Western bodes many of my best and memorable experiences. It began in Delaware Hall where I became ingrained in the Residence Life program. It led me to become a Rez Soph and then a Residence Staff member. I eventually found myself at Communications & Public Affairs, did University Students’ Council, taught as a TA and wrapped up my service to the community as a Graduate Student Senator on the university Senate.
All were meaningful and life-changing experiences that fundamentally galvanized my understanding of what academia meant for me. Best of all, I had the privilege to surround myself with inspiring students, faculty and staff who celebrated their differences.
As a student, I was eager to soak in knowledge and supplant academic achievement for wisdom. I wasn’t drawn to be a lawyer, a doctor or even to attend business school – all respectable achievements, but none ‘irritated’ me. I only wanted to grapple complex problems – not necessarily solve them myself, rather to just work towards something grander.
My wish came true.
I had tremendous difficulty conducting my master’s degree research. While I picked a topic that ‘irritated’ me, which was satisfying in theory, I couldn’t do anything. I struggled to write one sentence or even retain a modicum of focus. My courage waned and annoyingly, my anxiety grew.
I failed to respect the research process. Graduate-level research is incredibly introspective and can challenge you in a number of ways. The isolation one experiences doesn’t mitigate the situation, either. Because I was ill prepared for the journey ahead, it opened my Pandora’s Box. Something I have always dreaded. Every point of failure I ignored in the past reigned down and took me hostage.
I used to assuage my failings as minor inconveniences, like throwing junk in a hoarder’s closet. No one, including me, needed to see it. But I was completely aware of what was happening and did nothing. Like a scared bystander, I witnessed my rational faculties slip without any regard for my wellbeing. I became benumbed, apathetic and demoralized.
It then turned into resentment. I faulted others for my circumstances. It wasn’t clear that all my problems were my fault. I let this happen because I lacked leadership over my actions. When I looked in the mirror, all I saw was a broken and arrogant person that ignored opportunities to improve. I felt it was over for me.
But one day, it occurred to me that no matter how broken everything seemed up close, there was an element of awe when you stand afar, like how we fawn at Canada’s wealth of natural wonders. People forget, through no fault of their own, the natural world’s beauty is the result of eons of destruction at a glacial pace. Destruction is here to stay; it’s how we see it that matters.
In hindsight, this was probably a batch of mental-health concerns. I wasn’t diagnosed or sought help because I stubbornly applied a reductionist perspective (I recognize I may receive criticism for this). Appropriating Daniel Kahneman’s famous work to my situation, I viewed it as a struggle between two sides of my brain: the hot, irrational System 1 and the cold, logical System 2.
There were countless times when System 1 wanted me to quit grad studies, and I almost did (about 10 times). I wasn’t ready to. There was beauty in the darkness, I just had to illuminate it.
Clueless where to begin, it happened in the least expected way. One day at the public library, I picked up a book and just started reading. Soon, I read another book and another. Before I knew it, I read more than 100 books, fiction and nonfiction alike. Somehow I obtained immovable focus; I didn’t question it.
I grew a lot from reading, but it lacked action. It eventually became clear, I had to deconstruct and unspool my life by applying what I learned from books and notably, my failings.
So I pruned my social media reach, silenced unimportant notifications on my phone, slowly overcame my ‘fear of missing out,’ became a morning person (4:44 a.m. wake-ups), adopted new habits and tools, increased my physical activity, ate healthy and mindfully consumed entertainment.
Slowly, things started to fall into place. For the first time, the discomfort of working through the research process emanated motivation and strength. I was onto something, a potential path forward. I finally completed my masters, but not without its costs. I may not have been the best student for my supervisor, but she was the best mentor for me. Her actions reminded me of why it’s important to take ownership over your situation.
I’m not ashamed grad school may have taken much longer than expected. It provided me a priceless opportunity to change. Through the perseverance of reorganizing myself, I discovered a dream career and a life mission I will follow for decades.
Nothing in life should be easy. I realize now we need struggle to earn focus; there is serenity in this approach. Taking this mindset to my new career immediately yielded dividends. I’m truly grateful this happened when it did, regardless of how formidable the experience felt.
Failures and shortcomings are opportunities to define purpose and habituate self-mastery. With one condition. It’s only an opportunity if you see it as one; it’s yours and yours alone. Once anyone acknowledges this, everything to remedy your struggle becomes bearable, whether it’s reading a book or asking for help from a supervisor.
I am sharing my story because grad school woes are not openly discussed. Maybe it’s taboo to do so or perhaps far too often, blame is placed on the wrong people. When struggling grad students ultimately depart after months or even years over the intended deadline, they don’t broach the subject. It’s a redacted experience.
I couldn’t do that. My heart didn’t want to leave Western without sharing something I learned, especially to a community overwhelmingly generous to me. I came out with new life skills and a mindset that I feel is vital to the mandate and long-term success of academia as a public institution.
Bhavin Prajapati is a growth hacker at Crowdbabble, a social media analytics company providing a platform for marketers. He is an alumnus of the Masters in Health Information Science program and a former member of the university Senate (2013-14).