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March 8, 2021Print | PDF
In her final year as an undergraduate student at Wilfrid Laurier University, Mary Ajayi has built a resume that rivals leaders twice her age. Ajayi is the co-founder and vice-president of Laurier’s Black Medical Leaders of Tomorrow, co-founder of the Black Outreach Leadership Directive, an executive member of Laurier’s Student Alumni Association and an active researcher. While juggling all of these extracurricular pursuits, she is completing her degree in Health Sciences.
Ajayi’s productivity is fuelled by passion. Her advocacy and research efforts are focused on causes that matter deeply to her, such as improving access to health care for Black communities and increasing the representation of Black youth in post-secondary schools.
“I have personal experience dealing with these issues, so I know others will benefit from this information,” says Ajayi. “That’s what drives me.”
How did you get involved with research at Laurier?
Mary Ajayi: “I had just taken a course on the social determinants of health, which was the best course I have ever taken. I am very passionate about social justice and political issues, but I never knew how deeply social justice impacts our health. My professor put me in touch with Dr. Ciann Wilson and we realized that our research interests were greatly aligned. She asked if I wanted to work as her research assistant over the summer and I have continued to do so.”
What is the focus of the research you are conducting?
MA: “We are conducting a study about the sexual health of African, Black and Caribbean youth, looking at what resources they need to learn healthy sexuality and how we can decrease the stigma attached to accessing those resources.”
You are also a co-author of a research paper currently in the end stages of publication. Describe its findings.
MA: “I was the second author on a paper written by Robert Smith, a fellow student, which was derived from his undergraduate thesis and a larger, ongoing Laurier study called The Adinkrahene: Improving Access to HIV Services for African, Caribbean and Black People in Waterloo Region. Our paper focuses on how food is an important health factor for African, Caribbean and Black people. We looked at the barriers to accessing healthy food, such as lack of transportation to get to a grocery store, and the relationship between racism and food access. For example, doctors may discourage people from eating culturally specific foods because they are ‘unhealthy’ by Western standards, but in individuals’ home countries, those are the foods that have kept them alive, nourished and healthy.”
What do you enjoy about conducting research?
MA: “Parts of it, like transcribing interviews, can be tedious, but I love learning new things, the writing process, building connections and talking to others about their experiences. I often realize that I am going through the same things.”
Tell us about Black Medical Leaders of Tomorrow.
MA: “Black Medical Leaders of Tomorrow is a club that operates as a support system for students of colour who want to go into medical careers after university. My best friend, Teresa Bennett, and I formed an executive team and we pass along resources to our members, such as research and scholarship opportunities and how to access assistance with medical school interviews.”
You also co-founded the Black Outreach Leadership Directive. What is the goal of the organization?
MA: “I and a few other Ontario university students decided to create a program geared toward Black high school students to help them succeed. When I was in high school, I didn’t have the support I needed to envision my future and, as a Black student, going to the guidance counsellor was not always a positive experience. So we just started running a series of virtual workshops, which cover topics such as academic tips, interview skills, making post-secondary decisions, atypical careers and navigating racism. We want to increase the representation of Black students at post-secondary institutions.”
As you prepare to graduate this spring, what are you planning for your future?
MA: “I want to pursue my master’s in public health and conduct research that will address the health inequities people of colour are facing. As a Black woman, I know those injustices firsthand. Black women are less likely to be believed when they go into medical facilities and there is quite a big gap in research about why we face those disparities.”
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