I’m a University Success Story, and I Think Undergraduate Education is Completely Broken

I’m an unlikely person to be writing this article.

In many ways, I could be considered a university success story: I used co-op to break into the job market, became bilingual, made great contacts, and earned a degree that (combined with experience) has seen me steadily employed since graduation.

What’s not to love, right? Results as advertised.

But the system that helped me achieve these things is deeply, deeply flawed. It fails students every single day, and despite the fact I came out armed with a half-decent education, it failed me on the regular as well.

One of the things my BA taught me is how to write an essay. And while that is not so useful in the “real world,” I think it could be useful here. So here we go.

My thesis is “Undergraduate Education is Broken.”

My proof is:

1)      Students don’t give a shit.

2)      Professors don’t give a shit.

3)      The return on investment just isn’t there.

If you’ve been to University recently, you probably can see where some of these arguments are going. If not, please join me on a journey into the land of postsecondary education. Keep in mind this is all based on getting a Bachelor of Arts at a middle-of-the-road Canadian University. I’m sure students from other faculties and institutions have different experiences.

(I hope they do, anyways. Maybe you’re doing it right, and can help us fix this.)

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There are a few reasons students don’t give a shit.

It starts in high school, where we’re all told we need to go to University because that’s just what you do. Students who aren’t particularly cut out for academia, or who are unsure of their true interests and goals, apply. They get in.

Why do they get in, you wonder? Because it’s a fucking business transaction, that’s why.  Schools spend tons of money on recruitment, piggybacking on the university=job security myth. Once they convince kids to apply (because what else are they gonna do?), they squeeze as many students as possible into the freshman class. Admission decisions are usually based on grade 11 and 12 grades, which mean very little. Case in point: My grade 12 English teacher was a total hardass who (rightfully, in my opinion) gave me lower grades because she knew I could do better. Meanwhile, I met plenty of people in University who had high English marks but couldn’t string a written sentence together.

This truly sucked for both parties. Overprepared and underprepared kids generously admitted on the basis of super subjective grades is not a great start.

Here’s what happens after that:

Students who aren’t academically inclined go into crazy debt pursuing a half-interested “education” when they should be pursuing jobs or entrepreneurial ventures which actually match their young talent.

Students who are academically inclined have their passion stifled as they sit through (and pay for) required basic essay writing classes.

We all lose here.

This, combined with coddling in high school and cynicism about education in general, means a good chunk of students don’t give a shit from day one.

It may take a while, but (most of) the rest will stop caring, too.

Maybe they’ll stop caring when they first watch an employer scan their resume, and realize that coursework doesn’t cut it. Maybe they’ll be focused on hustling through 3 jobs to make their tuition payments. Maybe they’ll have a mental health issue and be discouraged with the lack of support.

Personally, my breaking point was when I was repeatedly forced to choose between the challenging courses I truly wanted to take and the bird courses that would allow me to keep my scholarship or get into grad school. Sure, trial & error may be an important step in learning, but GPAs don’t really make room for that. Higher education is often sabotaged by the pursuit of good grades (or, if you get jaded enough, the pursuit of a passing mark).

You know how this story ends. By the end of their education, many students just don’t care about school and quite probably haven’t learned a whole lot. The power of the degree is weakened by the low standards needed to achieve it (sing it with me–Cs and Ds get degrees!), and once passionate learners are now serious cynics.

I can only imagine how much that sucks for professors.

Unfortunately, some of them don’t care either.

prof-meme

There’s a story I sometimes tell about first year University, one that always makes people smile. During a 5:30 pm intermediate-advanced French grammar class, some fellow students and I started bringing long island iced teas in coffee tumblers to class. It was a perfect solution–our professor spoke terrible French, and the booze made us giggle at the many “etre” and “avoir” mixups on his powerpoint slides. When he didn’t show up, we would have a drink together and chat. He was late to nearly every class and missed a couple with no warning, so this was an important bonus.

I tell that story in a way that makes people laugh, but the reality is that it wasn’t funny. We each spent almost $800 on that course. Many of us had moved to this city and attended this school specifically to improve our French. It was my first semester at University, and this experience set the tone for how seriously I was going to take my education moving forward. We discussed making a formal complaint, but a couple senior students in the class were worried about losing the credit. All we could do was give him a bad review on our student evaluation forms. Following this experience, I dropped the French class I had signed up for the following semester.

Another particularly memorable communications prof often searched random theories from the textbook on YouTube, selecting the first relevant-seeming video that came up and treating the auditorium of students to what was definitely a high school student project lazily thrown together on Windows Movie Maker. A few other classes featured slides directly plagiarized from a textbook. Many students saw this as a “good thing” since they could skip the class. Personally, I wish I could have skipped paying the tuition and just bought the book.

To be fair, these were outliers. What was perhaps more common and unfortunate were the professors who were good researchers and terrible teachers–who had written great books and had stunning resumes, but had no interest in teaching and certainly no talent for it. Whether it was a heavily credentialed professor from afar who barely spoke English or a disinterested book smart scholar, we met a host of characters at the front of the classroom who were not overly interested in our education.

I should stipulate here that most of my professors were wonderful, though I’m sure a few struggled with the system themselves. A system which often keeps profs perpetually part-time, regardless of their teaching talents. A system which sees teaching as a side project. A system which churns out apathetic students who thwart any effort to be innovative. A system which often overlooks its obligation to undergrad students, focusing instead on graduate programs and research grants.

In so many ways, we are ripping both kids and their teachers off and fumbling a valuable piece of continuing education.

uncertain
The graduation face.

