Internships and volunteer opportunities led to Kylie Sullivan's career with exercise programs
For people who are undergoing cancer treatment or are recent cancer survivors, just getting out of bed can be a challenge, never mind taking part in an exercise class.
But as someone with a lifelong passion for exercise, Kylie Sullivan (MSc ’19, Kinesiology), has learned a lot about the resilience, strength and endurance of cancer patients and survivors.
Sullivan is returning to the University of Waterloo to work in the Bone Health and Exercise Science (BonES) Lab, but she was most recently a research assistant and co-ordinator in the Clinical Exercise Physiology Lab at the University of British Columbia. The lab does research into the role of exercise in improving the physical function, quality of life and survival of cancer survivors. Sullivan led cancer survivors through exercise programs and conducted assessments. She worked mainly with women who had breast or ovarian cancer.
“We connected with cancer survivors from all across British Columbia,” she says. “We tried to create this group dynamic where they could connect with each other and we as instructors got to listen to their stories and learn from what they were sharing,” she says. “It’s just a really special thing to be a part of. I do feel very fortunate that I have been able to go this route."
But Sullivan says it wouldn’t have happened if it were not for the experiential education opportunities in the one-of-a-kind master’s degree in Kinesiology at Waterloo. She took the one-year interdisciplinary coursework program that was coupled with volunteer work, followed by an internship.
Sullivan started by taking a volunteer position in the University’s WELL-FIT cancer exercise program, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, and then did an internship that led to a part-time position with the Centre for Community, Clinical and Applied Research Excellence (CCCARE). CCCARE runs WELL-FIT programs, including START-FIT, STAY-FIT and LIVING-FIT for cancer survivors, as well as the Brain and Body program for people with dementia or mild cognitive impairment.
Those experiences were key to Sullivan’s future career trajectory.
“As a volunteer, you're helping cancer survivors learn the program and make adjustments. The fitness staff are also there as the experts and, as a student, you get to tap into their knowledge,” she says. “It reaffirmed my belief in the programs and my desire to work in this field,” she adds.
During the CCCARE internship, she gained even deeper experience with assessments and making adjustments to the programs. “A lot of my time was spent on the floor, interacting with participants, teaching exercises, interacting with volunteers,” she says. “I would help build some of the programs as well, so I was helping to create programs the participants would follow.”
That also helped her hone her communication and leadership skills. “I have always had that ability to talk with people, but I learned so much more about how much cancer survivors are willing to share and about promoting the messages of exercise science,” she says.
Sullivan is originally from Fergus, Ontario, but as an avid lacrosse player, she got a scholarship to do her exercise science undergraduate degree at Central Connecticut State University, where she was an NCAA Division 1 student athlete and member of the women’s lacrosse team.
She was drawn to Waterloo because it had a master’s program that would give her the on-the-ground work experiences. “I would definitely say my experiences and the amount of time that I had spent working with cancer survivors in an exercise environment were the reason I was able to get this job,” she says.
“Just volunteer and try to diversify your experiences to get that sense of what you want to do,” she advises students today. “Don’t be afraid to reach out to people in the Waterloo research community. To have that one more connection with a professor or someone in the field really helps.”