To say these past few years have been difficult academically would be a gross understatement. I, like many new undergrads, did not do well when I first entered university. In fact, I was like Van Wilder, except I probably took a few more laps than most causing my grades to fall and me to be withdrawn from school for a year until my grades improved.
Once I was back I took it slow partly due to working full-time and partly due to the fact that I did not want to screw up again. Fast forward to fall of 2009 where I took a course and met a professor, Bob, that really sparked the change in the course of my future. At the time I was working at the tax department and so decided to write my term paper around tax protestors, particularly vexatious litigans in the Canadian court system. I had never spent so much time and been so engrossed in researching something in my undergrad career and I could feel it, along with the course, was something special when I completed it. When my professor handed back my paper he took me aside and spoke to me with a great deal of intent and care. He told me there was a great deal of potential in this paper and it was being hindered by my writing skills, something I knew well of but had never bothered to work on.
“Promise me you’ll take steps to improve your writing May?” “I promise Bob.”
I still have that paper tucked in my drawer and I look back at it quite fondly now because I see the progression of scale in my writing compared to now. The comment written was the following:
“Dear May, you have all the ingredients of an A+ paper here. You just have to combine them in a more powerful way – conceptually. Just think about your conclusions, about the shadow negotiation, the social construct, and the Canadian – US differences – all very rich and complex [from my point of view]. See copious notes inside.”
Then below that comment it said “Concepts A; Writing B. When integrated, A+?”
…and then below that, was the very first A I had ever gotten in undergrad. Not only did someone see potential, but someone had gone past the hastily constructed ‘bricks and mortar’ of my writing to look inside the house. “Holy shit. I have potential?” It was a concrete indicator of something.
That following semester I took an English course on academic writing and hired a writing tutor to go over my paper with me in detail to fulfill that promise. I didn’t have a clue on what I was going to do once I had edited the paper but I knew that continuing to work on this once piece of literature was important. I’ve fulfilled that promise to improve and I continue to try to fulfill it because good writing does not end at some point of attainment. You develop your voice, your style, your form of critical engagement and therefore it becomes lifelong journey (or struggle depending on if you’re up till midnight right now banging your head against the keyboard) for improvement.
I didn’t know was how far it would carry me and I still don’t know but this is where it’s taken me so far:
In spring of 2010 another professor, Adam, in another course saw something in me and took me under his wing that summer. While working on something completely different he suggested many times that I apply for the honours program. I continued to tell him my grades weren’t good enough and my past academic performance wouldn’t qualify me for admissions. He was so insistent and so far in his encouragement, he invited me along to Montreal for a confrence and offered to contribute financially to the trip in order for me to see first-hand what could potentially be my future. I attended it that summer and I eventually succumed to his insistence and went through the process of applying fot the honours program knowing well I had little to no chance of getting in without the pre-requisite GPA. No one at the time had ever done this before. It was a really difficult time for me in making the application and waiting for a response because I felt as if my past performance, irrespective of the marked improvements or potential seen by others, would keep certain doors closed for me. It hit me hard thinking of the world of opportunity that I would potentially not have access to due to this ‘academic scar’ I had on my transcript.
Shockingly enough [I know it’s easy to roll your eyes in hindsight], with the two professors in deep support of me, I was admitted into the honours program on the condition that I bring my cumulative GPA up to the required level by the time I graduated. I was thrilled… until I sat down and calculated exactly what kind of average I would need in order to bring it up… which was a close to 4.0 average. An A- average would not suffice therefore I needed an A average for the next 10 or so courses, in addition to my honours papers, in order to graduate. I had only gotten my first A a mere 2 semesters ago at that point and the odds were not in my favour. I would only have to screw up once to see it all crumble before me and that terrified me for the next 2 years as I slowly took courses while working full-time. I had never been so focused on attaining one thing in my life and I absolutely did not want to let down these two professors who believed in me so much they took extraordinary strides to help me get in.
In my final semester, this past September, I realized I was 2 A’s away from getting to my goal. One of the courses I had signed up for was conceptually, the most difficult course I had ever encountered. It was taught at a grad level and included some grad students who would sit in on the course to listen to the lecture. I remember calling my professor Bob that September, the one who gave me my first A and encouraged me on to this path, and breaking down over the phone telling him how I was unsure how I’d get through this last semester especially with such a difficult course to get through. This course required heavy readings, intensive critical analysis and writing that I did not think I could produce at this level. The course by the way had a pre-requisite course that I did not have. I had actually convinced the prof, who was hesitant on my admittance into the course, that I could spend the summer catching up so that I would be fine in the course! (I felt like an idiot at that point). In short, this course was a completely new ball game. All the while I had just been promoted at work (still w
orking full-time) where I was assigned to resolve significantly more complex files.
I had some serious reservations (more so than what I already had) about graduating with honours at this point. I was consoled by Bob on that phone call who said that even if I didn’t get the grades, I’d still be sitting .2 points away from my goal and he would ask the school to reconsider. As kind a gesture as it was, I knew I did not want that to happen. How bad would it be for someone to put their reccommdation on the line for someone who didn’t fulfill the requirement and then have them re-negotiate the terms already set out? That wasn’t going to be me and so between September and December of 2011, I read and synthesized and asked questions and pushed and pushed through that monster of a semester. I’d break down home alone frequently on what I’d gotten myself into the last two years and wonder if I was setting myself up for this big entrapment where I was leading myself into some failing course of action.