Now we come to the part about ROI (return on investment). I know corporate buzzwords suck, but I think this is the way we need to frame the conversation for it to make sense.

The first question we need to ask ourselves is a simple one: Does education need to be correlated with employability to be valuable?

My answer is no, education is valuable in and of itself.

Whew. I can already hear every dad at every University Open House loudly crossing their arms at me.

“If we’re going to be sinking 30k into this institution, my kid sure as hell better come out more employable than they went in.”

Guess what, worried parent #52? You’re right. Of course you’re right. We’ve already established that students are often apathetic, that solid course content and professors’ attention is a gamble, and now you’re telling me that the kid is going to graduate with shitty job prospects. How is that worth an average debtload of 26k?!

It isn’t. Unless you’re super dedicated to your field of study, it just isn’t.

And here’s where ROI comes into play: Education is worth an investment of time and money. But it just isn’t worth that much, not when students don’t even have that much to give and they need to create a life afterwards. Not when online and experiential learning offer plentiful alternatives to the University stream. Not when so many of the students aren’t even interested in a job in their field.

That’s not an exaggeration, by the way. Once, during a Q & A, I asked a class of second year History majors how many of them wanted to pursue a career in a History-related field.

Only two people in that classroom raised their hands.

Now, I think it’s awesome that people want to learn about History even if they don’t want to make it a career. I think that’s great news for democracy and society. It promises us more knowledgeable lawyers, politicians, and citizens in general.

But the price those kids are being forced to pay for their curiousity is way, way too high.

…Oh, right, this is an essay. I guess this is the conclusion. In University, I would have copy and pasted my intro to the bottom, reworded it, and made it punchy. But honestly, I don’t want to drive these points home. I don’t want to “reaffirm my thesis.”

I just want this shit to change.

I’ve written about why undergraduate education is broken, because it’s a subject I know well. But what I wish I could write is why, and how, we should fix it.

As someone who wholeheartedly adores education in all its forms, I just want this to get better. Ideas welcome.

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And we are all terrified (but in a good way)

I have been witness to a lot of happy dances this week. I’ve “liked” an obscene number of Facebook statuses. I’ve high fived and comforted and clinked glasses with many excited-slash-nervous students–my friends for the last four years. Everyone’s too tired from the essays and exams to really process that they’re graduating, that this is it. We all talk about it like we know what it means, but we all have no idea. We’re excited, definitely, but we have no idea.

I sit in the student bar, splitting a pitcher, smiling, counting the days, complaining about the weather. I’m not graduating. I have a semester left in my program, thanks to co-op. I graduate next winter, maybe even next spring. I’m just a cheerleader in the middle of this mass exodus. And that’s a big difference, no doubt. A girl I met in residence, who grew so close we even road tripped to my parents’ house, is moving to New Brunswick with her boyfriend soon. Another good friend, an old University roommate, just celebrated her acceptance to grad school. She’s moving. She’s going to be a teacher.

A lot of people are going to be teachers. Or lawyers, or people-with-Masters-degrees. Or they’re just going to find a job, travel some, hope that they’re enough for whatever system they’re thrown into. People are moving to Toronto, to Montreal, to wherever they got accepted. Some are just going “home.”

I wonder how, after 4 years of University, anyone really knows where “home” is.

The people with plans and grad school acceptance letters seem very comfortable with the whole thing. They have a next step in the foreseeable future, and that’s great. I’m happy for them, and I’m jealous of them, and–deep down, really deep down–I’m quite okay with not being them.

Plans and I don’t have the best history. It’s always been about more about possibilities than plans.

Everyone is tired. I see the congratulatory hugs, the crying fits from rejection letters, cheerful bursts of “YOU GUYS, I just finished the last class of my University career EVER.” It’s exciting, it’s anti-climactic, and it must be exhausting. No one knows how to express what they’re feeling. They don’t know who they can relate to. They don’t know if they’re doing it right, if they did it right, if they’re going to do it right. They just know they’re done. They’re staring down the barrel of “So, sweetie, what are your plans after you graduate?”

I feel like I’m cheating the system somehow, by not graduating at the same time as everyone else, by not having a concrete plan for when I do. But I know it’s always been more about possibilities than plans. I like that. Possibilities have more room to move than plans. They’re more fun to chase, easier to move on from. I’m surrounded by them. We all are, and that makes us damn lucky.

And maybe that’s what people are having trouble expressing. The fact that University was one massive possibility, and we picked it, and we’re going to finish it. The fact that there were a million different possibilities within that University–programs, courses, people, dates, clubs, crams, apartments, attitudes. We tried them out. Stuff happened. We learned which possibilities work for us…and which ones really don’t.

And now–at least in a way, at least for some of us–it’s over. Those possibilities are gone. They’re replaced with a million more possibilities, this time in the real world, and that’s awesome slash scary. It’s scary for the people navigating falliable “plans,” and it’s scary for the people grasping at “now what”s. It’s scary for the ones leaving and the ones left behind.

Of course it is.

Possibilities are overwhelming. Watching a possibility become reality can feel surreal.  The thought that the possibility you’ve been dreaming about and working towards might not happen is horrifying. And, of course, there are a million more possibilities where that one came from.

But knowing these people who are graduating, knowing what they’re capable of, knowing how much they care…I can only imagine what kind of badassery will come out of the right person meeting the right possibility. I’m excited. I’m scared.

But I think we’re terrified in a good way.

