STANFORD, Calif. – Starting something, falling in love immediately and pursuing it wholeheartedly is normal for McKenzie Wilson.
When this rising senior started sailing, she was hooked; and when she read a story about humanitarian Dr. Paul Farmer, public health became a primary interest.
Growing up on the water in Connecticut, Wilson saw boats every day and knew sailing was something she needed to try. Starting at age seven, and competing by age eight, she committed to sailing immediately.
“Stanford sailing has definitely kept me really busy throughout my Stanford career, but I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Wilson said. “The only day off we have each week is Monday, but sometimes, I find myself wishing we still had practice because it’s such a release from the stress of class, or whatever it is, to get on the water.”
Since her first time on a boat, sailing has turned into more than a sport, becoming a central part of her life.
“It’s therapeutic for me,” she said. “Once you leave shore you have no other option but to leave everything behind.”
Sure, there are some days when she is “Tired, cold, and just miserable” and wonders “Why am I doing this?” But she has never been so tired, cold, or miserable that she wanted to quit.
“Practices can get really long when they’re three or four hours, but it’s still a release from all the other things I have going on,” Wilson said. “I still appreciate the length of it even though sometimes I’m getting tired. I always remind myself in the last hour of practice, which is usually the toughest, why I’m really out there and why I’m choosing to sail.”
With up to six days of practice every week, college sailing has allowed her to sail more than ever before. Calling it “sailing boot camp” in the most positive way, Wilson’s passion for sailing has not faltered.
In addition to the time spent on the water, the Stanford sailing experience sometimes includes lengthy car rides to and from the team’s practice location on the San Francisco Bay.
“We get out of practice right during rush hour … it can take a while on the ride back if you don’t get into the carpool lane soon enough.”
But Wilson isn’t complaining about the traffic because the rides, traffic-and-all, help make the team tight-knit.
“In sailing, you’re just interacting with the person that’s in your boat usually so having group time in the vans is actually where most of the team bonding happens,” Wilson said. “We all take turns DJ-ing music, or help each other out with problem sets, or just talk about different things going on in the world.”
Times in the van make up some of Wilson’s favorite Stanford memories.
Away from the Stanford sailing team, Wilson races other classes of boats that are not a part of college sailing. On the national and international level, Wilson spends just as much time building and maintaining boats as she does sailing on the water. Making changes as minute as moving a piece one millimeter to the left or tightening a screw a tiny bit more, Wilson has to pay attention to every single detail.
“I double check every knot and every sharpie mark I’ve put on the boat for different settings, I always make sure everything looks ready to race,” Wilson said.
Sometimes she makes adjustments based on trial and error, but other times she conducts tests. She sails with three or four other boats that are set up identically except for one small difference, then analyzes how they sail and makes adjustments accordingly.
Wilson’s love for public health started with a project in eighth grade while doing a book report and presentation. Struggling to pick a topic, her mom suggested that she read “Mountains Beyond Mountains,” a book about Dr. Paul Farmer – and after completing the book, had found her second passion.
She admires Dr. Farmer’s “way of looking at a person and then seeing more than just their ailment or abnormality and how he breaks down a problem. He naturally has the curiosity and common sense to look back at not just that individual’s history, or their family’s history, but their town’s and culture’s history.”
Looking beyond the “face value of an individual and diving deeper into the structural reasons behind suffering,” Dr. Farmer inspired her to pursue the field of public health.
Several high school independent studies classes later, Wilson finally began studying public health as a part of her major in the human biology department at Stanford. When Stanford added a study abroad program in Cape Town, she knew she had to go.
“I talked about it all the time and my coaches knew I wouldn’t shut up about it, so they let me go,” she joked.
Living in Cape Town for six months, Wilson focused completely on her interest in public health in her classes, work with local organizations and personal research for her thesis.
Wilson worked with the Western Cape Metro EMS to design a new community first aid responder dispatch software that is used in the call center where they dispatch ambulances to emergencies. With this software, community lay responders can rush to a scene, almost always beating ambulances, to manage the scene and prepare for the ambulance.
Wilson also worked with a local organization to conduct research on burn injuries and prevention. Focusing on community members’ perceived risk of burn injuries and strategies for preventing burns, she will use her findings for her honor’s thesis.
Wilson’s education at Stanford and experience in Cape Town have all lead to her most recent revelation about the importance of community involvement in projects and activities related to public health. She believes public health is about individuals’ and communities’ needs.
Wilson’s passion for public health will take her through all of the necessary steps of gaining the respect of a community, finding out what a community needs and working to deliver the necessary resources.
However, what did McKenzie miss most while in Cape Town? Sailing for Stanford.
For a girl with two passions as strong as sailing and public health, it’s hard to focus on one without the other.
Good thing she will be able to enjoy sailing with the Stanford team while writing her thesis on public health when she returns to campus in the fall for her senior year.
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