First Outreach and Access Program Alumnae Head to U of T

September 8/2020

By Françoise Makanda, Communications Officer at DLSPH

A pioneering DLSPH effort to introduce underrepresented high school students to a career in health has borne fruit: Two of its alumna, Maha Khan and Maimuna Akhter, have chosen to attend U of T this fall.

With the choice to attend all three campuses, they are headed to U of T Scarborough’s Life Sciences Program.

“I got accepted to all of the programs I applied for, but I really wanted to get to U of T,” says Khan, a recent graduate of Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute. “I kept getting the emails wondering ‘where’s U of T?’”

She got her acceptance letter a week before March break – the highlight of her grade 12 year. Just a few days before that, Khan had spent a whole day at DLSPH learning about program development through the Outreach and Access Program.

“I got the email at 1 a.m. I stayed up even though I had a class the next day,” says Khan. “It feels fulfilling to know that I got into Canada’s top university.”

Khan has been passionate about science since grade 8. She grew up in Saudi Arabia, moving to Canada last year because her parents wanted her to have access to the best postsecondary schools.

She was familiar with life sciences but wasn’t sure if she really wanted to study it until IHPME alumnus Ryan Hinds, the Outreach and Access program’s lead introduced her to a wide variety of career options. “Life sciences is quite broad, and it gives you options. I didn’t want to risk it and find myself in one place,” says Khan, “I want to dedicate my time to something that helps people like psychology, nursing or public health.”

Akhter earned several scholarships for the coming years. While she was set on engineering, the Outreach and Access Program changed her mind.

Maha Khan and Maimuna Akhter sitting outside

Maha Khan and Maimuna Akhter, pictured at University of Toronto Scarborough, have chosen to attend U of T this fall for Scarborough’s Life Sciences Program. (Photo by Nick Iwanyshyn)

“I always knew I was interested in health but the only jobs I knew were doctors and nurses,” says Akhter. “I felt like I wasn’t interested in that, but doing this program made me realize there are so many other jobs and there’s a lot of jobs that I’m interested in.”

Akhter convinced Khan to join the Outreach and Access Program one year ago after Khan mentioned she was struggling with her public speaking. “I asked Ryan Hinds to give her an interview,” says Akhter. “He said ‘yes’ and that was it.”

“It’s intimidating at first but when I took my first program course, Ryan pushed us all out of our comfort zones. He really encouraged us to do public speaking,” says Khan.

Khan attributes her success in public speaking to the program. “I was just looking for something that could help me gain that confidence and skills. Ryan told me that he was definitely going to push me out of my comfort zone. I was honestly OK with that.”

The topics explored in the outreach program helped Akhter understand the breadth of public health. Although the pandemic has dampened some of her plans, she benefitted from Hinds’ week-long summer course about pandemic preparedness. In a fictitious scenario, a virus hit Toronto just as the Raptors clinched the NBA championship. Crowds poured into the streets. The parade was just a few days away but the virus was already ravaging through the city. She was among the 11 high schools’ students who had five days to come up with a plan to avert catastrophe

Akhter’s team realized that the parade couldn’t go on. “It makes you realize what’s important. I know that’s a big part of our city – it’s the first time we’ve won a championship,” says Akhter, “We realized that the outcome of it is that more people would get sick, where people were more likely prone to catch it. We needed to postpone it.”

DLSPH Prof. Laura Rosella’s presentation that same summer opened Akhter’s eyes to the inequalities her community faces. Rosella had presented a Toronto mortality rate map showing much higher rates in her community than in the surrounding regions. Rosella described the opportunities high-income communities received – access to more hospitals, better transportation services like a subway line and accessible clinics. The presentation, Akhter says, was ‘eye-opening’ and deepened her learning in other areas.

“I was doing an English presentation, where we were reading a book from many years ago about how working-class people are the most disadvantaged at times,” she recalls. “My classmates were focused on the past, but I was able to connect all of this to the future situation – our situation. I showed the very map Prof. Rosella showed us last summer. All of their faces were exactly like mine when I saw the map for the first time. Our communities will continue to be disadvantaged.”

While other classmates pointed to income as a reason for higher mortality, Akhter was able to outline the main principles of the social determinants of health.

“Prof. Rosella showed us that by being closer to the subway line, the mortality rate was lower. And that’s something we never think about. Transportation to a hospital and clinic is a lot easier when you are near a subway line. It’s also more accessible. Downtown, there’s hospitals at every corner. And then going back to the income problem – someone with two jobs who has to put food on the table is not going to be able to go to a clinic or hospital.”

The DLSPH Outreach and Access Program launched in February of 2019 to raise awareness of non-clinical career paths in health care and stimulate the creation of a diverse pool of young leaders from underrepresented communities, preparing them for progressively influential roles within public health and the broader health care system. So far, the program is delivering on its promise.

Both students encourage others to join the program for the mentoring, the soft skills they learn like public speaking and leadership and, ultimately, the connections they make with others that extend far beyond their acceptance letters to U of T.

And they are both looking forward to the day they can attend class in person. “I was really looking forward to being there in-person. I actually have all my outfits planned out for this year,” jokes Khan.