In the meantime I had already completd my honours project and made the decision that I did want to continue to pursue my research at the grad level. I started the process of applying for grad school and had also applied for a scholarship in the meantime. I had not yet submitted my grad school application when I got my rejection letter for the scholarship I had applied for. I didn’t make it past the first round of cuts by the university and it would not be forwarded to the next level. I inquired and got the response:
“Frankly speaking, it will be tough with your transcript looking like it is — yes, the language about encouraging to reapply is somewhat generic (given that I had to write this email to several people). A gpa of 3.0 won’t be enough for SSHRC. Sorry.”
That burned me hard. Really really hard. “Did they even look at the content of my application?” I wondered. “Is this academic scar really set in for life hindering my ability to ever apply to scholarships or even worse, be considered for grad school?” I was in a pretty dark place for a few days. If the school was not ready to support my application for a scholarship due to my past performance, then what chance did I have in applying to grad school? Why was I even doing my honours? Was I leading myself down this failing course of action? I was 4 weeks away from my final papers being due and I was overwhelmed in managing work and 2 courses but prior to that moment I was motivated because I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. This response shut me down and blocked my ability to see anymore light for a while.
As bad as I felt and as bleak as my future seemed to be, I continued onwards because I still had a promise to fulfill and two profs who had their reccommendations on the line. So even though I was crushed in those few weeks I kept going through that uphill battle with school, work and that ever present cloud of self-doubt and measure of self-worth. I felt worthless.
Most students feel a sense of relief and are pretty euphoric when they hand in that final paper for the final semester of their class. I was not to say the least. I had to wait another few weeks for my grades to post and I was wringing my wrists and pacing every waking moment.
The evening my final grade posted I went for a walk with my old professor Bob, the spark that started it all. He was as crushed as I was about the entire situation of being rejected and listened to my trials the past few months. I had done all that I could have done and he still re-iterated his intent to bring my case up with the school should I not get that final A to tip my GPA to the prerequisite grade set out to graduate with honours. After the walk, Bob dropped me off at the Waterfront sky train station and went on his way towards Gastown to meet his party.
I stood on the platform and logged on to my student account for the 10th time that day to see if my final grade had posted.
Yes. The grade was there. Yes. It was an A.
I looked up from the platform, smiled the biggest smile and thought to myself: “There is no way I am not sharing this with Bob first!” I ran down the platform, raced up the stairs and got to the top of the entrance to look for him. I frantically looked through the line up of cabs and didn’t see him. I thought for a moment and realized he was probably walking Eastward towards Gastown so I started sprinting down Cordova street looking left and right and far down for him. It was this beautiful clear night and I remember thinking “I feel like I’m in a movie!” After several blocks of sprinting I stopped across the street in front of SFU, the place where Bob and I had met 2 years ago in his course. I accepted the fact that he had probably gotten in to a bus or cab and had taken off into the night and then I looked up. And there. Across the street. In his bright yellow jacket was Bob – waiting for the bus. Cordova is about 5 lanes deep and it’s a busy street so in order to get his attention and minimize commotion I started out slowly “Bob?” He didn’t hear me. So I yelled louder “BOB!!!!” He looked up for a moment, cocked his head a little and by then I had to take matters into my own hands so I started waving my arms frantically yelling “BOB!!!!!!!!!” As soon as I could tell he realized it was me, and it was only a split second, 2 buses rolled in to shield him from my sight. AGHHHH!!! (in my mind)
After what felt like an eternity the buses left and there was no one across the street. “He’s gone on the bus” I thought disappointingly. I looked down and thought to myself “that sucks, I really wanted him to be the first to know.” I looked up again and was about to walk home when I caught that glimmer of yellow again across the street diagonally from me. It was Bob! He was looking for an opportunity to cross the street! We made eye contact and knew what to do. Immediately we both started sprinting across the street at the same time and stopped in the center of this busy street to catch one another. Realizing where we were Bob suggested “May, we should probably get off the street” and so we did.
And when we got to the sidewalk, I took a moment to compose myself, paused, put my hand on his shoulder and said “Bob… I just wanted to let you know that I got an A on my final course and I will be graduating with honours.” And in response he smiled
and said “May, you’re normally a very well composed girl and so I sort of got that indication when you started jumping up and down and yelling for me from across the street.” We smiled and hugged and all felt right in that moment.
A few weeks later I received an e-mail that left me speechless. I had already applied to grad school with that scholarship rejection in mind and so I had strategically ensured I addressed my past performance. But this e-mail, really left me in awe of myself. It was one from the scholarship committee that I had been denied at the university level. I had been accepted for the next level of review. Shortly after a few clarifying e-mails and phone call to ensure this wasn’t some sort of mistake I had found out they had another call for more submissions and upon reviewing my application again, found it to be impressive and thought highly of enough to submit! Whether it was a combination of my grades finally being up there and the timeliness of my topic (protest) I did not care. I was absolutely thrilled at this unexpected change of heart. Indeed it MAY be possible to do the impossible in changing the minds and rigid parameters of the university. It also meant that if they did support my scholarship application it was a good indicator that they would consider me graduate material. There was hope for me after all.
And so comes the conclusion of course, I was admitted into the grad program at SFU a few weeks ago. The hard work paid off in spite of this perception of rigid parameters and boundaries set by the university in admittance/entry requirements and scholarship requirements.
I’ll be leaving my job of 4 years as of next week to travel the world for 5 months before school starts in September. I know great things are ahead of me and I feel so happy.
I’m euphoric – finally.