Life lessons from the frontlines
By Alana Heenan, School for Advanced Studies in the Arts & Humanities, Western University
Rappelling 250 feet from a helicopter to the uninhabited ground below to fight blazing wildfires was how Jona Szakacs, Dentistry Class of 2020, discovered his future career in dentistry.
For the final three years of Szakacs’ undergraduate career, he spent his summers working for Alberta Wildfire, a government-run organization that extensively trains and employs only the most resilient people to fight the oppressive forest fires of Canada’s western provinces and territories.
When Szakacs began his initial training for the wildfire fighting crew, he was struggling to figure out what he would do next after completing his undergraduate degree in Kinesiology. Then he met Gary, another wildfire fighting trainee. “He was the first person I spoke to that turned me onto the idea of dentistry, as he himself had just applied to dentistry school,” Szakacs said. “We were roommates during training, then coincidentally ended up working on the same crew and became really good buddies, still to this day.”
Inspired to consider the dentistry profession more seriously, Szakacs began shadowing both physicians and dentists during the final years of his undergraduate studies.
“Dentistry gave me the opportunity to find the balance in life that I really wanted, while at the same time still allowing me to able to apply a lot of medical knowledge,” the 27-year-old Albertan said. “I love working with my hands and working with people one on one. Working in a clinic supports an atmosphere of continued care, fostering a community inside of a community.”
And Szakacs is big on being a part of the community at Schulich Dentistry as well. He is currently serving as President of the Dentistry Class of 2020, he is the team captain of the Mighty Dents, Schulich Dentistry’s hockey team, and the Vice President of the Student Mentorship Program, a recent initiative taken on by students at the School to encourage cohesion across all four years of the Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) program.
Yet, the busy student is not complaining. Working with other students, for students, gives him a sense of accomplishment and pride at being able to be a part of what makes Schulich Medicine & Dentistry so great.
“I enjoy what I get to do and I think it’s important to be involved,” Szakacs explained. “I believe we all have a responsibility to be actively involved, in some capacity, to improve our experience as students.”
This strong focus on involvement and community stems back to the life-changing experience Szakacs had while wildfire fighting. “Fighting wildfires was the best thing I did in my life to prepare me for dentistry, which sounds super unrelated, but I truly believe that was the biggest personal development time,” he said.
His three years working as a wildfire fighter came with the highest of highs and lowest of lows. Moments, such as passing initial and advanced training, were euphoric victories. At other points, particularly times where he’d be working for 25-hour blocks, were exhausting, person-defining moments.
“It is those times – living, eating, and working with people of all walks of life – that are such unique experiences. In those moments, you learn, in the most incomparable way, how to manage conflict and identify with people of all different backgrounds and of different opinions,” Szakacs said.
“I can now go forward, applying these lessons from wildfire fighting to the dental clinic, which will, in turn, help me create a community and place where everyone feels welcome.”