 

In Defence of Playing Dress Up

Lately, I’ve been thinking about my makeup habits a lot.

Why do I wear this stuff? How I justify hauling a “mask” of sorts around town? What am I trying to prove? What am I trying to hide? 

While sometimes the answer is “Um, obviously you’re trying to hide that pimple, Shauna,” I have realized that these questions as a whole are flawed. My makeup isn’t really a mask.

IMG_8802Story time.

Growing up, my mother rarely wore makeup. She was a low-maintenance country girl and, perhaps more importantly, she had four little people to look after. I was the oldest of these, and the only girl.

On very special occasions, my mother would unleash the mystical cosmetics bag. I would watch, fascinated, as she expertly curled her lashes and powdered her face with whatever-that-stuff-was. She would share her eye shadow with me (just a little bit, just for fun) and I would giggle as I buried my little feet in her size-8 shoes.

Dress up was one of my favourite games.

My day-to-day makeup free momma was no more or less beautiful than the date night version, and she was certainly no more or less my momma. Still, I really dug the special-occasions grooming process. I loved watching my mother ceremonially draw on her face before leaving us with the babysitter. Once, in one of my most embarrassing moments ever, I even stole red nail polish from my her bathroom and tried to use it as lipstick.

(Wait. Let’s just take a moment to reflect on how stupid that was.)

Fast forward through a few face paint faux pas and the turtleneck-centric middle school years, and I found myself in the dress up big leagues. High school meant my choices were endless and personal. It also meant that the factors influencing those choices were complicated. I had more self to express, more peers to please, more categories and clothes and I finally got my ears pierced. 

So I shaved my head, then dyed my hair brown for awhile. I went through everything from au naturel months, to questionably bold colours, earthy tones, pinkish glows, red lipsticks. I wore cowboy boots. I wore sneakers. I wore huge hoop earrings and tiny necklaces. I stole (borrowed?) my mother’s nail polish once again, and actually managed to finally use it right.

This was dress up. This was the same game my mother played when she got ready for a night on the town. The same game I played as a giggly little kid, stumbling around in mom’s shoes with 20 different barrettes falling out of my hair. 

…and it’s the game I play now, as I try on my third outfit and rush through my current eyeliner-infused routine each morning.

And so the questions follow:

Why do I keep playing this game? Am I trying to be something I’m not?

Hardly.

Actually, as I look back on my life, it appears to be quite the opposite: Dress up isn’t about denying who I am. It is a part of who I am.

Is part of the motive to look pretty? Of course it is. I felt pretty in my twenty barrettes when I was five, in my vintage earrings and cowboy boots at 16, and in my big-kid makeup yesterday. No, I don’t believe I owe it to anyone to be consistently attractive (though for some people that’s a thing, and it shouldn’t be). I just believe that feeling pretty feels good. work really freakin’ hard to be beautiful on the inside (not sure if that’s a weird/vain thing to say), so sometimes it’s nice to feel like my face is a part of that. 

Do I try to look pretty for other people sometimes? Of course I do (‘sup, hormones?). But I also try to act nice and be funnier and listen better. Highlighting your best qualities isn’t a bad thing. And getting your game face on (literally) isn’t a bad thing either, not really.

Dress up doesn’t have to be about changing who we are. It can be about expressing and highlighting who we are, where we are, how we are. We just have to own the game.

You’re allowed to wear whatever makes you most comfortable. If that means sweat pants (helloooo Thursday night Netflix!), then great. If that means covering blemishes and highlighting features with a so-called mask of colours and chemicals, then cool.

As for me? Well, I’m just going to stick with what dress up means to me today: Reddish lipstick, blue jeans, and unmatching socks.

IMG_0793(2)Classy is as classy does, folks.

On Work, Play, and Goin’ Professional

“What would you like to do if money were no object?” is our most cliched career advice. In some ways, I get it. I do. I’m a shameless member of generation “follow your passion.”

But I have abandoned that particular question.

– – –

I was sitting in the back seat with a friend.

It must have been 2005, I guess. I was young. She had just shared the new Black Eyed Peas album with me, and we disagreed on the quality of the song “My Humps.”

(Yeah, we were really hip to the important issues.)

I digress.
I digress.

This friend and I had become close through the local little kid theatre scene.  We had both been through summer camps, community productions, that kind of thing.  She declared that she was going to be an actress when she grew up.  I asked her why. She recited, “Because when you have a job you love, you never have to work a day in your life.”

And I was horrified.

Obviously, I couldn’t speak for her–but in that moment, I knew that my enjoyment of little kid theatre would be destroyed if it were forced upon me.  Even as a child, the things I did purely for capital-F Fun were precious. And so, instead of being nice and supportive, I argued back (which I’m sure was super annoying): “Wouldn’t turning it into work make it not Fun anymore, though? What would you do for Fun if you made that a job?”

I wasn’t suggesting that Work had to be unenjoyable–at least, I don’t think I was.  There were a lot of things I liked doing in a “potential career” way.  I signed books out of my little-kid  bookshelf, organized by author’s last name (not because I was organized–I wasn’t. I just wanted to be a librarian). I regularly turned the basement into a carnival, a stage, a restaurant–anything where I could charge admission. I painted rocks and sold them. I rocked the lemonade stand. At halloween, I even turned my parents’ bedroom into a “mall” and charged my brothers for space and hand-drawn business cards.  

This, to me, was what “work” would look like someday. I created something, or did something. It helped or entertained someone, who then decided it was worth signing up for. If I was lucky, they might even decide it’s worth paying for.

