Reflections from an OAC graduate

Posted on Wednesday, August 18th, 2021

Written by E'layna Baker

E'layna as a highschool graduate and E'layna as a university graduate

Reflections from an OAC graduate

The undergrad experience is certainly a journey filled with triumph, despair, and everything in between. From my experience, undergrad has done a fine job of breaking me down and building me up in ways I would have never imagined possible for the naive young 17-year-old who was responsible for me even being here, at U of G, in the first place.

Navigating the wins and the losses that come with pursing higher education is not an easy task. The experience is in many ways individualized for us all, but the one thing we have in common is that we are free to open ourselves up to our unique journey and surrender to the valuable changes we are bound to encounter. Self-awareness, flexibility, creativity, communication, accountability, self-confidence and so much more are all valuable areas that I was able to cultivate during this journey. And I believe there is so much value in looking back and reflecting on how far you’ve come. 

Whether you are just starting your OAC program, halfway to the finish line, or nearly there, remember to celebrate your milestones and engage in healthy self-reflection when you are ready to. Personally, my growth over the years is so similar to the general stages that all plants go through during their lifetime – seed, germination, growth and harvest. And as an OAC grad, I think this analogy fits me perfectly. 

An OAC Student reflecting on her journey…

The Decisions – The Discomfort – The Devising 

Three students pose in front of a University of Guelph sign.
1st year: Me and two other Bahamian girls posing by the U of G sign during O-week.

The seed stage is certainly the most important stage in the entire process of growth. Without the seed, not a single sprout can be produced. Without a seed, one cannot even make the decision to plant! But, when the necessary conditions are provided such as sufficient water, oxygen, and warmth it makes the perfect environment for roots to form. 

For me, I would say my seed stage extended from the time I applied to Guelph to the end of my first year. That seems like a long time, but realistically it took a great deal of planning and deciding before I could even be enrolled in my OAC program of choice. The pre-plant stage is extensive! – For me it included things like applying for scholarships, attending a campus tour, and even connecting with other international students at START International.

My first year in Canada was so overwhelming. I was a seed surrounded by all the right elements, but I was scared that I would never sprout. In other words, I was a young naïve student who got into the program and school she dreamed of, but I was afraid I would never belong here. I remember calling my mom often during first year to tell her I think it’s a mistake that I came. I truly felt like she was wasting her resources on me. I was questioning my program choice and I found it extremely difficult adjusting to the new culture I lived in. But just like a seed turned plant, it takes a change of circumstances to expose how amazing you really are. And honestly, I didn’t want to think that way at the time – and that’s natural! A lot of first year students are unsure, introverted, and downright afraid. What’s important is to make note of your feelings but open yourself up to the process anyway.

After the prep and planning period, and that first year of discomfort, I decided to embrace the path I was on and offer my best self to my courses, my environment and my new friends. I started to tell myself it was more about the journey than the destination – even though there were times I still forgot that along the way.

The Morphing – The Motion – The Making

A group of students during the holidays.
2nd year: Group photo of Secret Santa dinner party with the Caribbean Culture Club (CCC).

Germination stage is where the breakthrough changes happen – where the plant grows from the seed. Given the right conditions in the seed stage, it would crack, and the newly formed roots would grow downward. For me, this period is probably my entire second year, including the summer after. During this year, I made the decision to change programs (from FAB to FARE), I got my first part-time job in Canada with U of G Hospitality services, and I was speaking up more in classes. Based on my performance in a class I took that winter, I even landed an Undergraduate Research Assistantship (URA) position for the summer with one of my favorite professors!

After my second year, I felt discouraged that I wasn’t selected for any of the scholarships I had been applying to for two years in a row. The old E’layna would have stopped trying and told herself something like “I guess you just aren’t good enough for a scholarship”. But I chose a different route. I was nervous and disheartened through the process, but I gave it another go that year – and received a renewable scholarship worth more than I actually needed. WOW!  I undertook a complete shift in this year. And it honestly felt good to be more intentional about my experiences, rather than looking at my situation as something negative and uncomfortable. 

