VIU grad pursues medical school in Caribbean

August 18, 2011 - 8:00am

Vancouver Island University graduate Emma Nielsen can hardly wait until the end of August.

That’s when she flies to Anguilla in the Caribbean to pursue her dream of becoming a doctor.

Nielsen, who graduated in June with a Bachelor of Arts, major in Liberal Studies and minor in English, is one of 200 students accepted into medical school at St. James School of Medicine.

“I’m still in shock,” said Nielsen. “It happened so quickly. I’m one of seven arts students accepted into the program. I was told there were over 700 applicants.”

Nielsen, 25, will spend the first 16 months studying at a satellite campus on Anguilla, in the Carribean. She’ll move to St. James’ main campus in Chicago, where she will complete her medical degree. Her four years at medical school is topped off with a three-year residency.

Nielsen’s former professors and others who knew her at VIU are not surprised about her success.

“Emma is one of those students who will be remembered long after they leave VIU,” said Liz Hammond-Kaarremaa, Director of Research and Scholarly Activity. “She worked in the Research and Scholarly Activity Office where she helped design new web pages and write testimonials for student research award recipients. It was amazing to find out that she held numerous part-time jobs while also being a mother and a full-time student.

“It is not surprising that she was accepted into the highly-competitive field of medicine, as Emma is such a caring person who gives so much of herself. It’s wonderful to hear about our students being successful in their higher education pursuits, especially those who grew up in VIU’s region. Emma will make VIU proud as she goes on to the next exciting stage of her education.”

Born and raised in Duncan, Nielsen demonstrated musical talents early on. She played violin with the Greater Victoria Youth Orchestra from grade 9 to 12, and after graduating from Island Oak Waldorf High School, she completed two years of the Bachelor of Music program at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.

Nielsen returned to BC in 2007 to reconsider her career path. At age 20, she was employed as concert master for Cowichan Consort Orchestra and Choir, a position she held until June this year.

“Initially I was considering music as a career, but I’d play my violin to relax when I had a bad day,” she explained. “Once I had to play for grades, it (music) became a source of stress. I decided I’d rather love playing the violin, than hating it. So, I took a break from school in 2007 and 2008 to decide what I wanted to do instead.”

By January 2009, Nielsen was taking classes at the Nanaimo and Cowichan campuses of VIU.

Using credits earned at Queens, she entered second year at VIU and took a mix of Liberal Studies and Biology classes. During the summer of 2010, she participated in a field school trip to Turkey with Liberal Studies professor Lisa McLean. “The experience was amazing,” said Nielsen. “It opened my eyes culturally in so many ways.”

Last fall, Nielsen completed English and Liberal Studies courses, as well as Human Anatomy and Physiology. “My professors, Suzie Nilson and Erick Groot, inspired me. That’s when I realized I want to pursue a career in medicine.”

While completing her undergraduate degree, Nielsen held down several part-time jobs. She worked as an on-call waitress at two places at a time, and as a cashier at Home Depot. For the full school year, she also worked as a Barista at the Jumpin Java coffee hut on the Nanaimo campus. She also accepted a student position in VIU’s Research and Scholarly Activity office for the past year and a half.

Nielsen also accelerated her degree by completing 21 credits in the Fall 2010 semester (the norm is 18) and 18 more credits in the spring. She also juggled the demands of school work and her jobs while maintaining a relationship with her partner and 16-year old step-daughter, and looking after her mother during periods of prolonged illness.

“It’s been a challenge,” she said. “It wasn’t easy at times, but all the hard work paid off. I will be infinitely grateful to my professors for their understanding. I couldn’t have done this at any other university. There is a real sense of community at VIU. You are a person. Everyone is willing to listen, and help students come out on top.

“You need to love where you learn to realize your full potential. My professors at VIU and staff in the Research Office helped me do that.”

As for her future? Nielsen’s highest goal is pediatric cardiology. “I love children, and they respond well to me,” she said. “I am able to connect with them. From what I know so far, the cardiovascular system is amazing. Becoming a cardiologist is my ultimate goal, however, I’m keeping my options open.”

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