I loved it. But the idea of those considerations tainting something I did purely for Fun was terrifying.

ForShaunaColour

– – –

The idea of being forced to do my little hobbies for hours and hours every day is not a comfortable one–it wasn’t comfortable in 2005, and it isn’t now. Work means being accountable to other people. It means meeting quotas, training, building, attaining results, providing something to someone. And it means doing all that OR ELSE.

With some things, that would excite me–but with others, it would be draining.  I love doing puzzles in my spare time, but I would be miserable if you made me jigsaw through my 9 to 5. I like playing guitar, watching sports, scrapbooking, cooking new food–but I also like that those things are not obligitory. That they ultimately belong to me, just me.

“What would you like to do if money were no object?” is our most cliched career advice. And I get it, I do. I’m a shameless member of generation “follow your passion.”

But I have abandoned that particular question.  Instead, I ask this one:

What would you enjoy doing even if you were getting paid for it? Even if you had to. What would you love even if it became a Job?

Work-style accountability can take the enjoyment out of a light hobby or interest.  It’s why readers often resent the books English teachers assign.  Or why people edit Wikipedia…while procrastinating from writing a report. It’s what makes some students realize that  they really picked the wrong major, because being interested in something and wanting to do it full-time are two very different things.

Work-style accountability is not totally unmotivating in and of itself.  It’s just different. It changes the reason you do something, the way you do it. If you’re truly passionate about something in a Work way, it can be incredibly rewarding and awesome to go professional. I think everyone has something (maybe a whole lot of somethings) that they would enjoy even if they were getting paid.

Even if they had to show up.

Even if they had quotas to fill, and people to please.

Even if it became a Job.

Right now, we just have to figure out what that is.

30 Reasons it’s Smart to Hire a History Student

When my co-op advisor asked how my current job relates to my History degree, I didn’t know what to tell her. Not because the job doesn’t relate to my studies–it does. Almost everything does, if you ask me. On the transferable skill side, there is just so, so much.

As I sit at the tail end of my History and Communications double major, resume full of business-friendly internships and experiences, I can’t help but notice how underrated the History half of my education seems to be. It has helped me thrive in so many work worlds–from the public service, to high tech marketing, to education and tourism. It’s time we stopped overlooking the History degree.

Here are 30 reasons why.

  1. History students are experts at tracking trends. They know how people, strategies, and time-stamped statistics work (or don’t work).
  2.  …and, yes, they know how to communicate that information back.
  3. When presented with a whole bunch of information, History students are trained to be able to quickly judge what is relevant, and why it is relevant.
  4. History students need to pick up on the jargon, locations, and terms associated with different historical periods and disciplines.  If there’s unique lingo, acronyms, or language that your team/organization uses, they will be quick to understand and adopt it.
  5. These kids know how to write.
  6. Oh, and they know how to summarize. Throw them a hodgepodge of random information, and they’ll turn it into a concise, focused, and coherent package (hey, maybe they’ll even make you a list! Eh? Eh?)
  7. They can recognize long term effects.
  8. …which means they can help develop long term solutions.
  9. And they’re aware that the world changes constantly, so those solutions (and their attitudes) will likely stay flexible.
  10. They recognize the need for a plan B (and C…and D…)
  11. History scholars tend to be naturally interested people. Interested people are the best employees.
  12. They know how to back up their points, and are champions of logical argumentation.
  13. They understand how individuals affect situations and organizations.
  14. They understand how the environment affects situations and organizations.
  15. They understand how internal culture affects situations and organizations.
  16. …basically, History students understand stuff. Or they can figure it out pretty quickly, after years of studying how things play out and why.
  17. Chances are they have an awareness of international relations and the history/culture of different countries. With our increasingly global economy, this shouldn’t be underestimated.
  18. They do their research.
  19. And they do that research well.  They know how to confirm data, to critically evaluate sources, and to filter out irrelevant information.
  20. History majors know how to make connections. They can learn how a system works (or how it doesn’t work) incredibly quickly.
  21. They are open to abstract thinking and ideas.
  22. These are critically thinking storytellers. They can make almost anything look and feel interesting.
  23. History degrees involve seminars and discussions, so a History student will have refined oral communication skills.
  24. History scholars genuinely enjoy learning, and they’re quick to do it. Throw them information, and they’ll catch it.
  25. They know how to use media and technology as a research and a communication tool.
  26. They work freakin’ hard. (I know multiple very smart people who tried taking a first year history class as a “bird course” and either dropped it or called me crying “What why is this is so hard?!”)
  27. They know what kind of innovative, thoughtful ideas have influenced the world in the past. This means that their ideas are usually pretty innovative and thoughtful.
  28. Most History students understand economics—they get how money works, moves, and influences things.
  29. They are trained on how to observe human behavior. Like, say, a client or customer’s behavior.
  30. They can organize ideas into tables and timelines like you would not believe.

Basically, studying History helps you develop key skills like critical thinking, communication, research, and writing.  History students can pick up on patterns and systems quickly, think in big picture/abstract ways…and still rock that always important attention to detail.

I’m biased, I’m biased, I’m biased (so biased, I said it three times). But, hey, at least I recognize that bias, and mention it when presenting a listed-out argument, right?

(History degree, yo.)

Had to. Okay. I'm done geeking out now.
Had to. Okay. I’m done now.

This is My Reality: Financial Futures and Fears

Whenever we talk about money, the people involved immediately become either spoiled brats or charity cases.  It’s ridiculous, really.  Read any article on student debt, homelessness, mortgage woes, or minimum wage. Read the comments. In the end, the conversation about anyone who struggles financially comes down to this: Are they spoiled brats, or charity cases?

