Like many Canadians living and studying abroad right now, Maike van Niekerk faced a tough choice recently as COVID-19 began soldiering its way around the globe: to stay put where she was in Oxford, England or pack up and head home.
Not content to make the decision alone, the Dal Nursing alum (BScN ’17) and 2017 Rhodes Scholar turned to her family back in Atlantic Canada as she weighed her options. In the end, they decided it was better for her to stick it out where she was.
Read also: A mother's memory, a daughter's dedication: Maike van Niekerk becomes Dal's 90th Rhodes Scholar (November 2016)
“It was quite a difficult decision,” says van Niekerk, now in her third year of the Rhodes program at the University of Oxford. “Part of me wanted to come back to Canada so that I could be with my family, but the ultimate decision for us was for me to stay here to be able to continue to do the important research that I’m doing.”
Van Niekerk’s current work as a doctoral student in Psychiatry centres around improving psychological care provided to elderly inpatients — the very individuals most susceptible to the virus. “More than ever, this type of research is extremely important. It’s aimed at helping some of the most vulnerable,” she says.
Now, as van Niekerk approaches the end of her PhD studies as a recipient of one of the world's most prestigious scholarship awards, she’s set to begin an exciting new chapter having earned another — the Knight-Hennessy Scholarship from Stanford University in California.
A rare honour
Fiercely competitive, with only 76 recipients this year out of more than 6,100 applications from around the world, the scholarship was launched in 2016 and offers similar experiences and opportunities as the Rhodes. Students receive leadership development training, mentorship opportunities, experiential learning activities, and, of course, full funding to any graduate program of their choice.
The 2020 Knight-Hennessy cohort includes students from 26 countries studying in programs across all the university's seven schools. Van Niekerk is one of only three Canadian recipients this year and the first ever from Atlantic Canada.
“Their intellectual ability, diversity of backgrounds and experiences, and commitment to a better world give me much-needed hope in this challenging time, as the world faces its first true pandemic in 100 years,” said John L. Hennessy, president emeritus at Stanford and the Shriram Family Director of the Knight-Hennessy Scholars program, in a news release about this year’s cohort.
Van Niekerk joins eight others in her cohort who will be studying in the School of Medicine starting in mid-August.
“It’s a relatively small medical program with about 100 students,” she says. “And the unique thing about the program is that is has different scholarly concentrations, so I’m particularly interested in the community health concentration.”
She’ll have the opportunity to take courses and pursue research focused around topics she’s been passionate about since her days as a student at Dal, such as the social determinants of health and improving health care accessibility for overlooked populations.
Staying connected with Dal
Indeed, those links back to Dalhousie seem as strong as ever. Van Niekerk says she still collaborates with Dal’s Amy Bombay — a faculty member in the School of Nursing — on research projects exploring psychological distress in Indigenous people in Canada diagnosed with cancer. And without the support of Dal Neuroscience Professor Kevin Duffy, who encouraged her to apply for the Rhodes and later to Stanford and wrote her letters of support, she says she might not be where she is today.
“Although I’ve left Dalhousie, it is still my home. And Atlantic Canada will always be home to me, even if I’m training elsewhere,” she says.
Van Niekerk also holds a special place in her heart for those Nursing professors at Dal who inspired her to pursue her passion for community activism. It was a passion fueled, in large part, by memories of her mother, who passed away after battling cancer when van Niekerk was 15 years old. Her mother was the reason she started Katrine’s Karepackage, an organization that helps offset travel costs for cancer patients in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. The non-profit continues to be the primary focus of her volunteering efforts, even from afar.
“At the heart of everything I do is a drive to be able to improve care for cancer patients like my mom,” she says. “I think losing her at such a young age and promising to her in my final moments with her that I would never stop fighting in her memory has really driven me.”
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