Communities and students collaborate across the North

Roger Strasser, Founding Dean, Northern Ontario School of Medicine

Allow me to introduce an unlikely pairing: Canada’s national sport and an Australian. Since my time as dean of the Northern Ontario School of Medicine (NOSM), I have received my fair share of surprising news. But, I have to admit that the story of the grass-roots naming of the Strasser Cup will be one of my foremost NOSM memories.

Since the school’s inception, students from NOSM’s Sudbury and Thunder Bay campuses have come together to play a casual game of shinny hockey.

But in 2008, the students decided to incorporate two new elements to the tradition.

First, they created a trophy for the game (“for bragging rights,” they admitted afterwards) and second, they named the tournament the “Strasser Cup.”

When I heard this news for the first time, it triggered an intense emotional response in me that, as an Australian, hockey had yet to produce. I felt surprised, honoured, and humbled by their decision to name the tournament after their “fearless and ever-influential dean,” as they described me. After the shock of the news subsided, I thought with a laugh, “This has to be a first – an ice hockey tournament named after an Aussie!”

Although I was still bashful about the name, I realized that the name, the students and the school had one important quality in common: they were all unique.

Our students’ first exposure to the unique qualities of NOSM is likely in discovering our admissions criteria. Our school was the first Canadian medical school to adopt non-traditional recruiting that focuses on holistic, well-rounded students with connections to rural and remote communities.

We wanted to shift the recruitment focus away from traditional admissions tests that have not been validated for rural, remote, aboriginal and francophone students. The logic behind our unusual strategy was to recruit students with a natural capacity for empathy and community engagement.

This, we felt, was much more difficult to teach than the science and math required in the medical profession.

Often, what draws students to NOSM is the experience-driven nature of our education. Students in all of our programs are dispersed throughout clinics across Northern Ontario very early in their education at NOSM. Our learners quickly become integrated into their host communities by being involved in sweat lodges, smudging ceremonies, family dinners, community barbeques, hunting parties and recreational sport leagues across the North.

Our learners are invited to become part of the fabric of their host communities with a sincerity that is rare in many urban centres.

While in these communities, NOSM learners are encouraged to be so much more than traditional students. NOSM believes strongly in ‘service learning,’ an exciting element of the school’s curriculum that incorporates student volunteerism in their communities across the North.

Whether it is volunteering with at-risk youth or engaging with high school students, NOSM learners discover that in order to improve the health of the community, you must understand the community.

But it’s not just the learners who benefit from NOSM’s deviation from the traditional model of education.

Since the integration of the school throughout the North, many preceptors have excitedly explained that hosting NOSM learners ensures that they keep up-to-date with best practices, newly- eleased medical information and constantly-evolving innovations in medical technology.

Learner engagement drives a culture of academic inquiry that challenges preceptors to remain on the leading edge of medical developments – a culture that many professionals thought was only possible in urban centres.

In addition, recent years have demonstrated a particular rise in physician recruitment throughout the North due to the opportunities in academia and research that NOSM provides. As we dreamed, NOSM’s presence has become a powerful recruiting tool.

During graduation season, I can’t help but be reminded of the awe that I often experience at the hands of NOSM’s students.

As he addressed his peers at last year’s graduation ceremony, Dr. Sean Sullivan, student representative, said, “A common phrase is that ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ At NOSM, it takes half a province to raise a medical student.”

This year, as with every year, I am honoured to be part of an organization that values collaboration so wholeheartedly that it involves half a province in the education of future health providers.

I am honoured to be chosen as the namesake of the annual MD hockey tournament. And, I am honoured to be involved in an institution that marries the needs of the students with the distinct needs of their communities.

My sincerest congratulations to all 2013 graduates.

Filed in: Commentary

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