Health studies seminar opens a world of opportunities

Andrew Westoll

For the longest time, University of Toronto Scarborough student Natasha Rajaratnam assumed the only way to pursue a career in health studies was to become a doctor or an academic or a nurse. Now, thanks to an innovative fourth-year health studies seminar which pairs students with service learning opportunities, Rajaratnam's eyes have been opened wide.

"I feel like a whole new door has been opened to me," says Rajaratnam. "I never realized the kinds of positions that are available in my field."

Rajaratnam did her placement at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), where she explored how social determinants of health affect Sri Lankan immigrants' access to mental health services in Toronto.

"My placement was enlightening," she says. "The CMHA supports the resiliency and recovery of people experiencing mental illnesses. I learned a lot about the barriers and social inequalities individuals living with mental illnesses face. It put everything I learned in class into perspective." 

Rajaratnam is not alone in having gleaned important lessons from her community experience. Classmate Nusrat Ali teamed up with two other students on a research project with the Toronto Harm Reduction Task Force (THRTF), a network of individuals and organizations working to reduce all forms of drug-related harm - from substance abuse to community violence to social stigma - in the city.

Ali and her partners designed a study to assess the level of stigma towards drug abusers among residents in different neighbourhoods, and piloted the project amongst their classroom peers at UTSC. Armed with their design and pilot results, the THRTF now plans to conduct the full study next year to test the feasibility of establishing methadone clinics in various Toronto neighbourhoods.

"I'm interested in health law, so being able to interact with potential stakeholders was a valuable experience," says Ali. "I got to apply my learning outside the classroom. You learn so much more when you're actually doing the work yourself."

The fourth year seminar is the brainchild of health studies professor Michelle Silver. Her goal with the course is to give students a working knowledge of the social factors (such as income, employment status and neighbourhood resources) that shape a person's health. Through their work with community partners students also develop their own research skills.

"I'm trying to give my students a better understanding of how to carry out a research project in the real world," says Silver. "I want them to grasp the inherent limitations of health studies research. It's one thing to hear a sound bite on the news about certain studies, but it's a very different thing to actually get out there and figure out how to collect the data."

Each student begins with a research question and their task is to figure out how best to answer it. While they focus on their research, Silver's students also gain valuable first-hand experience and a new awareness of health-related work opportunities in their communities. It is this on-the-ground training that really left an impression on Rajaratnam and her classmates.

"I'm so used to taking classes based on theory," says Rajaratnam. "But Professor Silver puts theory into practice. She helps guide you through what it will be like in the real world. This class has been an amazing experience."