This is My Story: The Power of Mentorship

24 Jun 2014

by: Katherine Jeffress, MA, MPH

Earlier this month Dr. Minerva posted on the “Importance of Mentoring” on the AWS Blog.  At the end of her post she asks, “What has your own mentorship experience been like?” This is my story…
It begins in a rural village in Ghana West Africa where I was serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Originally placed there to teach science at a junior secondary school I quickly found myself starting a large multi-site adult literacy program for women and doing community outreach visits while working at an HIV/AIDs treatment center at a district hospital. While there I met a surgeon who was doing a locum at the hospital from South Africa. It was his mentorship and example that initiated my desire to be a surgeon. He was one of the lost boys of Sudan who after walking many miles to a refugee camp was eventually resettled in Canada. There he studied to become a surgeon and then later he returned to work in Sub-Saharan Africa. Although based in South Africa he did locums in areas all over the content that had surgical shortages. His life story had really moved me so one day I finally mustered up the courage to asked him for some career advice. I asked him if I wanted to work in global health in Sub-Saharan Africa after the Peace Corps what skills and expertise were most needed.
He replied, “In Sub-Saharan Africa we need surgeons. We have many great doctors here but many countries don’t yet have the capacity to fully train surgeons or equip operating theatres for complex procedures. Some are lucky enough to go overseas to train and bring the technical expertise back but many many people here still do not have access to basic surgical care. You should become a surgeon.”
 That night he provided me with many pieces of life advice (some of which I’ve forgotten) but I couldn’t remove the ideal of becoming a surgeon from the back of my mind. It was such a foreign and strange idea to me. Later I returned to the USA a very different person and went back to my graduate studies in psychology and anthropology feeling a bit lost and completely out of place. I knew at that point that I wanted a career in global health but had no clue about the variety of jobs that were out there or what skills and qualifications I actually needed to get those jobs.
It was also at that point that I started working with a career advisor at my university who taught me how to network and set up informational interviews with people who had jobs I was interested in. These informational interviews consisted of 15-20 minute conversations where I would listen to the story of how they got to where they are now, what qualifications and attributes someone would need to succeed at what they do, and what their job was truly like. Every conversation I had was extremely helpful and some even led to long-term mentoring relationships. 
During this time I also formed another mentoring relationship with an Anthropology Professor of mine who was originally from Australia. The support and guidance she provided me set off a cascade of life events that ultimately lead me to Australia where I ended up obtaining a Masters degree in International Public Health and working as a researcher to help develop estimates of gynecological disorders for the most recent update of the World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease Study. It was happenstance that I ended up working on genital prolapse a condition that requires surgery to ultimately treat it. I was shocked by how prevalent the condition is in many poor countries with high birth rates. What was even more shocking was how few women outside of developed countries ever received treatment for it. I again became painfully aware of the lack of access the worlds poor have to basic surgical procedures. The influence of my Sudanese mentor combined with this experience finally resulted in me deciding to apply to medical school so that I could one day be trained as a surgeon.
Since I’ve started medical school I have continued to seek out mentors for advice and guidance. In my search for surgical mentors I’ve participated in a formal mentoring program at my university and found mentors through my prior university’s alumni database and through the Association of Women Surgeons database.  Some of my mentors have had me shadow them while they work. Others I’ve meet for coffee or over Skype. Notably, I’ve found the Association of Women Surgeon’s Annual Meeting to be a particularly great place to meet with women in surgery face to face for mentorship opportunities.
Many unexpected opportunities have been opened up for me through mentorship. One mentor that I met through my prior university’s alumni network was incredibly generous and offered me the opportunity to do research with him over the summer break between my first and second year of medical school. While there I quickly feel in love with research in vascular surgery. I also met another wonderful mentor who gave me more great advice about how to become a competitive applicant for a surgery residency and what programs would be a particularly good fit for me given my interest in global surgery. She even invited me to a brunch with other female surgeons in the area.
I’ve found it incredibly helpful to have mentors at varying points in their career that work in a variety of different practice settings. Some of my mentors have come and gone others may stay for years. I would not be the person I am today without these mentors. Their support, example, advice, and guidance have and are providing me with a safety net for my success. These relationships have cultivated innovation and creativity in my research endeavors and life pursuits.
Their stories and example have played an integral role in helping me get a clear vision of what I want to do professionally. Their advice and guidance has been pivotal in enabling me to identify tangible and achievable career goals that are consistent with this vision. These mentors have also shown me how to obtain these goals by outlining a clear path to take.  

They’ve done this by:
·         Sharing their story with me
·         Outlining the specific skills and expertise I need to build
·         Indicating the vital research or leadership experiences I need to have at each training level.
·         Sharing great resources to study to efficiently obtain the scores I need.
·         Teaching me how to be a valuable member of the team even at the medical student level.
·         Providing opportunities I need to develop myself so I’m prepared to enter the profession or by introducing me to people that can. 
When the journey has become difficult and I’ve questioned the path I’ve chosen to take my mentors have helped me keep prospective, given advice to increase my resilience, and shown me that there is a place for me in the surgical world even if at times I may feel like I don’t belong. It is their support and inspiration that led me to medical school and pushes me to work hard to pursue a career in surgery.
I really don’t know what words to use to express the deepest gratitude I have for the amazing people who have come into my life as mentors. They have had a profoundly impact on the course of my life. They have shown me that mentoring is an extremely powerful tool for career success.
If you don’t have the right set of mentors I strongly encourage you to seek them out. If you’ve had amazing mentors or want to provide the experience you never had the privilege of having I encourage you to pay it forward. I for one can’t wait to pay it forward.


Katherine Jeffress, MA, MPH is a 3rdyear medical student at Sydney Medical School. Prior to this, she received a Masters of Liberal Arts degree in Psychology from Harvard University where her thesis focused on the effectiveness of culturally adapted treatments for post-traumatic stress disorder in refugee and internally displaced children. She also received a Masters of International Public Health from The University of Queensland and while there worked as a Research Officer at the Centre for Burden of Disease and Cost-Effectiveness. Katherine served as a United States Peace Corps Volunteer from 2007-2008 in Ghana, West Africa.  She is passionate about global surgery and the provision of high-quality health care to poor and marginalized people around the world. She can be followed on Twitter.

5 Replies to “This is My Story: The Power of Mentorship”

  1. Incredible article. It was fantastic reading about how your time as a Peace Corps Volunteer spurred your decision to pursue surgery. I’m interested in global surgery as well. I hope our paths have a chance to cross!

  2. Thank you so much Katie for this amazing story! It is such an inspiration for me as I`m also interested in global surgery. You already became a good mentor: I remember your great advice and help at the AWS last year. Hope to see you again!

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