Photo: Sonia Israël

When Xin Mei Liu was six years old and newly arrived in Montreal from Benxi, China, her mother asked her to make a choice. “‘Xin,’ she said, ‘would you like to go to Chinese school on Saturdays or go play soccer?'” For a kid it was a no-brainer. “I said ‘I want to go play soccer!'” She has no regrets. The family always spoke Mandarin at home anyway, and as Xin says, “I can learn the [written] language later in life. But the experience you get from team sports you can never get back.”

That experience is serving Xin, this year’s McGill Medical Students’ Society (MSS) Executive President, well. Soccer now comes second in her life, usurped by medicine, which she quickly realized is another kind of team sport. “Right now my studies and student council are my top priority so soccer is more of a hobby,” says Xin, who is in her second year of medical school. These days she can only squeeze in a couple of practices and one game a week for the City of Outremont’s AA team. But the former AAA player is fine with that. “AAA is extremely competitive. It’s a big commitment in terms of time and energy and it has to be top priority if you want to play at that level.”

Xin decided early that she wanted to be a doctor and worked hard to get into medical school straight out of CEGEP. Her first year was tough but rewarding. She decided to ramp things up a bit by getting into student politics.

“As MSS President I’m the one representing us to the faculty, advocating for students in terms of wellness and academics and making a difference in the policies that affect them during their studies,” she explains. For example, wellness — or more precisely, a frequent lack thereof — is a hot button issue for medical students right now.

“This is not just a challenge at McGill but at all medical schools,” says Xin. “Traditionally doctors have been overworked and medical students have been overworked. We’re trying to change the culture around this.”

So are things changing? “For sure there’s still a lot that’s lingering,” she says, “but things are changing slowly and we’re trying to push for that change to be accelerated. For example, we have a number of days a year we can use for our own personal health and wellness that weren’t there before. That’s a huge step forward.”

As for her own personal journey through medical school, Xin says that though she hasn’t decided for sure, family medicine and emergency medicine are strong front runners in her choice of specialty. She would especially love to stay in Montreal and work with vulnerable populations, particularly recent immigrants and refugees. “I have a strong interest in working with people who came here because I’m someone who moved here, whose parents have had a hard time navigating the health care system because it’s really not that obvious,” she says. “Also I speak Mandarin and Spanish in addition to English and French so I can really be of help to people from different places.”

Xin’s interests in helping vulnerable populations and soccer came together a couple of years ago when she got a call from a good friend and soccer teammate whose grandmother was looking for a girls’ soccer coach for an orphanage in Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Xin and her friend soon got a full soccer program going at the orphanage. It ran for two years and eventually included boys and a program to help pay school expenses for some of the high school students. One year ago the orphanage closed down suddenly and the soccer program was shelved. “It was very disappointing,” she says. “My friend and I were fundraising constantly here in Montreal and we would go down every six months to make sure things were still running.” Undaunted, the two women are planning to persevere in their efforts to bring new opportunities to the disadvantaged youth of the same area of Mexico.

Last summer, Xin took part in another adventure: a student-led initiative teaching anatomy to medical students at Université Quisqueya in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. “The program was started because they lost their anatomy lab in the earthquake,” she says, confessing she had to bone-up on her French medical lingo before the trip, noting that, “the experiences that truly challenge you are the ones during which you learn the most.”

Mid-year update

Halfway through her term as MSS President, Xin has had a chance to reflect on what has been accomplished so far. “We have a really amazing team, which I think is the most important part of being in student leadership,” she says.

Student space in the Meredith Annex was renovated to make it more appealing and comfortable to students and to allow the MSS to use it as a venue for social events. “A lot of student associations, such as law, engineering, arts, management, have their own 5 a 7 functions, but medicine has never had that,” explains Xin. “With the renovated space, now we are able to start this in medicine and we held our first 5 a 7 in early January, which was a great success.”

One of Xin’s main goals at the start of the year was to improve communications – between the MSS and students, between the MSS and the Faculty and between students and the Faculty – and the MSS has taken various steps to achieve this. “This is not an easy mandate because communication is always a bit challenging especially when everyone is really busy and running everywhere and not reading their e-mails,” says Xin. “One of the things we did was to create a new website, which is easier for the MSS executive to manage and which allowed us to create a calendar that has all the events going on. We have 40 student clubs, eight standing committees and a lot of individual projects going on, so having everything grouped together in one calendar was very useful. We are constantly fine-tuning and improving website.”

In terms of communication between students and the faculty, Xin explains that in the past there was something called the Academic Committee, which was composed of the MSS President, VP-Academic and each year’s Class President. All elected members but no broader representation from students who were not on the council. This year, under Xin’s leadership they recruited students from the general body to different representation positions and expanded the committee to the Medical Education Committee which spans many portfolios and relays feedback on a wide array of student affairs. “I have to commend the UGME Office for helping us with this process and for being open to having student representatives from not only the elected council,” says Xin.

Tremendous effort has also been spent on working strategically and promoting transparency. “I am particularly proud that at the start of this year we had a one- year strategic plan, a strategic goal document that was sent to all the students and which highlighted – by MSS position – what each has as strategic goals for this year to hold ourselves more accountable and to render the MSS more transparent,” says Xin.  “An issue that you always have as a student leader is that you do a lot of things but students don’t know what you do and then they don’t feel represented. By making sure that we communicated our goals to the students I was hoping they would feel more represented. We are sending a mid- year report as well to show where we are with respect to these goals.”

The MSS has also been working on elaborating a three-year strategic plan, which has been no small feat. Xin has been reaching out to students and has already – or will – meet with representatives of all four years of medical school classes, with student clubs, with the MSS executive and with standing committees, to gather information about what MSS does well and what it can improve on. “Do the students feel represented?  What do they see as bigger goals for the MSS that we can try to achieve in the next three years?” are some of the questions Xin is trying to tackle.  “As far as I know there was never a strategic, long-term direction like this before – each council started over each year.” The strategic plan will be voted at the MSS General Assembly on March 21.

Overall, Xin is content with how the year has gone so far. “I’m really proud we were able to fund 40 clubs, 18 community-involvement projects and provide conference funding to more than 20 students. These are things the MSS does really well and we’re hoping to expand.”

For future leaders of the MSS, Xin shares this piece of advice. “I think the MSS President has to be a leader but I think an important part of being a leader is to always question the status quo. If something is good you should aim to make it great. If something is great you should aim to make it excellent. And if something is not answering to the community needs I think it’s your responsibility to question it and rebuild it to make it better for the students.”

February 23, 2017