Why I didn’t think university was for me

A fourth-year, first-generation student weighs in on mental health issues concerning academic stress

I remember the day I received my university acceptance letters through email. For most people, reading through those encouraging words should’ve induced feelings of elation. For me, I felt queasy. I never thought higher education was feasible, let alone possible, for someone like me. As my graduation date nears, I have to let loose a confession: my four years at UTM, though generally positive, have been riddled with deep-seated anxiety. If anything, I think getting through university is just as much a psychological battle as it is an academic one.

When I psychoanalyze myself concerning the source of this potent anxiety, I classify it under the archetypal first-generation immigrant experience. When my family immigrated to Canada in 2002, I was five years old. I witnessed my father—who had studied at the best university in the Philippines as an engineer—become de-professionalized. Like many first-generation immigrants, the Canadian government didn’t recognize the sufficiency of his foreign credentials. Subsequently, he was rendered unable to practice his profession. This story is not unique to me. Even our features editor at The Medium, Mahnoor Ayub, explained that the same process of de-professionalization happened to her parents who were once physicians in Pakistan.

Throughout the years, I’ve witnessed my parents struggle with this fact. I’ve witnessed them take up menial jobs, and then losing these jobs due to the Great Recession of 2007; and although their struggle was an honorable one, a chip on my shoulder had formed. In my eyes, it seemed like by coming to Canada, my family had taken on a huge gamble. One resulting in an unfavorable outcome—we’d given up a decent life back at home in exchange for the Canadian dream, only to later find out that this dream was unviable.

So, when I decided I was going to UTM, and motivated by a driving sense of urgency, I made a dramatic pact with myself: I had to graduate at all costs. If I could do that, I told myself, then this feat could at least serve as a balm to a deepened wound.

I spent my first two years of university adjusting to the academic setting. Although I was determined to graduate, I had unhealthy work habits. I pulled all-nighters, forgot to eat, and took social interaction for granted.

There was one particular week wherein I was so sleep deprived, I remember having written a philosophy essay that completely failed to answer the essay prompt. Needless to say, I was in a flood of tears when I saw the 68 scribbled at the bottom of my paper. By my third year, I decided to seek help. I sought out one of my undergraduate TAs, Veronika Draganova, a philosophy and criminology alumna, who had graduated the year previously. I shot her an online message and to my surprise, she agreed to meet with me in a study room for a brief mentoring session.

While I was telling Draganova my melodramatic woes, such as the fact that I didn’t think academic improvement was possible, and that maybe university wasn’t for me, she listened to me patiently—but she didn’t agree with me. By way of analogy, she convinced me otherwise.

Draganova said, “[In a first-year geography course], I got a 67 and it crushed me. I had never received such a low mark. It was my first year of undergrad and I thought ‘Uh oh, this is what it’s going to be like, isn’t it?’ Truth is, I just didn’t enjoy the course at all and I wasn’t a fan of the teaching style either.”

When it came to support for her academic career, Draganova said she received little. Although she did share her frustration with her friends, Draganova admitted that it was not always uplifting. Instead, she emphasized the necessity of self-confidence.

I think believing in yourself and not letting a grade define your self-worth is key. You have to find a sense of confidence from within because relying solely on others to lift you when you fall, metaphorically, will not be enough,” she said.

Besides acquiring a positive outlook, it is equally important, Draganova advised, to build strong work habits. She advises students to work in small amount on a regular basis.

She further added, “You will hear this often and for a good reason—don’t leave everything until last minute. What they don’t tell you is you don’t have to do it all at once. Break it up and tackle one baby step at a time.”

Now that I’m in my final semester of university, a different kind of mental affliction is hitting me. The phenomenon, colloquially dubbed as “senioritis,” is the opposite of the stress I think most students experience in first year.

I think senioritis is when you’re in your final year of university and there’s a lack of motivation to do well in school—the only goal at that point is just to graduate,” Cindy Do, a fourth-year philosophy student, explained.

Do continued, further stating how senioritis has affected her current run at university: “I didn’t really experience senioritis last semester, but it hit me pretty hard this semester, especially when midterms and assignments started to pile up. It got so bad that I would either submit papers way past its due date or drop the course entirely. I love what I study, but sometimes I just feel really burnt out and exhausted.”

Currently, Do has been doing half an hour of brisk walking three times a week. She said that it’s been working in terms of improving her state of happiness and concentration.

Student mental health isn’t getting enough recognition on university campuses—UTM is no different. I remember when I sought the help of a mental health counsellor at the HCC and the receptionist informed me that the waitlist could take as long as months.

I believe that mental health is a serious concern at U of T, and that over my experiences throughout my undergraduate career, I’ve seen that students have become desensitized about the topic. I have seen many students, including my friends, suffer from depression, eating disorders, panic disorders, as well as substance abuse,” said Brandon Le, a fourth-year finance and economics student at Rotman School of Management. “Also, some of my friends and family members who have sought help through their educational institution have told me how ineffective they have been with regards to the matters of assisting them with their issues.”

Le is also the recruitment leader for ASCEND. He explains that the group is a three-day and two-night annual leadership retreat helping students build relationships and realize their potential. I’m glad to hear about organizations like ASCEND, wherein students take initiative to help each other. So far, the fledgling chapter at U of T has brought guest speakers from jack.org and hosted an open book library mentorship event.

Writing for The Medium, and working as a teaching assistant and music teacher over the course of my university career have been invaluable experiences. However, I’ve expended too much energy neglecting my needs. I prioritized school and work over sleep. I worried myself sick when everything turned out just fine. And it will always be fine. Regardless of the gravity of setback, the self-assurance that life will keep going is key.



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