program. This is a new three-year program that provides students with all of the training and prerequisites they need to apply for entry into the University of British Columbia Medical School.
“I think about how my life was when I was snowboarding and the intense training that was involved, I have so much drive to do big things,” said McDonald. “At one time that was being a professional snowboarder and going to the Olympics, but I have the drive to apply this to something. I am really excited about coming back to school… I love learning and am looking forward to stepping back into it with this program.”
In order to help her pay for the summer of volunteer work in South Africa, McDonald has set up an Indiegogo campaign where she is raising money to cover her costs. In return, those who support her will be provided with dispatches from her journey. Find out more about the campaign at her Indiegogo page.