On comfort zones and unrealistic self-expectations

I haven’t always been as into social justice as I have been in the last few years of my life.  I mean, I was always curious about it growing up, knowing there was a lot I didn’t really understand.  I ate up a lot of the targeted advertising and skewed perceptions that media provided.  I dabbled in some social justice activities in high school, joining our tiny Amnesty International chapter, doing the 30-Hour Famine challenge (which I cheated I admit… I know…I’m a bad human being), and taking part in my friends’ initiatives to hold mini-conferences for junior high students on issues dealing with prejudice.

It wasn’t until halfway through my undergraduate degree in environmental engineering, that I was finally convinced by some amazing classmates and friends, to get more involved in Engineers Without Borders.  This is when I think I truly found an appreciation for social justice.  I found it empowering!  I was surrounded by so many remarkable individuals who shared this immense passion for disassembling and fighting against the numerous inequalities and injustices in this crazy world!

But by the last year of my undergraduate career, I found myself in a crisis.  What do I do now?  I’ve always been “good” at school.  Now that I was nearing graduation, I didn’t know what to do.  I’ve always been told what the next steps were, what I should be doing next, but things were changing, and changing fast.  It was finally up to me to decide the next chapter in my life.  I was mortified! Shit! I’m not ready for the “real world”! Fuck, I’m screwed.  I’m just sitting there, mindlessly busying myself, whereas my friends were actually looking for jobs and doing other adult things.

At the time, I was also getting deeper and deeper into this world of social justice and human development.  I didn’t want to give that up; I didn’t want to give up that family and network I slowly got to be a part of.

Then one of my professors said that she and one of my favourite professors were looking for a student to do some graduate level research projects.  I immediately jumped on that opportunity, and started the process of meeting with the professors and applying for graduate studies and scholarships.  It gave me a chance to stay in my comfortable bubble and stick with my EWB family.  I started applying for exec positions in our chapter and going on all the EWB things that I missed out on through my first 4 years of University.

The first 6 months of grad school went by, and I started going down this dark and dank rabbit hole.  I underestimated how difficult grad school was going to be; how its structure was so non-existent and something I wasn’t used to.  I also started struggling with finding meaning and purpose in my research.  I wanted so much to have my research project actually mean something; to have some strong social implication and actually help people.  I was slowly poisoning myself with my ridiculous expectations.  I even joined a third lab group, put myself in a graduate level class that I had no business being in, and worst of all, willing to compromise my personal and professional boundaries. I was becoming so depressed and down on myself that I had friends suggest that I should probably just quit, which hurt me, because I’m not a quitter.  I had pride myself on finishing what I started, and doing a decent job at it.

I was very fortunate however, to have two very supportive supervisors that could tell something wasn’t right with me.  A few personal meetings, an awkward break up email with that third professor, a winter break not knowing what I was going to do for a thesis, a trip to beautiful Montreal with friends and an amazing EWB conference in Ottawa later, things began to clear up.  That time off and realization to step back was the best thing to happen to me!  I could think clearly again, and figured out that I can challenge myself in realms I was still comfortable with, but was still forced to learn new things and that I can still make a difference, but in my own way.

A year and a half later, I’m rounding up my final bits of my project and writing my thesis; a thesis to be proud of and one that I saw a lot of personal growth from. Sure there were speed bumps and sinkholes along the way.  But that can be shared another day.

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