Scholar shares his McDonnell Academy experience

The McDonnell International Scholars Academy at Washington University in St. Louis provides graduate and professional students from university partners around the world with an extraordinary educational experience. As the Program in Occupational Therapy’s first McDonnell Academy scholar, Juan Pablo Saa, OTD/MPH/S ’16, says his experience has influenced him both professionally and personally.

While a student at the University of Chile, Saa wanted to further his occupational therapy education at Washington University but did not have the financial means to pursue a post-professional degree.

“One day, a friend and I were searching online for opportunities available to international students. When I found out about the McDonnell Academy, I reached out to Dr. Carolyn Baum. She encouraged me to apply to the McDonnell Academy and the Program in Occupational Therapy, and I was accepted to both,” Saa says.

The McDonnell Academy selects scholars based on their promise to become future leaders. It provides academic, cultural and social opportunities for them to become knowledgeable about critical international issues that affect the U.S. and other countries. Scholars receive funding for full tuition and living expenses while earning their degree at WashU. Saa was one of 16 graduate and professional students from 11 partner institutions that comprised the McDonnell Academy’s 2012-2013 cohort.

“Meeting the scholars from other countries and having discussions with them on global issues such as energy and the environment widened my health care perspective. I was challenged to look at global health issues that are cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary,” shares Saa.

Scholars are expected to participate in all Academy activities in St. Louis and elsewhere, including the annual spring break trips to Washington, D.C., and New York. It was during those trips that Saa and his cohorts had the opportunity to converse with business leaders, government policymakers, grant administrators and other high ranking professionals.

“The Academy encouraged me to step out of my comfort zone and engage in conversations about what is going on in the world during these trips. In my first year, we went to the Senate in Washington, D.C., and met with Missouri state senators. We discussed energy, political conflicts and other things that the scholars had questions about. We had dinner with former FBI and CIA Director William Webster and his wife, Lynda, at the Smithsonian Museum,” Saa remembers. “During these meetings, I became aware of health care issues beyond occupational therapy that concerned me and that will shape my thinking moving forward.”

During the cohort trip to New York City the following year, Saa’s group was given a private, pre-opening tour of the National September 11 Memorial Museum by its president and CEO, Joseph Daniels, a Washington University alum. “It was powerful to hear his first-hand account of what happened on 9/11 and how decisions were made on what to put in the museum. He later asked the group for our input on some of the displays, and that was an honor,” says Saa.

Another highlight of that trip was visiting the United Nations and meeting Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “We had a round table discussion with Mr. Ban Ki-moon on political conflicts, climate change and global warming. Because there were only about twenty of us in attendance, each scholar interacted with him on a personal level.”

In addition to the cohort trips, each scholar is paired with a Washington University faculty member who mentors their academic and professional life. Dr. Elzbieta Sklodowska, Randolph Family Professor in Arts & Sciences, served as Saa’s advisor.

“It has been a privilege to get to know Juan Pablo over the past few years, and a great joy to see him flourish academically and socially. He is a truly remarkable individual, as a scholar, a researcher, and as a person. He is incredibly focused on his work but, at the same time, he is attuned to his environment and genuinely committed to contributing to the society at large,” shares Sklodowska. “Juan Pablo has a wonderful sense of humor, a positive approach to everything, including any challenges that might come his way, and an outgoing and open-minded personality. All of these qualities enable him to spontaneously and effectively connect to people across a diverse spectrum of languages, cultures and backgrounds. “

The McDonnell Academy experiences helped shape Saa’s doctorate studies in the Program in Occupational Therapy. His research interest on cognitive recovery after stroke led Baum to ask Saa to join the team of collaborators working on a proposal that supports collaborations that will advance cross-national research and education on older adults, later life and aging societies. Each collaboration team includes one or more faculty from Washington University and one or more faculty from a McDonnell Academy partner institution. On this project, Saa collaborated with Gerald Koh, MBBS, MMed, MGer, PhD, from the National University of Singapore, and Leeanne Carey, PhD, BAppSc (OT), FAOTA, and head of the neurorehabilitation team at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience, which is the largest brain research group in the southern hemisphere and part of University of Melbourne.

“During that project, I mentioned to Dr. Carey that I needed to do an on-site apprenticeship for my doctoral degree. She suggested I come to Australia to work on a stroke recovery project she was spearheading,” Saa says. “Instead of the required four months for my doctoral apprenticeship, I spent six months at the Florey so I could finish the project. I grew as a researcher under Dr. Carey’s mentorship, but also from the transdisciplinary environment of the Florey. I met leading scientists from all over the world engaged in high profile research.”

On his last day at the Florey, Carey offered Saa the opportunity to further his research, earn his PhD and teach as an entry-level lecturer at La Trobe University.

“I was not expecting that at all,” admits Saa. “I thought, ‘this changes everything.’ I called Dr. Baum and discussed ways my PhD project could be part of the McDonnell Stroke Global Initiative. I also reached out to the McDonnell Academy to let them know as an alum, I want to help actively recruit future scholars to the Academy from the University of Melbourne. The Academy has given me so much, and I want to give back.”

“Juan Pablo has a passion for life, learning and evaluating the needs of others. He has contributed so much to the Program and will make substantial contributions to the occupational therapy profession,” says Carolyn Baum, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, Elias Michael Executive Director of the Program in Occupational Therapy and professor of occupational therapy, of neurology and of social work.

Sklodowska also feels Saa’s future will indeed be full of possibilities. “Thinking ahead, I can easily envision Juan Pablo in a variety of important roles: as a scholar contributing to groundbreaking medical research, a leader of a research team, or an inspiring educator and mentor. At the same time, I know that he will do all of these things, and more, always in connection to his community, whether in his native Chile or wherever his talent and skills might take him,” she says.

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