I still experienced doubt, fears and questioned whether I belonged here, but I did not allow these thoughts to consume me like it did in first year. I simply let them come, let them leave and kept on soaking in my nutrients! 

The Trials – The Training – The Triumphs

Three students in peer helper shirts.
3rd year: Me with my Peer Helper buddies during the Multi-Faith Fair.

The growth stage is praised because it usually indicates to a grower that they are doing a good job of providing the plant with everything it needs to thrive. When thinking about this in terms of growth as human beings, this stage is usually where we feel the worst about ourselves and our situation. We question everything, we cry, and we think of escape routes because it all just seems like too much to handle. But like plants – what’s waiting on the other side of growth is a beautiful harvest, but for us this consists of renewed perspective, greater gratitude and overall, more life! To get there, you have to grow.

Growth for me was the whole theme of my third year. It was the busiest year for me by far. At one point I was even working 3 exciting jobs, volunteering and doing classes full-time. This year I tested my boundaries and challenged myself to dive more into the unknown. A big step for me was doing things like cold emailing potential employers, exploring my interests in certain hobbies and even applying for a role in communications (which has been a huge part of my growth story – more on this in a later post). 

During this year I experienced lack and abundance, peace and chaos, sadness and delight – sometimes simultaneously! But strangely, I knew that I was becoming a bigger and stronger version of me. It was the time when I truly started to feel like I’m exactly where I need to be and that this place was changing me for the better.

The Journey – The Juncture – The Joy

A group of students in formal attire, celebrating their graduation.
4th year: Group photo of me celebrating my backyard graduation with lifelong friends I met at U of G.

The harvest stage is when you reap what you sow. You’ve put in the work, you’ve aided the growth as best as you can, and the goodness is now all yours to have and to share. And just as it is amazing to remember that the fruits and vegetables we eat started as a tiny seed, it’s important to look back at your seed stage and remember where you started.

Many soon to be grads start experiencing anxious thoughts about the future, and a sense of shock and fright thinking about their next steps in life. And this is exactly what happened to me during my final lap. At the time of writing this, I am a few days away from my official convocation, and trust me, these thoughts are still very much real. But I’ve been sure to pay attention to the type of language I use when pondering about the future. I’ve learned that perspective is everything. Instead of thinking “What will I do with my life now?”, I think “What will I try next?” Instead of thinking, “Oh, no – I’m entering the real world now”, I remind myself that I’ve been in the real world all along, I just need to continue what I’ve been doing – acting intentionally and trusting in my process!

The joy of completing the requirements for my degree in food, agricultural, and resource economics is truly an exciting feeling for me. Neither of my parents obtained bachelor’s degrees, and as an extension of them I appreciate the sacrifice, love and attention that was poured into me to make this possible. We all have a story about why we’re here and where we’re going, and as a new grad, I believe reflecting on what has happened in my life over these 4 years is an important part of adjusting my perspective on what is to come. 

Reflection exercise for new grads:

Start a blank word doc or used a physical notebook or whiteboard. Place a photo of you prior to first year on one side, and a photo of you after your final year on the other. Use your own words and phrases to describe yourself and your state of mind during the period that the photo was taken. For example, I would definitely label a pre-first year photo with something like lack of confidence or fear of speaking out. I would label a post-fourth year pic with something like good verbal communicator. Visualizing yourself is a wonderful way to truly understand and appreciate how far you’ve come! 
Guided journaling questions:

  • What are some obstacles you’ve faced during university? How have you navigated them? Knowing what you know now, is there anything you would have done differently in response to these challenges?
  • Was I able to build valuable relationships with others during university? What are these relationships and what have they taught me about myself?
  • Have my actions, words, or thoughts toward myself or others ever been ill-intentioned or negative? Why did I choose the route of negativity during this time?
  • In what ways have my passions, interests and hobbies changed during university?
  • What positive qualities do I possess that were revealed to me during university?

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