Waking up in the middle of the night to the sound of a hurricane, with no power or electricity, took some getting used to for Maggi Gyuricska.
So did the overwhelming heat, huge centipedes and wall-scaling crabs.
But after a year at the Ross University School of Medicine, located on the island of the Dominicana in the Caribbean, the 26-year-old Abbotsford resident has adjusted.
Gyuricska arrived on the island last August, after winning Old Navy’s SuperModelquin Super Search. The $100,000 prize afforded her the chance to attend the university and fulfil her dream of becoming a doctor.
She had applied to numerous schools in Canada but wasn’t accepted due to limited spots, despite her high scores on her Medical College Admission Test and volunteer work at BC Children’s Hospital.
While she was accepted to Ross University, the tuition was $200,000 for the three-year accelerated medical program, plus one-year residency.
Even though Gyuricska had worked two jobs since graduating from Yale Secondary in 2003, and had applied for numerous bursaries, the financial burden was still too much.
In addition, getting a loan large enough was impossible because she was leaving the country, she didn’t have a co-signer, and her mother doesn’t own their home.
So on a whim, she entered the Old Navy contest after her mom saw a commercial on TV.
“Who can master the art of standing?” asked the Old Navy commercial. “Who will be the best at wearing clothes?”
During the contest, she turned a picture of herself into a mannequin, added a punch line into a pre-made commercial and made a video highlighting Abbotsford.
She eventually became a finalist and was sent to Hollywood, with her mom, to shoot an Old Navy commercial.
After finding out she won the contest, Gyuricska was ecstatic to be able to fill out the acceptance forms for Ross University.
But before leaving, she had second thoughts.
She was worried she wouldn’t live up to the expectations created by the contest, or the letters of encouragement she had received from strangers.
“My mom kept telling me I could do it – that it was my destiny.”
As soon as she sat down in her first lecture, she realized she was meant to be there.
Since then, it’s been all work for Gyuricska, who has spent 12 to 14 hours a day at lectures and study groups, seven days a week.
“You have to have discipline,” she said. “The teachers explained the workload like a stack of pancakes. If you don’t eat them up, then they’ll keep on stacking up and then it’s too overwhelming.”
On top of school work, Gyuricska visits the local market every Saturday with other students to perform physical exams on the island’s locals.
Together with a doctor, they’ve diagnosed people with conditions such as diabetes and hypertension.
The experience has opened her eyes to different medicines and practices.
“Instead of asking a question like, ‘Do you eat fries daily?’ I have to ask, ‘Do you drink bush tea?’ I think it’s really helped me grow.”
The difference in food, lifestyle and living conditions has been difficult to grasp.
“It’s very different from travelling to the island and staying in a five-star hotel. We’re living amongst the poverty here,” said Gyuricska, emphasizing that she’s not complaining. “Even though it has been difficult to battle with those conditions on top of learning, this is the greatest experience.”
When she does take the rare day off from studying, which typically happens following a large exam, Gyuricska gets to take in the island’s tropical activities.
She’s snorkelled in a nearby reef, hiked through the jungle to remote waterfalls, and rented a catamaran boat only to be followed by a pod of dolphins and a sea turtle.
“I look out of my window into the jungle wilderness, and sometimes it’s hard to believe I’m there,” she said. “It seems like yesterday I moved there, but it seems like a lifetime with how much I’ve learned.”
Gyuricska recently flew home for two weeks to visit friends and family before returning to the island for four months.
Around Christmas, she’ll be taking an exam she calls “the biggest test of her life,” which she has to pass before moving on to her clinical rotations in Miami.
Her residency is next, at which point she will no longer be a student and will have her own patients.
Somewhere in the process between now and her graduation in 2014, Gyuricska is hoping to transfer to a Canadian hospital.
Her end goal is to return to B.C. and work locally.
Until then, she’s known on campus as the girl from the Old Navy contest, filling her with gratitude for being where she is – amidst the hurricanes, bugs and all.