…actually, they’re people. Just people. Thanks for playing, though.

When it comes to money, folks get defensive, critical, and oh-so-secretive…mostly because we’re terrified. There’s a lot to be scared of. And there’s a lot to talk about.  But we never, ever do it in real terms.  Not unless we want to illicit pity or judgment.

In her article C.R.E.A.M., Nicole C. explains how this difficulty translates in her personal life:

Friends either empathize because they’re struggling, too, or they squirm whenever the subject of money is brought up, which tends to happen in the form of complaints after a few drinks. Parents try to help out, but how can you truly offer advice when you’re in a bad financial situation as well? And that’s what people don’t see: When I complain about money, I don’t want sympathy. I want someone to tell me what to do.

So, sure, for every overtime shift you’ve worked, maybe I’ve worked two. Or for every tuition fee keeping me up at night, maybe you have double the bill—and are raising a kid. Say Johnny moved back in with his parents, while the Janey moved deeper into debt.

And say we actually talked about people as individuals with options and futures, instead of as spoiled brats and charity cases.

The fact is, we need to be truly willing to discuss the reality of these situations.  Click the four pictures below to discover four writers who have started the conversation. It’s up to us to keep it going.

Because honestly?  At this point, we can’t afford the alternative.

C.R.E.A.M.
In Debt Up To My Eyeballs
In Debt Up To My Eyeballs
Arrancado
Feeling Ripped Off
See the Conundrum?

What Kind of Woman Do I Want To Be?

Easter is always a major time of reflection for me.

…Okay.  By “always,” what I really mean is “Well, uh, it’s been a thing for the last couple of years?”  Being a young adult is sometimes like that, though. I’m quick to declare things part of my identity.

Easter weekend has played a major role in that identity, so it stays sacred.

I like the idea of rebirth. I like spring. The whole vibe that comes with things getting warmer/more colourful/livelier makes for a very positive, spiritual occasion.  I do a lot of “resolution”-type thinking around Easter. What burdens do I need to emerge from, butterfly-style? Who do I want to become?

“Stop worrying about finding the right person. Start working on becoming the right person.”

I read that the other day, and it stuck.  I agreed with the idea, but it made me wonder: what does the “right person” look like?

What kind of woman do I want to be?

woman

I want to be the kind of woman who writes thank you cards. Who lets managers know when she gets good service. Who writes appreciative reviews for small businesses.  Who lets artists know when they have touched her life, and lets politicians know when they have done the “right thing.” I want to be the kind of woman who wholeheartedly recognizes little miracles—and who approaches those miracles, if they have a face and a name.Who lives through gratitude, and means it. Who has a whiteboard on the wall, with a constantly revolving list of people to notify; ‘Hey, you. You’re alllllright.’

Celebrate people

I want to be the kind of woman whose gratitude is a constantly distributed gift, an open bar; not an investment with an expected return.  Accessible. Unconditional. Loving.   I want to be the kind of woman who is thankful day by day, step by step. Whose thank yous aren’t loaded attempts to control the future, nor quiet warnings of her standards.   She will never say ‘This is good. If I am grateful for this step, can the next step be just as good, please?’.   No; I want to be the kind of woman who is grateful because it is just who she is.  And when she says thank you, she simply means to say, That step was good. You helped make it good. Grazie, gracias, merci. 

I want to be the kind of woman with an open-door policy. Who knows her neighbours by name, aim, and favourite food…if they let her. I want to be that obnoxiously sweet lady-two-doors-down, the one who makes lots of casseroles. Funeral? Casserole. Moving day? Casserole. I could be that woman, I think. That would be a good woman to be.

(Unless the neighbours aren’t into casseroles. I am also open to making cookies.

…Dream big, right?)

I want to be the kind of woman with lots and lots of stories. I never, ever want to be boring. I don’t suppose anyone does want to be boring, but…if I’m aiming to be casserole-lady, I would prefer to be fun-casserole-lady. IMG_0102I want to be the kind of woman who was there for that thing. Who has the scars, tattoos, pictures, friendships, and memories to prove it.  I want to be the kind of woman with guitar-bred finger calluses, with laugh lines and dimples, with sun-kissed shoulders and tired, blistered feet.

I want to be the kind of woman who has mastered the art of witty retorts. Who laughs a lot, and who swears every now and then–because honestly, cursing sometimes makes the punchline better. Sometimes. Not always. And not in mixed company, I guess. Hopefully, though, I can be the kind of woman who mostly keeps company which can handle crazy stories and cursing.

IMG_0070I want to be the kind of woman who exercises. I’m TOTALLY NOT that woman right now, but I would like to be.  Or at least, I want to be the kind of woman who goes for walks, and can throw a ball around with her friends/family. I won’t aspire to be good at sports, or to be anything  other than clumsy and awkward when I play outside…but I do want to be the kind of woman who plays outside.

(Besides, I hear it’s “good for you.”)

I want to be the kind of woman who dresses up for Halloween.  And who puts up Christmas lights.  Who plays pranks on April Fool’s Day–and sometimes on other days, too (’cause she’s funny, remember?).    I want to be the kind of woman who has mastered the art of appetizers, conversation and corny holidays.  Who knows how to make a good martini.IMG_0849 Who has a solid supply of not-so-secret recipes and crowd-pleasing playlists.

