"I would say, if you have the opportunity to study abroad, do it... you learn a lot about not just the culture and the country you're going to, but you learn about yourself. And I think that's worth experiencing... It kind of made me grow up in a way, like, become more aware. And also to step outside my little bubble here in Michigan, to see that there's a bigger world out there." (Marlisa, Episode 101)
There are two things that I neglected to mention in last month's 5th anniversary episode, when I talked about good things that happened during my hiatus. First, Tura from episode 72 checked on me via email out of the blue this spring, which meant a lot to me since she didn't know what I was struggling with at that time. And second, my dear friend Irene (episode 4), completed her PhD, and I had the honor of not only virtually watching her dissertation, but also virtually watching her commencement and editing her commencement speech beforehand.
So thanks to Tura! Congrats to Irene! And also thanks to Irene for trusting my way with words and asking me to help!
THE HIATUS IS OVER, FOR REAL FOR REAL! Young, Gifted and Abroad is on a monthly release schedule for the foreseeable future, and this month we're studying medicine, doing public health research, and shooting music videos in Jamaica with Marlisa Granderson! I had the pleasure of meeting Marlisa last August, at the farewell dinner for our mutual friend Marlee (episode 19) who was moving away for grad school. At that dinner, I learned that Marlisa was a medical student who had done research in Jamaica for three months, and she learned that I had this podcast about POC study abroad experiences. So I gauged her interest and told her I would keep her in mind as a guest for when I returned from hiatus "next year", and would you look at that... "next year" is here!
"I kind of say I 'stumbled' into the opportunity." That's how Marlisa describes joining the research program that took her to Jamaica as an undergraduate student. At the time, the Canton, MI native was studying nursing at the University of Michigan, but was feeling an internal call to pursue medical school instead so she could revive her lifelong dream of becoming a pediatrician. During her fourth year at UofM, a girl she would often see around campus recommended that Marlisa apply to the Minority Health and Health Disparities Research Training Program (MHRT), which would send students in pairs and trios to any one of four designated research sites around the world. That year, the sites included Colombia, Ghana, and Jamaica.
Marlisa had gone on international trips before—including a family trip to Thailand when she was 11 that remains a fondly vivid memory for her—but not for an extended period, and she had no prior research experience. So MHRT seemed to appear on her radar at exactly the right moment, "I get to travel, and I get the research experience that I know I'll need for med school? Sign me up!" Between her top two choices (Ghana and Jamaica), Marlisa was placed in Jamaica for the summer of 2015, and in addition to receiving a stipend all of her expenses were paid by UofM's School of Public Health. Being placed in Jamaica afforded her the opportunity to visit the Caribbean for the first time, as well as work under a developmental pediatric researcher affiliated with both the University of the West Indies and a UWI-supported organization called JA Kids, which is dedicated to studying and improving the health of Jamaican children.
Although Marlisa and the Jamaican American postdoctoral student she was paired with had devised their own research interests together prior to arrival, once in Jamaica the pediatric researcher assigned them to support a JA Kids project focused on violence against women and children. Marlisa and her friend/colleague's day-to-day included parsing through the available liteture on the subject, comparing Jamaica's statistics to those of other low to middle income countries, coming up with potential solutions, doing data entry, and occasionally handing out questionnaires to the public. Their contributions to the research process might have been more "surface level" and preliminary than Marlisa ha envisioned, but she and her colleague still got the chance to present their findings both before leaving Jamaica and after returning to Michigan.
(Between prep work starting in February, a summer in Jamaica, and writing papers and making presentations back on UofM's campus, in total Marlisa's participation in the MHRT program lasted from February to December.)
In her free time, Marlisa relaxed at the beach and ate all the traditional Jamaican foods; it was impossible for her to pick a favorite when I asked, but she emphasized how fresh everything was. Most of her core activities were centered around Kingston due to her living and working on UWI's campus, but she also explored over half of the island's parishes under the guidance of her friend/colleague. Certain aspects of the tourist experience were inevitable at first, like not knowing where she was going, or not being able to understand people well when they spoke to her in Jamaican patois (patwah). However, having someone who knew Jamaica intimately be the one to show her the ropes and bring her around their family allowed Marlisa to familiarize herself with Jamaican people and culture in ways beyond what the average tourist might manage.
In fact, on one occasion the two young women were invited to a pool party, and wound up being extras in a music video shoot for the song "SummerTime" by Jamaican artist Richy Rych. (Watch the video on YouTube and see if you can spot Marlisa, with braids in a half-updo, wearing a colorful striped halter dress, sitting on the edge of the pool next to a girl wearing a green bikini top and a gold necklace.)
"I guess the theme of my life is stumbling into stuff."
When I pointed out that Marlisa seems to have remarkably good luck stumbling into exciting and gratifying experiences, she was inclined to agree. From finding out about MHRT and going to Jamaica for free, to her music video debut, "I guess the theme of my life is stumbling into stuff." Another example of this is her cake business, because she is also a baker on top of being a med student. She initially learned to bake by force when she was in high school; her grandmother decided to pass her recipes and skills down to someone else because she was tired of being the designated baker of the family, and Marlisa was the only one of her grandmother's tutees who learned to love the process (albeit very gradually). Cut to 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, when Marlisa had finished her post-baccalaureate program and was applying to medical schools, and she realized she finally had the time and space to start a cake business like she'd been contemplating on doing for a while. That's how Cakez By The Pound was born.
Now, in addition to being a rising third-year student at Michigan State University's College of Human Medicine, Marlisa bakes cakes in her spare time, enjoying the patronage of her family and others who learn about her delicacies via word of mouth. As she continues her journey toward becoming a doctor, Marlisa hopes to one day work as a pediatrician in an outpatient setting, and also vacation in stunning warm climate locales including Santorini, Bali, and Dubai. In the meantime, she can be found via Facebook (Marlisa Nicole), Instagram (@marlisa_nicole), Cakez By The Pound, and her inspirational blog Letters to a Struggling Sista.
Be sure to listen to this episode, "The Doctor, The Baker, The Lucky Risk Taker (JAMAICA)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
"SummerTime" (Richy Rych music video)