The University of Toronto, like all Canadian post-secondary institutions, prides itself in being a hub of brilliant minds.

While the university praises excellence and applauds the well-deserving top dogs, the stories often left in the shadows are those of failure.

The narrative of academic suspension is not heard of.

Students are placed on academic probation if they have a cumulative grade-point average (GPA) below 1.60. If students are unable to maintain their marks, they are suspended for one semester and are not allowed to enrol in any classes. After returning, if one’s GPA is still below 1.60, the student is placed on academic suspension for one calendar year (i.e., three semesters); if the student was suspended previously for a cumulative GPA of less than 1.60, then he or she is suspended for three calendar years.

Fortunately, VN, a fifth year student at UTSC, who was suspended for one year due to her grades, was willing to share how she overcame the depression and anxiety that encompassed her when she returned from her suspension and how she strengthened her academic resiliency.

The difficulties of dealing with failure do not pertain solely to disappointing one’s self, but also in knowing that loved ones and supporters have also been let down. VN found addressing the news of the suspension with her parents to be the most difficult. To this day, the experience has altered her relationship with them, as well as their feelings towards her academic capabilities.

“My parents were supportive, but disappointed. We paid so much money and I kept failing. They definitely believe less in me now. But I don’t take it personally. As immigrant parents, they want you to be the best, and when you don’t do that, it’s hard on them. Their disappointment has now changed to fear and worry. Fear that I will fail again.”

VN used the year away from university to pursue a college diploma as a medical lab technician. Yet, she did not find this experience to be a productive use of her time. In fact, her one-year in college was the reality check that she said she desperately needed to work harder in university when the opportunity arose again.

But this opportunity did not come without challenges.

The one-year suspension exacerbated VN’s depression and anxiety, both of which were heightened when she returned to the University of Toronto. Depression and anxiety became an everyday battle. And for VN, this new level of rock bottom pushed her into survival mode.

VN asserts that the University of Toronto did reach out to her through email, in attempts to direct her to the Health and Wellness Centre’s services, the Academic Advising and Career Centre, and the Writing Centre. However, VN claims that no amount of these services and professional advice would be able to help her depression and anxiety. The antidote had to come from within.

So what exactly flipped the switch from depression and anxiety to perseverance and unwavering academic dedication upon VN’s return to U of T?

Second chances do not come without their own burdens and responsibilities; they are often laden with the expectations and pressures of redemption. VN faced a crippling anxiety that she would be in the same place she was a year ago. However, what buffered these anxious and depressive thoughts was her acceptance of failure and her decision to embrace this possibility.

“I think accepting that I could fail again really relieved me, and because it relieved me, everything came together. I accepted that failure again is possible, but before I fail, I need to put everything I have into it. I couldn’t do any less than what I was capable of. And when I passed everything, that was when I realized that putting in my absolute best efforts gave really great results.”

VN became comfortable with the possibility of failure, whereas many young adults her age fear failure, and avoid taking risks because of that fear. For instance, many 20 year olds are afraid of switching out of a university program that leaves them unfulfilled, simply because this program would lead them to a life of greater stability. Comfort is rooted in taking fewer risks, in minimizing the chances of failure. Yet, avoiding feelings and the chance of failure becomes much harder as one grows older, especially when there are many other factors contributing to one’s success – familial support, financial security, health, etc. The thought of failing becomes a bigger pill that individuals are less reluctant to swallow at an older age. However, VN’s accepting attitude of failure better cushioned her for the harder blows that failure could bring in the future. Her experience of past failure has pushed her to take more risks and work harder.

“I think anybody who knows they have a second chance to go back would go through the same thing. I think it’s a human mechanism – you do or die.”

Additionally, VN’s accepting attitude stretches beyond potential failure, as she now comfortably embraces the unknown.

“Nobody knows what they’re doing, and those who do are very lucky. Many of us don’t know [what we want out of life and out of university] and I accept the fact that I don’t know.”

VN emphasizes that heavy anxiety weighed her down when she returned to her classes. And although she can’t explain exactly how she reintegrated herself in her classes, she stresses that she had to “learn how to learn”. Along with many sleepless, anxiety-stricken nights, VN figured out her own strategy to learn, by investing in the quality of her studying rather than the quantity. She also distanced herself from the stressful, pressure-filled environment at home.

“During final exams, I didn’t go home. I felt like there was too much pressure from my parents. After I studied, if I went home, I couldn’t sleep. I just lived with a friend for a week.”

This highlights yet another contributor to VN’s academic success: selfishness.

Selfishness is a trait that often has negative connotations. Yet, in this case, selfishness is positive. VN found herself becoming more aware of what goals satisfied her alone, and what she needed to do for herself in order to be happy and academically successful.

“One of the reasons I wanted to go to medical school so badly was to please my parents and ease their worries. […] And it’s an ego thing, because who wouldn’t want to be a doctor? But then is it what I want or what they want? On an airplane, when the gas-mask comes down, you have to put it on yourself before others.” After years of trying to please others and fulfill others’ expectations, VN is now looking out for what is best for her.

Although VN does not see the strength in the story she shared and defines her suspension as just “something that had to be done”, it is nonetheless an honest narrative of academic failure. The beauty and lessons that lie in her journey of “learning how to learn” underscore the silver linings of failure, burdening expectations, and life uncertainty:  They foster one of life’s essential assets – personal growth.

By: Antu Hossain
Editor: Veerpal Bambrah
Image by: Samer Lazkani

Categories: Articles