(I know, I know, all of this costs money. And I know that money may not always be there.  Hopefully, I can be the kind of woman that is okay with that, too.)

I would like very much to say “I want to be a woman of faith,” but I don’t know if that’s fair. I don’t know that someone should aspire to believe anything, least of all anything supernatural. I would like very much to be a woman of faith–because I currently am, bibleand it serves me well. But again, not a fair goal. I would much rather be a woman who constantly uses the brain God gave her–even if that means that her idea of “God” has to change as she learns things.

What I do want to be is a woman of grace–you know, that thing that happens when personal values meet interpersonal compassion.  I want to be the kind of woman who can hold herself to a code of loyalty, honesty, and kindness, but who uses those things to Love better–not to be condescending or proud.

Right now, I describe that as being “Christian”.  I can’t imagine grace is confined to “WWJD”, though.

So, grace. Lots of grace.  I want to be the kind of woman who is radically patient with people and with herself.  Who has the courage to love the world, even when it seems particularly cruel. I want to be the kind of woman who can (gracefully, gracefully) step in and help someone who is hurting, and understands that “help” and “hurting” have many different faces.

I want to be the kind of woman who is continually educated and insatiably curious. Who speaks a couple languages, who knows her geography, and who travels lots and lots. I want to be the kind of woman who knows enough to be aware of the fact that she knows nothing.  Who has about 10 questions for every answer.  No, I don’t want to be the kind of woman who puts her job and education before family–family should always, always come first.  But I do want to be the kind of woman who brings the family (and the edgy jokes, and the free spirit) along for the ride–and makes sure the ride involves lots and lots of learning.  I want to be the kind of woman who lights up when she talks and hears about the world, and whose curiosity is infectious.

Yes; That’s the kind of woman I want to be.

What about you?

(Happy Easter/Joyeuses Pâques, everyone!)

– – –

A Semi-Informed Guide to Surviving (or maybe even enjoying) Young Adulthood
A Semi-Informed Guide to Surviving (or maybe even enjoying) Young Adulthood
Hey Christmas, Did you lose weight? You look different this year.
Hey Christmas, Did you lose weight? You look different this year.
Jealousy has a stage name. It’s called Inspiration.
Jealousy has a stage name. It’s called Inspiration.

Three More Things I Couldn’t Live Without (and the lessons they taught me)

Let’s start by addressing a point one reader/friend made after last week’s post“You gotta stop stomping on all your prized possessions, dude.”

As much as I would like to defend my trademark…he was right.  Here’s how that one ended:

Bonus lesson: Don't step on top of aerosol cans. Not even if you're trying to be artsy. Though, since this already went down, I could probably pretend it symbolizes something fancy...
Bonus lesson: Don’t step on top of aerosol cans. Not even if you’re trying to be artsy. Though, since this already went down, I could probably pretend it symbolizes something fancy…

Ungh. Onwards?

[If you missed part one of “Things I Couldn’t Live Without (and the lessons they taught me),” you can read it here.]

5) Guitar

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What it taught me: Don’t underestimate “amateur.”  

This is the latest and greatest lesson I have picked up.  Seriously,  if you only read one of these, read this one.

The record company I’m interning for has the single greatest outlook on music, art, and culture that I have ever experienced.  The people who have made Folkways what it is (guys like Moe Asch, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger) are wholly inspirational.   Take one of Guthrie’s famous quotes: “Anyone who uses more than two chords is just showing off.”

W.G. keeps it real.

A few days ago, the interns all started talking about their musical backgrounds–the instruments they played, the classes they took, even the  degrees they held. I tried to slide in under the radar with this one, but we’re a small group. The conversation eventually turned to me.

“How about you, Shauna? Are you a musician?”

Awkward. “Well…I mean…I play music, sometimes. I picked up the keyboard, and I sing I guess, and I’m learning guitar.  But…I’m not any good.”

You know that feeling in the air when you’ve just said something out of line?  The chatter stopped.  One of the interns, a guy who had gone to college for music, turned to me sharply.

“Don’t say that. Seriously. Don’t say you aren’t ‘Good.’  Do you love music?” I started to answer, but he did it for me. “Yes. Do you play music? Yes. Do you love it?”

“Absolutely. Yes.” I rubbed my thumb over my fingers, blistering from practice the night before.

“Then you’re a musician.”

You know what? He’s probably right.  Sure, I have only had a guitar for a month now. I learn how to strum from YouTubers with cute accents.  I know a few songs… if you count slamming down G & C chords over and over while reciting the lyrics to Thrift Shop.

It’s perpetual amateur hour in my bedroom, and that’s totally okay. 

The fact is, I listen to, learn about,  and talk music all day.  I get inspired.  When the clock strikes 5, and I race home so I can get to my own instrument. I play, and it’s good for me.  It’s sometimes even good for other people–I recently received an anonymous message from someone who was at a New Years party where I played the keyboard :

Hey Shauna,

A friend of mine from the New Year’s party (you haven’t met him) wanted me to tell you that: “[you are] really talented and really made [his] new years to hear [your] performance.[you] resparked [his] passion for music, [he’s] re-picking up piano again… after a 12 year break”

Is that not the most beautiful thing?  I guess that in the end, loving and sharing music is what it’s all about.

6) Curling mousse

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What it taught me: Embrace what’cha got.

My hair.  Oh goodness, what to say about my hair?

Well, I guess the first thing to say is that I have hair at all, which hasn’t always been the case.

