Tamara Pokrupa-Nahanni: Renaissance Woman-in-Training

Tamara Pokrupa-Nahanni, 4th year New Media

I met Tamara when she joined the travelling-with-a-purpose student group Alternative Spring Break at Ryerson. We’d already gone through two months of icebreakers and fundraising before, so the entire dynamic shifted when Tamara and another student joined the team, the more the merrier!

When the countdown to departure day finally went from 100 to 0, we flew as a team of 15 to volunteer at orphanages both in North and South Vietnam. It was a team of inspiring student leaders, but Tamara was my closest friend as we travelled throughout Southeast Asia.

I would soon learn that her charitable volunteer work was only one part in her multi-faceted character. This 4th year New Media student – who already holds a degree in Biology from Queen’s University – taught me it’s possible to still have the essence of Renaissance people in this age.

I know it’s been more than a year since we came back from volunteering in Vietnam with ASB… does it still impact you?

Of course! It’s my Facebook cover photo! It was the first time I really dedicated myself to a cause. It was both an experience and a cause, but for me, it was more about the cause.

I started halfway through, I knew that I wanted to do it so badly that I talked my way into getting a position. I was the ‘new kid’ when I started so I just concentrated on the cause. Which is to live and learn and volunteer in another country. Also, I’d never been to Asia before so that was a complete culture shock. It was fantastic! And so beautiful.

Which country, out of the four we went to (Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand), was your favourite?

I tell all my friends to go to Laos. It’s just so serene and rejuvenating and calm. And funny, the people there are hilarious!

And the team we travelled with, we got to know them so well. More than you would with any university peer, because we lived with them for six weeks. The stakes were so high, we had to fundraise all that money, and we couldn’t mess up when we were in-country because we’re representing Ryerson. There’s so much danger around.

What extracurriculars are you involved with now?

I volunteer at Toronto General Hospital, work at the Ryerson Aboriginal Student Services, and I’m a member of the Image Art Course Union. And this year, I joined Ryerson’s Master Swim Club.

Describe what it’s like in each of those groups.

The Ryerson Master’s Swim Club is hardcore. I joined because I was swimming alone and I wasn’t really pushing myself. It’s a triathlon club and you’re just training for two hours a week. They put me in a lane with these really tall, and really fast girls last week. I was just barely keeping up! It’s intense.

At the Toronto General Hospital, I research in behavioural cardiology, so we’re trying to find a link between hypertension, so like, high blood pressure and receiving emails about controlling your lifestyle.

And I’m a peer supporter at Ryerson Aboriginal Student Services (RASS), I help manage our online identity. I update the website, take photos of our staff.

What’s happening at RASS?

We just started a discussion group for students to talk about Aboriginal issues. It gives us a formal space for us to talk about being Aboriginal because we all have different backgrounds, some people are from the reserves, some aren’t, and some are from far northern Ontario. So it’s easier if we all have a place to create a baseline, some commonality between us.

Where can people find RASS?

It’s actually really hard to find hahaha. It’s really shoved in the corner of Kerr Hall West third floor (KHW 389).

It’s like the fourth floor of the library, but a lot smaller. The other day, this guy brought in a drum, he lit some sage so there was an aroma. And he just started drumming. It was really intimidating because it’s so loud, it was like your heart beating. It’s such a small space so it was echoing everywhere.

You see the same students again and again. It’s like a common lounge, but it’s only available to Aboriginals.

How can you tell if someone non-Aboriginal is there?

There’s only 200 of us at Ryerson. When you apply, you declare status. The staff knows everybody who’s there.

How are you involved in the Aboriginal community outside of RASS?

I went a Canadian Roots exchange where you go to First Nations reserves and learn about the lifestyle, and dispel some of the myths. But sometimes it is as bad as you hear it is.

I went on two trips, one was in Moosonee, the other in Moose Factory. I also went to a five-day one in Six Nations, it’s near Brantford. These trips are fantastic because they mean so much to me on a personal heritage level.

It’s weird because I travelled all the way to Vietnam to volunteer, but I wished I could also help here closer to home. But the cost of travelling halfway across the world is the same as travelling up north here in Canada. It doesn’t make sense! Flight costs, accommodation costs, the cost of living up North is expensive.

What’s taking up your time now?

I spent the summer studying for the MCATs and I made it my full time job. That’s all I did.

I ended up scoring higher than I thought I would. It was a hard test. So I’ll be using those scores to apply to school in Ontario and University of Calgary, and I’ll let you know how that goes in February!

Is there a school you really wanted?

Northern Ontario School of Medicine program seems really special because I’d be interacting with Aboriginal populations first hand. Their curriculum is about serving smaller, remote regions.

So if I can somehow use my knowledge in Media Communications and my knowledge in Biology to work in rural areas and fine tune telemedicine, because there are still issues whether all of the places are covered.

How does Ryerson’s student life compare with Queen’s?

Completely different! The student housing situation is the big thing. At Queen’s, the student population makes up, like, a sixth of the population of Kingston. So when school’s out, the city is a lot quieter.

But in Toronto, students blend into the background a bit more. There’s a lot more sweatpants at Queen’s because people just roll out of bed and go to class. There’s a lot more style at Ryerson.

What motivated you to go into health care?

Growing up, I’ve always been surrounded by these amazing people who were doctors or medical students.  At some point, I wanted to become the people I admire. My parents are both doctors, and most of my friends in Biology wanted to become doctors, they were all just shooting for the stars.

I have many interests, and I just needed a long term goal to focus on. And in healthcare, you have to be able to multitask, you have to be able to do different things. Not only are you treating patients, but you’re also communicating with other health care specialists, doing research at the same time, it requires a vast amount of skill. So I thought this can be a way to incorporate all my skills with a focus at the same time

I remember you mentioning where have all the Leonardo Da Vincis and Benjamin Franklins gone…

Hahaha, yes! There’s a lot of separation between the fields of study and careers have become very specialised, there’s just so many opportunities. How can you say no? I can’t help but be a renaissance person because there are so many exciting things going on in different areas.

Keep up with Tamara, her med school applications, her projects, and fine art studies at her blog, http://misspokahanni.wordpress.com/