Normalizing the struggle

When finding your purpose isn't a straight path

During the first global coronavirus outbreak of the 21st century, Jesse Kancir (BSc ’08) was a high school student with dreams of becoming an economist.

During that same SARS outbreak in the early 2000s, Ian Cromwell (BSc ’07) was starting his first year of university with a plan to become a psychiatrist.

Danielle Wilson (MPH ’11) was working full-time as an environmental health officer, hoping for a career change that would align with her 
lived experiences as an Indigenous person.

Almost two decades later, the world is grappling with another new coronavirus. At the time of writing, the COVID-19 pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 1 million people. The stark differences in fatality rates across countries has highlighted the life-and-death impacts of public health decisions and national health-care systems.

It’s an impact that lured Kancir, Cromwell and Wilson away from earlier career plans into public health professions where they felt they could best serve their communities and country.

COVID-19 highlights the power of health policy

Dr.Jesse kancir

>Jesse Kancir (BSc ’08)

“COVID-19 is showing everyone the huge necessity of safeguarding the public health-care system because we are all so connected,” says Cromwell, a health economics manager at CADTH, a pan-Canadian health evidence appraisal agency. “There is a straight line between the well-being of your neighbours and your own well-being. It’s never been more obviously true than right now.”

Kancir realized, while still an undergrad, that he wanted to pivot away from pursuing a career as an economist when he became a patient himself after a serious workplace injury opened his eyes to the beauty of medicine.

Now a final-year public health medical resident in British Columbia, Kancir says the tragic events of the pandemic put an end to years of wondering whether he could find more purpose working one-on-one with patients as a physician. He had worried that public health was too far removed from the daily human struggles of patients.

“It’s always been very important for me to find the humanity in my profession,” he says. “Seeing how human the experience of a public health threat like COVID is really affirmed that I’m in the right place.”

Online degree shapes mid-career change

For Wilson, recently appointed the executive director at the Noojmowin Teg Health Centre on Manitoulin Island, Ont., finding her way to Indigenous health began with an online master’s degree in public health at the University of Waterloo. Public health professionals are naturally strong allies for Indigenous health because they understand how poverty, racism and the environment affect health, Wilson says.

Wilson had already been working for almost a decade, with young children at home and a full-time job, when she decided to pursue online studies to get her closer to her plan of working in Indigenous health. 

Danielle Wilson

>Danielle Wilson (MPH ’11)

“It offered me the opportunity to further my education when it was such a busy time in my life and there were very few options,” she says. These days, Wilson’s graduate studies are guiding her as she uses research and statistics to make the best, evidence-based decisions during the pandemic.

After abandoning his plans to pursue psychiatry, Cromwell discovered health economics as part of a fourth-year seminar course in program evaluation in the Faculty of Applied Health Sciences. “I knew it was a fit. I knew this was how I could help the health care system. It wasn’t until I took that course that I realized that there was a lane for me to take,” Cromwell says.

Normalizing the struggle

Kancir says he paused medical school twice to consider other directions for his career. “The perception of a perfectly crafted career of purpose is an illusion,” Kancir says. “It’s important to normalize the struggle. The majority of people can’t imagine the opportunities or the paths that exist in their professions until they are in them.”

ian cromwell

>Ian Cromwell (BSc ’07)

Cromwell, an accomplished musician who recently released a CD called Unmade, pursued health economics through post-graduate studies and balances his day job with a side career as a performer. He is also the curator and host of Locals Lounge, a business devoted to building community within Vancouver’s live music scene.

“My musical expression is really through my Locals Lounge project which is more community building and getting people to work together,” Cromwell says. “It’s about building infrastructure that allows us to have strong, robust, responsive communities the same way we want a strong, robust health-care system.

That to me is the value that underpins everything,” Cromwell says. “Everything I do is an offshoot expression of that same core value set. 

Future-Ready Talent Framework 

develop self illustration

Jesse Kancir is "incredibly grateful for the entrepreneurial mindset” he adopted during his time at Waterloo. "That was really important in the first decade of my career. I wasn’t afraid to do things that didn’t fit the traditional path of an economics major or a science major. I’m not an entrepreneur but I got something deeper: the licence to feel like I can do something at the intersection.