Choose science. Choose evidence. Choose community.

Liala Helal | August 16, 2015

A chiropractic student from Calgary, Canada, shares her story of how Northwestern helped her become a leader and high achiever.

Michelle Speranza

When I went on my campus visits, I got a good community feel here. Students were more involved. I was looking for a school where I could be involved and feel connected.”

When Michelle Speranza tested for her first-degree black belt in Tae Kwon-Do at age 14, she was halfway through the test when the challenge felt like too much.

“I wanted to be done,” she recalls. “I was tired mentally, physically and emotionally. I didn’t think it was going well, I had screwed up a few times.”

That was the most challenging test she had taken so far since starting Tae Kwon-Do at age 10. But her instructor would not let her quit in the middle of the test. He reminded her that quitting was not part of their tenants, and said, “This is not the type of student we raised you to be.”

“You persevere, and if you have to retake the test, you retake it, but you do not give up,” Speranza recalls her instructor saying to her as she was in a state of physical exhaustion and her mental outlook was drained.

With all her might, she held onto the thought that she could make it through and it would be better on the other side, and ended up passing the test.

That encouraging voice in the back of her mind since then has followed her though life and still plays a role now as she studies chiropractic at Northwestern. Her mentors are the reason she feels the need to give back.

Speranza, who holds a bachelor of science degree in anatomy and cell biology from the University of Saskatchewan, is involved in tutoring students one-on-one and in groups for help with Northwestern’s science classes. She holds the position on Student Senate of chair of the volunteer/club committee. She has held positions such as vice president of Club Mariposa, co-prime minister of Canadian Club, and volunteers on and off with Student Ambassadors. She also participates in leadership conferences with Northwestern’s chapter of the Student American Chiropractic Association (SACA).

In her involvement, she hopes to have the same impact on others as her own mentors have had on her. Although she views herself as a leader, she was surprised to learn she was the recipient of this year’s Student Leadership Hall of Fame 2014-15 award.student leadership dinner 2015

Having moved to many new places after high school, Speranza said she also gets involved because it’s the best way to learn and grow, even though it may be scary to go outside of your comfort zone.

“When you’re moving to a place you’ve never been, it can be really hard to step outside your comfort zone and get involved and create a network of support, but if you don’t have that support, and people to reach out to who can help you, it can make or break you,” Speranza said about her search for a chiropractic school that would offer support. “I found the best way to make a connection somewhere, get to know people, get to know the place, is to push yourself to get involved and get out of your comfort zone. And from there, it just spiraled.”

She views tutoring as a two-way street. “You learn from tutoring as well,” she said. “You come up with different ways of thinking about concepts. You share with each other and spread the knowledge. And you get different ideas from students, too — ideas for events or new concepts for other clubs you’re part of.”

Speranza is driven by service to others, even if it means she’s thrown into unfamiliar surroundings. She volunteered in Equador, where she worked in a hospital lab doing blood and urine analysis. “I didn’t speak a word of Spanish, and they didn’t speak a word of English,” she said. “We used lots of pictures and hand gestures.”

Immediately after graduating high school, Speranza volunteered for one year with Canada World Youth, where she and others lived in a different Canadian community with Chinese exchange youth for six months, and then spent six months in China and lived with the Chinese youth’s families. In China, she was exposed to Chinese medicine, holistic treatments, acupuncture and herbal medicine. That opened up her mind to a new view of medicine and taught her how to thrive in new environments.

Knowing she wanted to enter the medical field, Speranza explored during her undergraduate studies, but she was looking for something other than a hospital setting. A chiropractic neurologist visited her school one day, and after hearing the guest speaker, she was sure that’s what she wanted to do. She geared her undergraduate curriculum toward chiropractic from that day forward and hopes to specialize in neurology.

The speaker’s passion and the way he described his work caught her attention. She learned that using hands to directly treat patients gives chiropractors a deeper connection with patients, instead of just prescribing medicine.

I knew there was something about Western medicine I didn’t like, it felt like a more distant approach. I like how chiropractic focuses on the neuromusculoskeletal system and the whole patient. Western medicine is not a deep connection with patients, it just seems more superficial, and it wasn’t the way I wanted to practice."

Viewing the whole patient is an approach that’s in line with her interests of solving puzzles using science. She was attracted to Northwestern because of the major emphasis on science. She originally planned on becoming a forensic scientist when she began her undergraduate studies.

“Then I realized I wanted to work with living people,” she said with a laugh. “I’ve always been a science geek. I love evidence-based material. I like figuring out how something works, why it works, and knowing the evidence to back it up.”

Her Northwestern education is preparing her with a strong scientific curriculum and a place where she can put many of her other talents to use. She chose Northwestern for the science emphasis and the feeling she got when she first visited on Discovery Day: a tight-knit community with plenty of extracurricular opportunities.

"When I went on my campus visits, I got a good community feel here," Speranza said. "Students were more involved. I was looking for a school where I could be involved and feel connected.”

A connection to people and a solid use of science are two of the most important things she plans on taking into her future career as a chiropractor.

“I want to get to know the whole patient and use multiple approaches to finding the root cause of the complaint, like nutrition or lifestyle changes,” she said. “It kind of goes back to the forensic science interest — solving the puzzle but with a different application.”

Winning the leadership award has allowed Speranza to stop and recognize her achievements, something she seldom does as she focuses on what more she can do, in an almost constant state of aiming higher and a desire to always do better tomorrow than she did today. Her first undergraduate university, before transferring to the University of Saskatchewan, was very competitive, cut-throat, and had many students competing against one another because the vast majority of students in the program were planning on going into medical school.

“But I like competing with myself,” she said. “It has ingrained in me a sense of self-competition. I challenge myself to do better and grow, which can be both a blessing and a curse.”

She doesn’t mind competition, as long as it’s for the right reasons.

 “I’m definitely a perfectionist, I’m always trying to do better to the point it can wear you down,” she said. “I try to look at the big picture, take a step back, see how far I’ve come. The award recognition allowed me to take a step back and do that.”

And like in Tae Kwon-Do, where individuals work their way up the belt levels, Northwestern is like a second family to her  — where the work is individual as people work their way up the trimesters, but also team-based in learning, growing and making an impact.

“You work your way up the levels and there’s no end to it, and at the same time, you’re working together toward the same end goal and supporting each other,” she said.

Speranza’s impact, dedication and sacrifice is well-known among the Northwestern community.

“Students, staff and faculty see her as being totally dedicated to her peers, her profession and Northwestern,” said Dr. Emily Tweed, vice president of student affairs and enrollment management. “This is an award that gives us the opportunity to recognize students who go above and beyond the call of duty, think outside the box and are go-getters,”

She was chosen through nominations from students, faculty, and leadership.

“I was very touched that I would’ve been even nominated for it. I remember being very shaken — in shock at the time. I couldn’t stop shaking,” Speranza said. “It motivates me to continue with everything I am doing. I became involved to see if I can give back and influence people the same way my role models influenced me.”

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