 

Yeah, I shaved my head in high school. We’ll call it an exercise in philanthropy, since I raised a bit of money and donated the hair to charity. Mostly, though, the head shaving was a result of the same “Well, why the heck not?” attitude that landed me in DC.  It’s a repeat of why I dyed my hair brown: I told someone in passing that I would totally do it. The opportunity presented itself. I totally did it.

Most. Freeing. Thing. Ever.

The whole process was a pretty big deal for a 15-year-old girl, especially one with braces and glasses (the word you’re looking for is “teenage heartthrob”). Up until that point, I had all but hidden behind long blonde locks.  If my haircut was half an inch shorter than necessary, there would be tears. My 9th grade email address was busy_being_blonde (heh. this was also my creative peak).  Not surprisingly, the head shaving was liberating.  My hair doesn’t define me.  Imagine that.

Since then, my hair has been just about every length. It has been most styles, too.  One of the many things I’ve learned from all this is that my hair is irrevocably curly. I mean, it’s really, truly, naturally curly.  It’s not going to be un-curly without a fight…and I do not have time for a fight.  All I have time for is a mousse.

When it comes to my curls, I can’t beat ’em, and I’m no longer in the business of shaving them right off.  The only option left is to join ’em.

7) ‘Senorita Margarita’ body wash

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What it taught me: Smell is associated with memory. If you’re moving on, change it up.

New body wash is my #1 weapon against homesickness.

…yes, actually.

I first discovered this trick in high school.  I was headed to France for an exchange, and was terrified of myself.  I figured France would be awesome, but it was my first time away from home and I didn’t want to mess it up with my emotions. I wanted to be able to take advantage of all that awesome. I needed to make sure I didn’t get homesick.

I knew smell could trigger nostalgia, and I wasn’t taking any chances.  I very deliberately left my collection of vanilla soaps at home. It was a great call.

Smell and memory have the craziest relationship. I know you cannot completely hide from scent-triggers, but when you move to a new place, it could be worth it to smell like a new you.

(And hey, you never know…maybe I’ll end up bringing Senorita Margarita home with me.)

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Remember, this is the second in a series of three posts on “Things I couldn’t live without (and the lessons they taught me).” What would make your list? Comment below with your list, or blog your own version and throw up a link!

My Creative Frenzy: Why Alternative Projects Are the Best

This year, I was given the opportunity in one of my classes to pursue and “alternative project” in lieu of writing a paper.

I am such a big fan of the alternative project. It gets me in the biggest creative frenzy.

I had participated in the University of Ottawa’s Community Service Learning program a few times, so I knew what it was like to do something a little different for a class project.  I knew I liked it, too. With CSL, professors can offer students the opportunity to do course-related volunteer field work instead of writing a paper. In first year, I made teaching aids. In second year, I delivered an Aboriginal history presentation for some grade four classes.   And in both cases, I learned a whole lot more from those experiences than from “here today, gone tomorrow” essays.

This year, I took a Colonial American History course that allowed students to design an alternative media/internet project. My mind went more than a little crazy. I’m a History student, yes, but I’m also pursuing a Communications major. I pretty much lived in the Communications Technology room in high school.  I’m a new media diehard.  I used to make short films and write folk songs in lieu of writing papers in high school.  And, obviously, I blog.  Interactive/Media history? I had to get on that. THIS IS EXCITING.

It didn’t take long for me to decide what I wanted to do.  American musical history is fascinating to me. Really, the profound relationship between sound and society is fascinating to me, which I guess explains why I’m so excited to be interning for Smithsonian Folkways this winter.  It’s also why I decided to create an online resource exploring Colonial American music for my alternative project.

Check it out: http://soundsofthecolonies.wordpress.com/

A few notes from the experience:

  • This ended up feeling almost like an interactive, online version of liner notes…you know, like the booklets inside CDs?  How cool would it be if CDs came with programs like this to explore what was behind the music, kinda like a DVD menu? I assume this is already a thing that happens, but is should happen more–when it comes to music with strong historical/cultural significance, technology could be really valuable in bringing the learning to the next level.
  • The best way to make an interactive map? Skip the “interactive map” websites, and upload a jpeg to Thinglink.  You can add links, notes, and markers to images. Made for a really cool music map of New England on my end. (Teaching tool alert, educator friends!)
  • The constant battle: The more information you have, the harder it is to cut it into bite-sized pieces–especially when that information is circumstantial and you’re like “But…but..but…complexity…and…”. I have this issue with essays, too, but for some reason breaking it down for the internet required even more messing around with conflicting ideas to get to the core of what was going on. Filler was just less of an option.
  • Music matters. A lot. Probably more than I even suspected before starting this project. It’s such a big indicator of so many cultural and human elements.
  • I HAVE SO MUCH MORE TO LEARN. It’s weird to do so much research, feel so flooded with questions, and then need to step up with some kind of concise thesis.  Bringing everything behind your questions together in order to project some sort of objective answer is tough. I have information, yes. But I can’t wait to gain more insight.
  • I’m excited for the future of history, ethnomusicology, and education in the new media environment.  Interactive maps and YouTube videos and downloadable liner notes and iTunes U?  So much fun to play with.

I don’t know how many other people chose to do an alternative project. Maybe the number wasn’t that big. But just the fact that we were given the opportunity to take our research to a different place was awesome (not to mention, it kept me from falling asleep on the job). It was awesome in high school when my Native Studies teacher let me write songs instead of make powerpoints. It was awesome when my grade 12 World History teacher made our seminar assignment so vague that I was able to do mine on an interview with my grandfather. Community Service Learning was, and is, awesome. And, of course, this alternative project was the coolest opportunity.  I even got to bounce this project off of the wonderful people and resources at Smithsonian Folkways.  How cool is that?

