A Students’ Perspective: Thoughts from a graduating student

This post was delivered as a speech at the 2012 Student Award Ceremony by Kaori Hiruta.

A graphic of a black square with multi-coloured  squares in which is written, A Student's Perspective

I would like to thank the School of Disability Studies for granting me this award and giving me the opportunity to speak today. When I received the letter from Kathryn, I didn’t believe it was true. I thought that it had to be some kind of a mistake. So I emailed Paris to confirm that the award wasn’t for someone else. I was that surprised and doubtful. It is such an honor, and I am thankful that I’ve been given the opportunity to feel so proud of myself.

The award I was granted honours the memory of Emma Hardie, who passed in a car accident almost 4 years ago. I was reading about Emma. And the more I read about her life, the more I felt honored to receive the award. People who knew her describe her to be full of love, warmth and kindness. She was a dedicated disability advocate, international traveller, a new mom, a yoga instructor…. She was committed to academic excellence, looked at disability in a global context. She aspired to mutual respect, peace and inclusion, and was always willing to help others to be the best they can be. I feel strongly that I should demonstrate and live up to the award that honors her memory.

I enrolled in the Disability Studies program in 2006. I wanted to further my education partially because I felt lost without a goal. A part of me wanted to prove to everyone including myself that I could do this in my second language. A part of me thought having a university degree sounded nice and sophisticated. And of course I thought a degree was an easy way into a better career. Looking back, it was silly and quite superficial. At first, I was not sure if I could pass any course with the amount of homework and assignments that were expected of us. I was able to take only 1 or 2 courses at a time because school in English didn’t come easy for me. Even today, I do okay on day-to-day conversations and somewhat ok on writing, but reading at university level is very difficult and takes a long time. Sometimes I don’t understand anything at all. So, the weekly Black Board discussions were my life savers. Other students in the class posting what they got from the assigned articles really helped me to understand the course much better.

Then I took a year off to travel Asia including Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, and India. This experience and seeing how disability is perceived in different regions of the world gave me a new perspective on the disability, poverty, mutual respect, marginalization and more. When I returned to Canada, I moved from Niagara to Toronto so I could concentrate more on school. I felt like I had to give a bit more commitment to this, or I would lose my focus and quit before I saw the finish line. Quitting school was too easy and tempting otherwise. It took me long 6 years. And 6 years didn’t just happen in a vacuum. It was a lot of actively working at it. I just had to keep chipping away at it. There were times when I considered giving up. I wondered why it had to be so much work. I felt like saying “I’m giving you enough tuition, so just give me the degree”.

I wondered why our instructors always wanted us to “think about it” and “let’s discuss and tease this apart” rather than just giving us the answer.  That would have been much quicker and easier. But I understand now that the answers weren’t what was essential. It was the process of getting to the answers that was more valuable. To initiate, to question and to challenge what we saw on the surface was important. My time and mind consumed in thinking about the given topic was the real prize.

There are some courses that stuck out in my mind more than others. I liked the moments when I learned something that was genuinely interesting and mind blowing. When I was engaged in materials like that, I didn’t care about my grades or if I was going to earn better salary after finishing the program. When I was engaged in that kind of material, I was in university to learn, because gaining different knowledge and ideas are the primary purposes of pursuing further education. Moments like that reminded me why I was really in this program – to make myself more knowledgeable so I could be a better advocate for people with disabilities.

It felt quicker once I started seeing the finish line and started talking about the thesis. My professors kept on telling us to work on a thesis topic that was close to our lives. Almost to the end of it, I didn’t understand why. I just wanted something that was fairly easy to do. But I am glad I followed that instruction and followed my passion.  Yes, it was much easier to stay focused and work on it when the topic is of your interest. It is a long and lonely journey so if it is not something that is interesting to you, it is very hard to keep the drive to work on it.

But more than anything, I am glad because now the thesis is the biggest graduation gift from me to me. It has every inch of my soul in it. It is my determination in a tangible form. It is all my devotion finally into words. A degree is a degree, but this piece of work that I poured my heart into is much more than just a final assignment in university. It was more than how I saw my career in the future, or how I saw the disability community. It was about how my life will continue to intertwine with, and how I can keep my life in the midst of disability issues. I am extremely thankful that all the professors drilled the idea of passionate thesis. They gave me this gift that is now bound and sits on my book shelf making me proud and telling me to keep on fighting.

I’d thought I would get to relax now that I don’t have the school work. But my experience in this program has given me the fuel to apply my passion to practice. This is just the beginning. There is no way I would slack off my performance. I am too much of an advocate now. I thrive to make a difference in people’s lives and question the existing marginalization and inequality. Because now I see that things can be improved and that can be done by us. I may not be able to change the social policy entirely. But I can most definitely help a few people with disability and their families toward better quality of lives.

Kathryn asked me to provide some advice for the current students. And I wish I could, but unfortunately, I don’t have good tips other than to tell you to just keep chipping away at it. Eventually, the end will come.

The issues I encountered during my undergrad were mainly due to my own poor time management. I used to say that school puts additional stress on my life but I could have avoided a lot of it. I had financial issues because I couldn’t work as much as I used to before I started school, I didn’t have enough time to spend for myself, and when I was doing something fun, school was still always at the back of my head. I was always stressed out about exams and deadlines…. But most of this was because I would sit in front of the computer to do some homework but browse on the internet instead, or anything else I could get my hands on that allowed me to procrastinate. Had I not have dilly-dallied like I had, I would’ve been just fine.

I also realize that I could have finished in less than 6 years. I failed to plan my courses well. I should have paid more attention to which courses were offered at which semester, rather than just taking whatever I felt like taking at that moment. But I didn’t know any better. It was my first university experience. Also, if you haven’t yet, I recommend you to take the tutorial for writing essays and doing research at Ryerson library. My research and the final write ups were much more organized once I understood how those things worked.

Ryerson’s professors are great. If you need to communicate outside of class for advice or clarification on the course material, they will help you. Especially our program itself practices the acceptance of diversity. They recognize that the students come from all walks of life. They are flexible and accommodating to our needs. They want us to learn and do well, and they are willing to help us along the way as long as we are up for it. Keeping close communication with your professors also help you stay focused and motivated to do well. Review your assignments and exams that are marked by the instructors, because the comments they give you will help you on the final exams and assignments.

And above anything, put your heart into it. Try to remember why we are here and what we are thriving for.

I believe programs like Ryerson’s Disability Studies are important. Our program does not teach about disability, but rather, examines our society using disability as an entry point. We take multidisciplinary approach with the emphasis on community, leadership, culture, social justice, politics and more. We stay connected to the hearts of disability rights movement; the fight for equality, inclusion, respect and recognition.

Most of all, our professors have the strong vision that our program is not for the people with disability, rather, it is with the people with disability. I believe doing a degree like this is vital because we will then become the advocates. The program is for the students to learn, but the existence of a program like this itself is a form of advocacy.

This program shows us not only the traditional question of what must be done, but also, who is to do it. And that is us. We are in this field and in this program because we want to better support and advocate for people with disability. We must thrive to enhance the quality of lives for those who are marginalized. We have to stay fighting, not just some days, but every day. It takes a vision, it takes a passion, it takes small and big actions.

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