Sitara Lewis graduates with a passion to advocate for those experiencing homelessness

By Annamaria Leahey

Over four years in the Bachelor of Medical Sciences program, Sitara Lewis has learned a lot.

But a defining lesson in empathy – which happened while she and her classmates distributed meals and essential supplies to people experiencing homelessness – is among those she’ll carry with her forever.

The experience helped to clarify Lewis’ future path: After she graduates today, she’s committed to helping care for individuals experiencing socio-economic challenges.

And she believes the experiential learning opportunities she had access to through the BMSc program should be requisite for all aspiring health-care professionals, to help develop the necessary empathy and compassion to care for those on the margins of society.

As she receives her degree today, Lewis talks about what motivates her and how she sees her future unfolding in this Convocation Q&A.

Watch the Convocation Live Stream here

What inspired you to pursue a career in medicine, and how has your experience at Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry helped you achieve your goals?

Being a caretaker for my grandmother at a young age planted my initial desire to care for others.

I have spent many years volunteering in long-term care homes and senior day programs. However, I always felt limited in my capacity as a volunteer. 

As an undergraduate student at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, I had the opportunity to delve deeper into medicine. During my fourth year, not only did I develop a profound passion for studying science, but I also began to want to change the world. As I began to learn more about issues such as homelessness and oral health here in London, my understanding of both biological and sociological issues in the community broadened. 

Pursuing a career in medicine is not about me. For me, becoming a doctor is the only path through which I can fulfill my goal: Providing empathetic care to others and guiding individuals with advice and treatment as they navigate their life journeys. Until I become a doctor, my heart will not be at ease. 

What was the highlight of your experience at Schulich Medicine? 

The highlight was our end-of-year poster presentation in my fourth year. It was a beautiful way to end the year as I was surrounded by my fellow peers and faculty. It was incredibly rewarding to see our hard work pay off and celebrate it together.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering a career in medicine?

Never compare your story to someone else’s. Medicine is quite competitive, and your path may look different from everyone else’s. But if this is the career that you are passionate about, do it. Do what you love and share what you love with others.

What are your future career plans, and how do you hope to make a positive impact in your field?

Alongside my journey in medicine, I hope to also grow in my art and music. Song writing and poetry have always been ways for me to communicate with others and I hope to use my gifts in the arts, whether it be singing or drama, to raise awareness and advocate for those who are vulnerable in the health-care system with the goal of having a positive impact on my community. 

You have been recognized as a leader and a fantastic public speaker. Can you tell us about any experiences or mentors that have helped you develop these skills?

Becoming a leader and public speaker did not happen overnight. As a child, my dad encouraged me to compete in public speaking and poetry competitions throughout elementary school and middle school. Thanks to him, my passion for the arts blossomed, specifically my love for spoken word poetry. Throughout high school, I continued to develop my leadership and public speaking skills through drama club and as student council president. My high school mentor and teacher, Matthew Westacott, further challenged me through these roles as he pushed me to become a more empathetic, compassionate, and humble as a leader.

Your fourth-year project involved working with London community leaders as a volunteer. Can you tell us more about this project?

In my fourth year, my classmates and I collaborated with Project Hope London to help individuals experiencing homelessness by distributing meals, essential supplies, and more. The organization lacked a training process for volunteers who sought to help. My team saw this as an educational opportunity for both volunteers and for us, as well. By creating a volunteer orientation module for this organization, I learned about the misconceptions I carried surrounding substance use and my lack of understanding about harm reduction strategies. 

Thanks to this opportunity, I stripped away the misconceptions I carried and became more open-minded. I call this empathy. Instead of an “outward-looking-in” approach, empathy calls us to step into the shoes of others. Thus, I found empathy the centre of everything I learned throughout my fourth year. 

What inspired you to write poetry?

One of my poems is named "Can you teach empathy?" This was one of the first questions my capstone project professor, Dr. Sarah McLean, asked my peers and I at the start of the year. I had never been asked such a question before and assumed that empathy didn't need to be taught, I thought of it more as a human instinct.

However, I slowly learned that empathy is beyond feeling sorry for others. It has to do with removing the stigma and the many misconceptions that society reinforces that we ourselves subconsciously may be unaware of. Throughout the year, as we discussed "taboo" topics, such as homelessness, aging, and substance abuse, I became more aware of the misconceptions that I carried and how they affected the way I thought about these issues.

With time and further education, I realized that to provide adequate care for the London community and communities across the world, empathy is necessary. Instead of seeing individuals struggling as people who need to be diagnosed and treated, empathy takes the step to further assess the root of the problem and analyze how we can improve the overall health outcomes of individuals in a compassionate manner. As future healthcare providers, it's important to discuss such issues so that we ourselves may re-evaluate our perceptions.