Last Stop: Validation Station

I wish I could’ve told sixteen-year-old me, “if you thought feelings of anonymity were bad when you were an angsty teenager with a persecution complex, just wait until your 20s.”

I attended a large university here in Canada that I both loved and loathed for various reasons. We don’t have the ranking system that distinguishes Ivy League institutions from state schools like in the States, but like all post-secondary institutions, each one has a reputation.

Queen’s University is the oldest university in Canada. It was founded in 1841 by the Church of Scotland with a royal charter from Queen Victoria. As you would expect such an old school located in a city that’s known as the ‘Limestone City’ for the many limestone quarries in the area, the oldest buildings have a limestone facade with spiraling staircases, tall arched windows and grand entrances. The decades-old ivy that climbs the buildings turns violently bright shade of red in the fall, and the winding pathways through the treed spaces between these old buildings make for a pleasant walk between classes. By Canadian standards, these buildings are old and some of them are even older than our country! The oldest building on campus, Sumerhill, was built in 1839 and our country only achieved Confederation in 1867.

Campus in the Fall

With the distinguished appearance of the school comes long traditions. Some are faculty-specific but others, such as our Gaelic school song, the Oil Thigh, the tamming ceremony, and others, are university-wide and foster a deep and resounding school spirit. The school spirit is so hardcore that Queen’s students and alumni literally use the phrase “we bleed tricolour” (the school colours being red, blue and gold). The campus itself, the traditions and history, and the school spirit were all things I loved during my time there.

However, the school has a reputation of attracting a certain demographic and socio-economic group. As Macleans put it, “Queen’s has a reputation for being an upper-crust, primarily-Caucasian institution where students drink to excess, have a lot of sex and think very highly of themselves.” The Queen’s Players, a sketch comedy and improvisation troupe, even made a satirical video called “I Go To Queen’s” which was met with a lot of scrutiny, partly because it hit close to home for many students. Coupled with the pressure some students face if they are not enrolled in what I like to call the ‘ROI’ (return on investment) programs such as Engineering and Commerce, it can be a difficult institution to navigate in terms of academics and diversity.

I studied English Literature and I remember during Frosh Week, my first encounter with this kind of attitude came when my orientation group was walking down University Avenue and a horde of engineering frosh, led by a gentian-covered Frec with an eng cut (a 3 foot mohawk spray-painted three different colours) draped in chains, wearing a frayed kilt, and combat boots (not even kidding, just Google ‘Frec’) started chanting, “McDonald’s, McDonalds.”

Why where they cheerfully yelling the name of an American fast food joint? Because we, as arts students, were going to spend the rest of our lives flipping burgers at McDonald’s. The knock at our education was intended to be in good humour, but as I realized, the sentiment runs deep at Queen’s. It’s like students are brainwashed from the moment they begin their time at Queen’s. They’re completely convinced that there is some inane hierarchy of degrees which will determine your caste for the rest of your life. On the top you have ROI programs, on the bottom you have arts programs like Philosophy, English and Art History (the second I majored in, the last I minored in).

In my last year I was cornered by a guy at a house party who was trying to explain the mathematics behind the ‘drop’ in Dubstep and he asked me what I was studying. I told him English Literature and I kid you not, that beer-drinking, Dubstep-listening-to, water-polo-playing, Cro Magnon of a ‘student’ literally said, “why?” WHY? Are you serious? If anyone was in need of a liberal arts education, it was that asshole.

In spite of my brush with ‘socially unacceptable questions to ask someone about their education,’ my experience with the school itself was entirely different, particularly with my professors in the English department. Besides being the most wonderful collection of eccentrics on the planet, they were, if nothing else, adamant about the value of an arts education and the importance of the knowledge we were learning. To them, English Literature was as important, if not more so, than studying the human genome in an effort to cure cancer or studying the laws of the universe to explain how we came to be. Everyday I’m thankful for that steadfast belief, because from the moment I left Queen’s and entered the real world, I was completely unprepared for the rude awakening waiting for me.

