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Out of the classroom, into the community

How finding time for real-world experiences can make you a better doctor

With our first year of Medical School at Dalhousie behind us, we were excited. New clinical experiences lay ahead of us. But, so did the challenges of an increased workload. Even though med school, to that point, had been one of the busiest times of our lives, we knew that it was about to get even more intense. And somehow during that very busy time, we were able to gain some unexpected experience—something that helped us realize how important it is for medical students to integrate into the community, something that enhanced our training and would surely make us better doctors.

All we had to do was make time for it.

Dalhousie Medicine offers a unique opportunity for second year medical students to participate in something called the Service Learning Program. This optional program enables students to partner with community organizations, allowing them to contribute to a project that is driven by community-defined priorities. Even through our time-management skills (not to mention our ability to stay organized) had already been tested, we were eager to apply our classroom learning and get out into the community. So, we applied to be a part of the program.

The application process required us to list the skills we could offer the community organization, and, based on this information, we were connected with Mainline, a leader in the delivery of harm reduction services in Halifax.

And yet, we had no previous experience working with addiction or addiction-related fields. Even so, we were both eager to engage with – and learn from— our new community partner. As our second year started to pick up speed, we began spending more and more time with the staff at Mainline – all of whom have been touched or have lived experiences with addiction– in order to learn about the organization and define a focus for our project. We were eventually given the opportunity to work on raising awareness for Mainline’s newest program: The Peer Navigator Program.

The program focuses on ending drug user stigma by providing a safe, comfortable, and understanding environment for people who use drugs. The program to-date has established a network of peer navigators and peer staff who provide daily outreach on foot and weekly outreach by vehicle. Our project aimed to raise awareness for the program throughout the community by targeting local media outlets.

Discussion with peer navigators, staff, and potential navigators during a focus group about the Peer Navigator Program.

But making this project work wasn’t easy. We had trouble scheduling meetings and finding time in our busy schedules to dedicate to our project. We began to question our abilities to balance all the work we’d taken on. We knew it was important, but was it too much for us? Were we actually helping this meaningful community organization—or letting them down?

These questions continued to cross our minds us as we dove even deeper into our hardest unit of medical school, which pushed us even further away from our deadlines. It was at this point, though, that we really began to see the benefits of stepping out of the classroom and into the community.

As part of our experience, we had the opportunity to travel into the community with peer navigators and staff to help clean up discarded drug paraphernalia, provide local support, and offer clean supplies to clients who needed them. It was a truly inspiring experience to witness the trusting and supportive peer-to-peer dynamic that Mainline had created with its clients. If it wasn’t already clear to us, this showed us firsthand how valued – and how needed – this program was.

Young physicians are told early in their medical training about the importance of mentorship and learning from their peers—and, as we reflected on our year at Mainline, it became clear to us that the Peer Navigator Program is very similar to med school itself: it’s all about building trusting peer-to-peer relationships.

Ultimately, our project was a success. The network of peer navigators grew to 20, and with the help of CBC and Doctors Nova Scotia, we have been able to shed light on the important work Mainline does in the community. But the real value for us, as students, was the chance to learn, through real-world experience, about the people who struggle with addiction and the obstacles they face—experience that will someday help us treat patients who face similar challenges.

We are carrying this knowledge forward into our future training – and eventually our practices – and are grateful that, despite the overwhelming pressures of med school, we were able to balance our responsibilities and find the time to step out into the community.


Dominique de Waard & Brianne Robinson

Dominique de Waard started her journey in medicine moving from her hometown in Nova Scotia to the University of Guelph, Ontario to complete her BSc with an Honours in Bio-Medical Science. After graduating University, Dominique did not hesitate to take a trip around the world and continues to travel whenever possible. At every destination she enjoys chasing waterfalls and the last spoonful of dessert at every restaurant. Before starting her third year of medicine at Dalhousie University, she plans to travel through Asia. Brianne Robinson is an incoming third-year medical student at Dalhousie Medical School. Originally from Kitchener, Ontario she attended Western University for her undergraduate degree obtaining a Bachelor of Medical Sciences with a focus in Pathology. Brianne has wasted no time getting to know her new city and spends her time outside of medicine exploring Halifax, hiking, trying new restaurants, and running. She looks forward to spending time at her cottage on Lake Simcoe before starting clerkship in August.


onboardMD Team

The onboardMD team brings you news, insights and real-life stories from students, residents and doctors, just like you. Our staff writers aim to provide you with the inspiration and confidence to seek and deliver on the best version of you, keeping you on the right track and making good choices for your future in medicine. Have a story to share? Email us at