Jun 2, 2014

The Summer That Changed My Life

Students, Education, Alumni, Faculty & Staff
Vicky Nguyen
By Vicky Nguyen

In the summer of my first year of medical school, I volunteered to be a mentor for a group of high school students.  It was an opportunity to hone my mentoring skills and make an impact in one person's life. Little did I know, the students I mentored ended up making a bigger impact on me and my life in medicine.

I found these students to be challenged in ways I had never been on my journey into medicine at the University of Toronto. I met students who were newly landed refugees from conflict regions such as Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Democratic Republic of the Congo. These grade 11 students were struggling to learn a new language and adapt to a new way of life. They were trying to figure out how to attend university, become healthcare professionals, help out their families, and give back to Canada.

I also met students who came from the worst neighbourhoods in the GTA, with the highest rates of poverty and crime. Working closely with these students would end up changing my outlook on being a physician. 

No matter where they came from, the students all shared the drive to do whatever it took to become a nurse or doctor to to help others. This was the first lesson they taught me by example: deep commitment to education as a way to overcome adversity.  

They were all bright, ambitious and hard working. I remember one day when a group asked me to stay late in the library to teach them how to look up articles. One student was learning about anorexia. Another was interested in heart disease. Yet another was learning about diabetes. They chose research topics based on personal experiences. They were so curious and tireless—so eager to learn, I had to practically drag them out of the library when it closed. 

This was the second lesson the students taught me: they truly cared about what they learned because they had made personal connections to their subjects. 

The experience of working with 55 of these inspiring young people made me start to question what I wanted to do with my medical degree. The students all had the right characteristics to succeed. If they were from better socioeconomic circumstances, they would have had far fewer obstacles  in education and in life. I started considering how I could be a resource for educational equity as a medical doctor. 

I saw how the refugees among this group had physical and mental health challenges related to political conflicts in the regions of their birth. Caring about these young people and getting to know their stuggles made me really connect to lectures on refugee health and global health, and to my clinical experiences in psychiatry. After that summer, I decided to become a psychiatrist for underserviced populations. 

I had many assumptions about where I would end up, for example, at one point or another I thought that I would become a geriatrician or a surgeon. And where I am going—to the Northern Ontario School of Medicine, for a residency in psychiatry—is nowhere near my vision starting out. I think that if one stays open to new experiences and remembers to reflect on them, that one will end up in the right place. I feel confident I am going to love my new life very much.


Vicky Nguyen volunteered, and later helped to lead the Summer Mentorship Programme, run by U of T's Office of Health Professions Student Affairs. The programme is offered in collaboration with the Association for the Advancement of Blacks in Health Sciences, First Nations House, Mount Sinai Hospital, School of Nursing, School of  Social Work, and GTA District School Boards. SMP aims to provide high school students under-represented in the health sciences (particularly students of Aboriginal, African, and low socioeconomic backgrounds), an opportunity to: gain exposure to post-secondary health sciences programs, an understanding of career paths in health sciences, explore interests in the health sciences programs, and gain an understanding of admissions procedures to post-secondary programs in the health sciences.