Stepping Out of Comfort and Into Opportunity: A Student Spotlight on Donna Yang

by Molly Zhang

Graphic design by Livia Nguyen

Familiarity and routine bring comfort and ease, and more often than not, we find ourselves satisfied with what we know, and what we are good at. While it is easy to shy away from new challenges, Institute of Medical Science (IMS) student Donna Yang demonstrates that the best place to be might be outside of your comfort zone. Throughout the trajectory of her education, Donna has pushed beyond what she knew and was comfortable with. Continuously seeking opportunities to learn, Donna, now in her second year of her master’s program and has become part of a research team at the Reach Alliance, an opportunity that will bring her to Rwanda to study global economics. 

Donna Yang
MSc Student, Institute of Medical
Sciences, University of Toronto

Photo provided by Donna Yang

Donna began post-secondary education at the University of Toronto, doing a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology. However, to broaden her experiences, she took several elective courses in her final two years.  Becoming involved in an interdisciplinary engineering capstone project with aspects of clinical neuroscience, Donna found herself wanting to explore neuroscience further. Hence, she set out to complete her MSc at the IMS. Through the IMS, she has been able to work with Dr. Mark Boulos at the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre to investigate sleep disorders and fatigue in patients with Myasthenia Gravis, an autoimmune neuromuscular disorder that currently has no cure. While Donna loves her thesis work, she has always been open to exploring and learning which led her to seek out opportunities that extend beyond science.   

“When you step out of your comfort zone is when you can learn and grow the most.”

When looking back at her undergraduate degree, one thing that Donna wishes she could have done was take courses outside of science. Now, being able to see how research and healthcare are intertwined, she continues to look for opportunities that allow her to learn about various factors that influence healthcare and access to it. One of the factors she became interested in was socioeconomic status, and so as Donna began to look for opportunities to explore other fields, she applied to the Reach Alliance.

The Reach Alliance is a student-driven research and leadership initiative founded in 2015 at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy. Reach was inspired by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and is designed to equip students with skills to assess global challenges and produce actionable insights. Donna describes Reach as “a chance for students to discover new topics or new fields”, and this is exactly what she is getting out of her experience with Reach. 

When applying, Donna already knew that she wanted to work on a project unlike anything that she has done before, emphasizing that she wanted something that was outside of healthcare. In pushing herself outside of her comfort zone like this, she hoped to gain skills that eventually would allow her to bring an interdisciplinary approach to the healthcare research she is already comfortable with. This has brought her to now working on a project that assesses financial inclusion in Rwanda. Donna and her teammates,  Jason Lo Hog Tian (PhD candidate at the Institute of Medical Science), Cheikh (Tidiane) Diop (Honours Bachelor of Arts and Science, Specialist in Peace Conflict & Justice and Major in Economics), and Fawziyah Ibrahim (Honours Bachelor of Science in Molecular Biology, Immunology & Disease, and Health Studies) are working to analyze the Umurenge Saving and Credit Co-operative Societies (SACCOs) Initiative, which successfully increased Rwandan financial inclusion from 21% to 89% in just over a decade. They want to determine factors that lead to success, as well as how this initiative can be implemented globally, in other areas where financial inclusion is an issue. 

“I think all the most exceptional leaders are willing to experiment with different risk and initiatives, and that starts when you’re a student by taking small steps to experience things you maybe haven’t been familiar with.”

Tackling SDGs one, eight, and ten, which are No Poverty, Reduced Inequalities, and Decent Work and Economic Growth, respectively, Donna has spent her time with Reach learning more about the SACCOs initiative, reviewing the literature, and identifying key stakeholders of the initiative. Next year, Donna plans to travel to Rwanda to fill in the missing gaps in the literature by interviewing stakeholders and gathering information directly from those who played a role in the success of SACCOs. The end goal is to “create adoptable lessons from our research that other countries and organizations can use to create other programs to improve financial inclusion in their own countries”.

Outside of being able to explore something completely new to her, Donna also spoke on how Reach has helped advance her professional development. She has gained experiences in teamwork and effective communication, learned how to set deliverables and expectations she can keep on schedule for, and gained skills to help her succeed in a professional workplace. Advancing these skills is an important goal of the Reach Alliance. Therefore, all students are set up for success through team and individual coaching sessions, workshops, and more, and for Donna, she knows these skills will be applicable to all other aspects of her life, including, for example, her master’s degree.  

To be complacent and comfortable can be tempting, but the pursuit of knowledge and experiences rarely lends itself to the confinement that comfort will bring. In staying static, it is too easy to miss opportunities, and this can make it harder to grow, whether that is as a student, in your career, or in life as a whole. While she does not fully know what is in store for her next, Donna Yang hopes to continue to push beyond the boundaries of what she knows. In stepping out of her comfort zone, Donna has stepped into countless new opportunities, something that she hopes to inspire others to do as well.