Very cool.

Growing up Without Direction: Yes, I Drink Coffee Now

I just sent the following email to my father:

Dear Dad,

I love coffee so much.

Signed,

Your daughter who swore she would never drink coffee.

In middle school, my father embarked on a quest to get me to drink coffee–or give it a fair try, at least. This quest didn’t last long. I recall it ending mostly in frustration on his part (see also: all good-intentioned interactions with a pre-teen daughter ever). I was thirteen, dammit! I knew what I liked! And if I didn’t like something…then I didn’t like it. And I would never like it. Ever. Not even if you covered it in hazelnut syrup and cream and sugar.

[Please note: Hazelnut syrup/cream/sugar have A LOT more bargaining power in my post-pubescent life.]

Alright, so I’m a big kid now. I’m not who I was in middle school. That’s…a big relief. You should be relieved, too. Consider: I recently discovered a letter pre-teen Shauna wrote, heavily detailing her affection for Lou Bega’s “Mambo Number 5.” Also in the letter, 13-year-old Shauna cited the following hobbies: Singing to herself, making stupid videos with her friends, talking about boys, and “letting it all hang out.”

Pfft. Please. I now sing catchy 90s tunes to myself while I do my taxes. My latest boy talk was about my unrequited man-crush on Anderson Cooper. As for stupid videos: post-production, bro. Because I’m an adult now, and that’s what adults do.

It’s like Steve Martin and Martin Short had a sexy, gay baby. Am I selling this yet? No?

Alright, we’ve established that my tastes have changed at least a bit in the last decade. And we’ve established that 13-year-old Shauna was…well, thirteen years old. But there was one very profound thing she said in her letter–yes, the one with the Lou Bega, and the hobbies, and (this just in) the words “everything I do is just awesome.”

Here’s the profound part: Thirteen year old Shauna had a rough outline for her future. She knew what she liked, and she really knew what she didn’t like. But, in an unprecedented moment of maturity, she gave it a big ol’ subject to change disclaimer. Sure, 20-something Shauna was strongly encouraged to keep writing (actually, the term used was “make magic with words,” because it simply had to be as dramatic as possible). But…that was it. There were specific dreams and ideas, but they were beautifully tentative. There was a lot of encouragement, a half disturbing and half adorable, “You’re awesome! Because I’m awesome, and you’re me!” but no specific expectations.

Basically, I was sucking up to my future self. I didn’t know that was even a thing someone could do.

I didn’t know that was even a thing someone could do. It’s incredible how often those words apply. And therein lies the (very brief) wisdom of my 13-year-old dreams: the best (or, at least, most successful) long-term goals have been so, so vague. Not vague as in “uninterested,” but vague as in “unlimited.” They have had to be. The world is changing constantly and life throws so many curveballs. Somehow, even uncaffeinated 13-year-old Shauna realized that if you marry goals that are too specific, you end up closing more doors than you open.

So few of the amazing opportunities I’ve had were even on my radar a few years ago. Things that didn’t even register to me as possibilities for my life have gone on to define my life. When I went on an Ottawa walking tour as a teenager and my mother pointed at the guide, saying “You could totally do something like this,” it didn’t register as an actual possibility. No one would hire me for that. My French isn’t good enough, right? I’m clumsy and silly and auditions freak me out. They don’t hire people like me to do things like that. I would want it too much to actually get it.

I’m now entering my second year as a tour guide for that same Ottawa walking tour company. Amazing.

I am, however, taking a temporary leave from guiding for four months. I’m taking a temporary leave because the Smithsonian’s record company has taken me on as a Marketing intern. Try telling high school Shauna, buried in research on blues music and the Harlem Renaissance, that she would EVER be on the Smithsonian’s radar–never mind be working for Folkways. Just try it. She wouldn’t even know how to go about something like that. And yet–it’s happening. It’s happening right now.

I’m not saying this as an “I’M LIVING THE DREAM, BRAH. SUP WIT’CHU!?!” I couldn’t even say that if I wanted to, because 1) my pronunciation of “wit’chu” is awful, and 2) until we’re presented with “THE DREAM,” we often can’t even know what in the world it looks like. All I know is that I applied to everything. I tried out a bunch of cool-seeming things with varying levels of success. I dabbled in new technology. I avoided the word “No.” But how could I have ever known what kinds of things I would end up saying “Yes” to?

I had no idea. No idea I would ever like coffee. No idea that my affection for Mambo Number 5 would (somewhat) fade. And certainly, no idea that such jobs or internships even EXISTED for me to pursue.

My brother Michael, now in the 10th grade, has figured this one out. He told me this summer that when he grows up he wants to be “Happy.” Just happy. I had some reservations about this “happiness as a goal” thing at first, so I told him not to focus too hard on being “happy.” I worried that he might miss the real moments of joy in pursuit of some non-existent fulfillment ideal. He shook his head at me; “Your big words have no place here, lady.”

He might be onto something. I still think that happiness can sometimes be what happens while we’re busy trying to be happy, but…I do love the vagueness and optimism of Michael’s aspirations. Happy doing what? He doesn’t know yet. Something he loves. Growing up to be what? Whatever comes from being himself as successfully and actively as he can be.

I didn’t know that was even a thing someone could do. You really, really never know what could be out there. I certainly had no idea. But now I’m getting ready to face it, latte in hand.

Who would’ve thought?