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New CMH student bursary aims to expand diversity in health care

In this Helper feature we talk to third-year nursing student and CMH Staff Trust Diversity Bursary recipient Jody Ann Spencer about the triumphs and challenges of becoming a nurse

The role of nurses has expanded with each new advancement in medicine and healthcare. It's that diversity which attracted 28-year-old Jody Ann Spencer to study nursing.

“I am hoping to get a bunch of diverse placements in the next couple years just to see more of what’s out there,” said Spencer. “There are so many places you can go in nursing.”

Learning is a passion for Spencer and not every lesson is found in a classroom. She has picked up life lessons while mentoring troubled teens and gained wisdom from the seniors she cares for at a long-term care facility.

“In general, I just love learning,” she said. “I have pretty much been in school my whole 20s.”

Spencer also loves sharing what she has learned with others, which is what drew her to become a mentor for young people through Big Brothers Big Sisters during her first year in the nursing program at Conestoga College/McMaster University.

“During our first year we don’t have an actual placement, but we do volunteer service,” she said. “I just happened to get placed at Big Brothers Big Sisters and I enjoyed it from the get-go. They have an in-school mentoring program where you go in and hang out with the young 'uns and do activities with them. I really enjoyed it in my first year, so I stuck with it. I’m in third-year now and I have done it every year.”

Her first official placement was at Cambridge Memorial Hospital.

“My initial placement there was at the rehab centre, but an outbreak ended up happening so we got kicked out for two weeks and they brought me back onto the medicine unit,” she said. “I was there for two semesters, so I was on the surgical unit as well. It was a great experience.”

Spencer clearly made an impression with the staff at CMH who selected her as one of the first three recipients of the newly established CMH Staff Trust Diversity Bursary.

“The CMH Staff Trust Fund is an independent foundation that is funded by the staff and physicians at Cambridge Memorial Hospital,” said Stephan Beckhoff manager of public affairs and communications at CMH.  “It is not operated by the hospital.”

The trust was founded in 1979 to support local charities and organizations that help people in need from Cambridge, North Dumfries, and the Region of Waterloo.

“Last year they proposed to create a bursary to support people with disabilities or that identify as a minority,” said Beckhoff. “The long-term goal is to help create a more diverse healthcare workforce.”

Humility is not one of the conditions for receiving the $1,000 award but it is clearly one of Spencer’s character strengths.

“I was actually, really shocked to get it to be honest,” she said. “I heard that there were a lot of people that applied, so for them to be sifting through and reading all these applications and have mine stand out validated my triumphs, I guess, in getting to where I am today.”  

Spencer has faced many challenges along the way.

“She worked very hard to overcome a disability in her teens so that she can pursue a career in healthcare,” said Beckhoff.

It’s a disability Spencer continues to deal with today.

“When I was 14, I was diagnosed with lymphedema,” she said. “A lot of people aren’t familiar with it, but it is in both of my legs. There is a defect which causes swelling essentially because the fluid in your lymph nodes is not able to circulate properly. It is an ongoing condition. I still have it, but it’s just better managed now.”

Being African Canadian or a person of colour and active in the community are also conditions listed for bursary applicants.

“I am the oldest of four,” said Spencer. “I have two brothers and one sister. My background is Jamaican, but I was born in Scarborough. I have pretty much lived all around the GTA from Toronto, Brampton, Mississauga, and Peterborough for a few years.

She is an active member of MUNSS, the McMaster University Nursing Students Society as well as the CBNA, the Canadian Black Nurses Alliance.

“It is a club to bring recognition to the challenges black nurses face in nursing and kind of providing opportunities for black nursing students,” she said. “I am the executive assistant of the group right now.  Even though we are black focused, we are open to everybody. Anyone can join. It’s just that we want to focus on black students to give them opportunities, mentoring opportunities, that sort of thing. I am really proud to be part of that as well.”

Spencer lives in Kitchener with her boyfriend, attends classes at Conestoga College, continues to volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters and works as a personal support worker for seniors at a local long-term care facility.

“I am very interested in gerontology, and I just really enjoy the elderly population,” she said. “I feel like they have so much knowledge to share, and I just love learning.”

It may even be the direction she takes as a fulfilling career when she graduates in two years.

“It’s just a huge role to play in someone’s life and I really enjoy the aspect of making them more comfortable as they get closer to end of life,” she said. “It’s just heartwarming to me. That’s kind of where I am thinking of going.”