Turns out, people don’t care about the arts. In job interviews, trying to explain the value of a liberal arts degree or a literature background was like trying to convince a creationist to believe in evolution. To put it succinctly, it was nearly impossible. Employers didn’t want ‘transferable’ skills like critical thinking or writing, they wanted job-specific skills and experiences.

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After six months of working part time at a clothing store and living in my parents’ basement, I was starting to doubt whether I should’ve just stayed in school and applied for my PhD where I know I would’ve been valued by fellow academics and lovers of literature. Maybe I made a mistake in trying to apply the skills I’d learned to a world outside of academia.

Then I got a job as an Executive Assistant. It wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for, but it opened the door to a role in Marketing and Communications which has allowed me to use both my creative and critical thinking faculties, my communications skills, and everything I loved about studying literature in a productive way that makes me feel proud about my education. After having fellow Queen’s students and potential employers explicitly if not implicitly disparage my degree in English Literature, I finally felt validated in my decision.

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Then, the doubt and anxiety set in because, let’s be honest, I’m not capable of being content for long periods of time. I have to obsess about things and make them out to be bigger than they are.

I kept running into my friends from my MA who had gone on to do their PhD and my newfound confidence began to crumble. They were so happy and there were so many things I missed about graduate work: being a Teaching Assistant, term loans at Stauffer Library, brainstorming paper topics, seminars with professors who were the kind of intelligent I could never hope to be, even marking undergraduate papers which, at the time, felt like the bane of my existence.

I wasn’t going to forget my time as an MA student at Queen’s, but I was suddenly preoccupied with this notion that, brief as my stint was, Queen’s would forget about me. While the MA program in English is significantly smaller than other programs, there are still dozens of MA and PhD students that matriculate each year. They come and go, and professors, whose time and focus is divided about 70 different ways between research, publishing, teaching, traveling and just generally living their lives, couldn’t be expected to remember the names and faces of every graduate student they had.

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Or could they? I was having lunch in a little diner around the corner from my office with a couple of people from work and I felt someone tap me on my shoulder. I turned to see one of my professors from my MA, an expert in Canadian literature who always whispered as an aside statements he thought are particularly scandalous (because CanLit is so scandalous). With the words, “Hi Jenna, how are you?” I almost burst out into song and dance.

HE REMEMBERED ME! I’ve been out of school for two years, and presumably there are a bunch of new, bright Masters students in the department who are eager to learn, but he remembered me! I’m a hoarder when it comes to some things (I have every card I’ve ever received and also, every university paper I ever wrote), so when I got home I immediately checked my notes and papers from his seminar. I wasn’t exceptional, but I did well and I loved the syllabus. Everything I read was wonderful, particularly Don McKay’s poetry (surprise, surprise! He’s a nature poet much like the British Romantics I adore). He remembered me and I was mediocre! I wasn’t a total failure as an academic!

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I don’t want to say this is just a Millennial ‘thing’, because I believe that everyone likes recognition for their hard work, but I’d be remiss to say that I haven’t seen a disproportionate number of Millennials seeking recognition in all the wrong ways (trying to get ‘Twitter famous’ or trying to go viral with some stupid video or trend). This is the kind of recognition that’s right; it’s not hollow or empty or fueled by a bunch of nameless, faceless followers on a social media site, but the kind that makes you feel accomplished and, to be honest, all warm and fuzzy inside.

It’s difficult to combat self doubt with confidence when you’re dealing with life-altering decisions, but keeping that anxiety at bay and fighting to find value and accomplishment in the choices you make is completely worth it. I’m not even the least bit regretful that I studied English Literature, twice. Even though my financial advisor informed me my net worth was so far in the negative, the bank would likely never loan me another penny, I’d do it all over again! I think my education is valuable, and I know I can contribute to a larger body of work or knowledge with the skills and lessons I learned studying literature, and that’s good enough for me.

So long, Doubtville, next stop Validation Station.

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