Conversations with McCall MacBain Scholars: Helen Thai

In the Reporter's ongoing series of Q&As, members of the inaugural cohort of McCall MacBain Scholars reflect upon a ground-breaking year
“Since receiving this award, it has been beyond anything that I could have imagined,” says Helen Thai. “From the financial support to the extraordinary access to mentors to the inconceivable opportunities – this is a scholarship that has, and will continue to change my life.”

This past fall, the first cohort of McCall MacBain Scholars arrived at McGill to begin their fully funded master’s or professional degrees.

 Launched in February 2019, by a landmark $200-million gift from John and Marcy McCall MacBain, the McCall MacBain Scholarship provides mentorship, coaching, and a leadership curriculum, while covering tuition and fees, as well as providing a living stipend of $2,000 per month.

Each member of that first cohort was chosen based on their character, community engagement, leadership potential, entrepreneurial spirit, academic strength, and intellectual curiosity. They are a diverse group, representing a wide range of interests and experience, ambitions and motivations.

With the 2021-2022 academic year drawing to a close, we caught up with members of that trail-blazing cohort of Scholars and asked them to reflect upon their ground-breaking experience.

As part of our Conversations with McCall MacBain Scholars series, we spoke with Helen Thai who is pursuing a Master of Science in Psychology at McGill.

Thai holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree and a Psychology Honours degree from Carleton University. She volunteered with the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre as a member of its client advisory council, working with clinicians and health professionals to ensure clients with mental health challenges are heard. Thai also represented students at the Canadian Psychological Association and was involved with various research projects, including one on the role of primary care for individuals with severe mental illness. She wrote, directed, and acted in a play about the lived experience of second-generation Canadians, which was presented at a local festival.

Where were you born and raised?

I was born and raised in Ottawa, Ontario.

What is your field of interest and when did you start developing your interest in it? 

I am currently conducting research under the co-mentorship of Gillian O’Driscoll, Richard Koestner, and Martin Lepage. My research aims to examine the role of motivation in treatment engagement and functional outcomes in people with schizophrenia-spectrum disorders. Underlying this research endeavour is an inquiry of the basic yet fundamental question that affects us all: what makes people motivated to get better in the face of unthinkable challenges and distress?

If you were to tell me three years ago that I would be pursuing a career in this field, the reaction on my face would say it all: utmost confusion. Growing up, being a clinical psychologist was never part of the plan.

But I began to realize, through the experiences of my own and of those around me, that mental health is a fundamental part of the human experience, and it exists across all contexts. I don’t think I have met anyone that has not been significantly touched by mental illness, whether that be directly or indirectly.

The recurrent theme of mental illness is both fascinating and disturbing, and the sheer statistics were enough to unsettle me. I wanted to learn more and from that learning (which is continual) and I wanted to be of service in some way. That motivation ultimately led me to make the most meaningful risk I have taken to date, which was resigning from my permanent position as a public servant to return to school to pursue a new career path.

Did you have any mentors along the way?

In the course of making this career change, I was fortunate to have support along the way. What got me here is not by my own doing. I have met so many remarkable, intelligent, kind, and collaborative people since making this transition. I am thankful to my previous professors and supervisors for taking a chance on me and trusting me with opportunities that extended well beyond my stage of development. Importantly, I am grateful to have crossed paths with people living with psychosis and schizophrenia, who inspire my current research and clinical endeavours.

What was your reaction when you found out you had been selected as a McCall MacBain Scholar?

I completely froze, so I guess you can say I didn’t have a “big” reaction. The first words that came out of my mouth to Natasha Sawh and John McCall MacBain were, “Wait, are you serious?” – and indeed they were.

So far, what has been your favourite part of becoming a McCall MacBain Scholar?

I think my favorite part of becoming a McCall MacBain Scholar is the continual discovery of what being a McCall MacBain Scholar entails. When I initially applied for this scholarship, I had no expectations (in fact, I nearly didn’t apply because the deadline was a week away!).

Since receiving this award, it has been beyond anything that I could have imagined for myself. From the financial support to the extraordinary access to mentors to the inconceivable opportunities – this is a scholarship that has and will continue to change my life.

Who is your mentor and what are they like? What are you hoping to get out of the mentoring relationship and other connections made through the scholarship program?

My mentor is Dr. Kwame McKenzie.

Dr. McKenzie is a psychiatrist and the CEO of Wellesley Institute, a non-profit policy think tank that works to advance population health and reduce health inequities by driving change on the social determinants of health through applied research, policy, and knowledge mobilization.

Dr. McKenzie is an extremely intelligent, attentive, and generous human being. His sweeping knowledge and expertise are balanced with a strong commitment to individuals, like myself, who are in the midst of shaping their career. I would describe Dr. McKenzie as a “mentor of the process,” he is invested in your journey and meets you where you are.

In addition to being mentored by Dr. McKenzie, I also have the wonderful privilege of being coached by Miranda Ayim, a retired three-time Olympian who represented Canada in women’s basketball.

Admittedly, I was quite skeptical of this “coaching” and was uncertain of how it would fit into this new chapter of my life. But as I entered my program, I quickly realized how easy it is to forget about the bigger picture, the “why” of my academic pursuit. My time with Miranda has been a continual reminder of that “why”.

We began the year with goal setting and the following sessions were catered to help me maximize my potential to meet those goals in a way that is meaningful and feasible to me. I appreciated the practical and strategic lens that Miranda embedded in her coaching approach. I felt well-supported and on track. Miranda’s coaching has helped me in ways that I did not know I needed.

What kinds of people do you think should apply for this program? What would you say to those prospective applicants?

My take is very simple: if you believe that you meet the basic requirements and criteria, you should apply. It still crosses my mind that I was so close to not applying to this program because of self-doubt and the impending deadline. However, what ultimately led me to submit my application was the perspective I chose to adopt which was: although I do not have control over the outcome of the application, I do have control over submitting it. Being in the McCall MacBain Scholarship program now, I can confidently say that opportunities like these are rare and limited, so you should not limit yourself further.

Learn more about the McCall MacBain Scholarships program