Another Year Wiser

December has finally arrived! I always love this time of year. December is a special time when we welcome winter into our lives and focus on getting away from the cold crazy world out there and curl up inside where it’s warm. Winter is also a time of reflection.

Looking out from a dark tunnel in a St. Michaels residence into an open courtyard with a large fountain

Almost through the passage, into bright newness (Photo by Zachary Biech)

This post is my last of 2014! Can you believe it? This semester has flown by so fast! I’ve learned so many new things, met many new people and had many new experiences.  I can honestly say this has been one of the most exciting half-years in my life.

The tangled wilderness and fallen leaves strewn around a secret garden behind the Victoria College library

I’ve done so much exploring, and yet I finally just stumbled into this park at Victoria College (Photo by Zachary Biech)

So much has changed and I have changed as well. I’m still the same old Zach but university life changes everything. I finally embraced that change and even caused some of it on my own.

A notebook page with "thanks" written in Anishnaabemowin, Russian, and English

These are all thank-you’s to my friends and family for their birthday wishes, in the three languages I use these days (I recently turned twenty, just to add more change into the mix!) On my birthday, I wrote a syllabics test for Anishnaabemowin, studied Russian, and submitted an essay which had Russian Politics AND Indigenous studies… (Photo by Zachary Biech)

To cap off the year, I’ll share some key points of my success this semester.

Key #1: Balance.

Balance balance balance! In my first blog, I shared my journey towards balance and how that journey has shaped my university experience. In short, all you need to do is recognize the four areas of your life, (body, emotion, mind, spirit) and give them each equal attention. Trust me, it works.

Key #2: Do what you love.

You are the only person who knows best what you are interested in and how you want to live and work. Celebrate those interests; they are what make you so special! It’s tremendously hard work to be a university student between classes and everything outside of class so it’s important to choose things you are comfortable pouring your heart and soul into (I think you’ll find the hard work feels much easier this way!)

Key #3: Change is as good as rest.

It’s amazing how big an impact you can have on yourself by changing things up. Try getting away from campus for a while, explore new areas and even rearrange some furniture if you have to. Change it up, it really helps!

Key #4: Get involved.

There are so many different groups you can engage with at U of T and in downtown Toronto, there’s bound to be something you’d love. So try going to a couple of meetings and choose groups that you feel you can connect with. The networks and projects you can build are limitless and the skills and energy you develop in those groups is invaluable.

Looking out into a large gymnasium, with many tables of Indigenous artworks and handmade crafts

As promised, here’s a view of the NCCT craft sale I volunteered at! (Photo by Zachary Biech)

A table with huge baskets of colourful candies and crafts, which were the prizes for the raffle

Here’s the raffle table from the NCCT craft sale, where I was stationed (Photo by Zachary Biech)

For instance, being a part of the Student Life Blog has been hugely helpful in my life. I get a lot more writing and editing practice which helps me with essays and assignments.  I get to expand and share my experiences, all while connecting with my Blogger peers, who are all amazing friends I am thankful to have!

Looking south over all of the awesome buildings of campus, towards all the huge towers down by Toronto's waterfront (including the CN Tower)

An awesome view of campus from the OISE Nexus Lounge, during the Indigenous Winter Social (Photo by Zachary Biech)

Keep these 4 keys in mind in your life at university and your path will become much clearer.

That’s all from me for now! Wait for my next blog in 2015!

Internet and Outernet

For more than the last eight weeks, I have had no internet access at home. It’s been a difficult time. Undertaking research projects for credit, applying to grad schools, blogging here… all while not having internet access was difficult. No longer could I Facebook from my bed; no longer could I know what the weather would be like later that day (my radio’s on the fritz too); I haven’t watched youtube videos or TV in over two months. In order to do anything, I had to commute to campus, to coffee shops, loitering outside closed cafes at one am hoping that “maybe they left their router on over night”. Instead of having the INternet, I had to make do with the OUTernet; and when I didn’t want to travel to use the OUTernet, I had to put up with the WITHOUTernet. (But not this kind of Outernet: I’m just making a bad pun).

Admittedly, things have been rough: I’ve spent a lot of time on campus, in libraries and offices and study spaces, late into the night. I’ve fallen asleep at desks and on couches, realizing that I can’t get home in time to pass out. I’ve gone to no fewer than six classes which were cancelled by email the day before. (But, I’ve burned a lot of calories running back and forth between house and internet, and that’s okay, right?).

Yet, there are a few things to be said about living without the internet at my fingertips. I have learned to be more efficient with my time online, rather than thumbing around through cat videos and television, mindlessly scrolling through facebook, sending long winded emails, or worrying about keeping the world apprised of my life. And, because of this, I’ve also procrastinated less. Or, rather, I’ve found better ways of procrastinating. Instead of digging deeper and deeper into the unfathomable (and often very very weird) depths of the internet, I’ve been able to actually read some of the books I own (you know that feeling: owning fifty books for every one that you’ve read). And, reading those books has accidentally helped with my research, when not simply just enjoyable in and of themselves.

It’s also been rather good for my mental health, not being constantly bombarded by and accountable to people and posts and emails online. Having time to myself, by myself, rather than that sort of fake time alone where we’re surrounded by hundreds of Facebook friends or tweeters. Being able to have the space to relax, think about the things I need to think about, or not think about the things I don’t, has really helped me survive a crazy year. (Though, admittedly, there is a lot of online self-care I’ve missed out on).

Ultimately, as much as there is suffering, there is growth; cheesy as it may sound. It’s been good to be away from the web. We should probably try it more often, and it’s probably a good thing to try for the exam period: toning down on that distraction and learning to appreciate the internet for what it is.

And with that, I’m off[line?] for the holidays. Good luck with your midterms and exams; we’ll talk again in January.

Some Reminders:

Don’t forget to fill out your course evaluations: let your voice be heard

And, have you had a really exceptional Teaching Assistant (TA) this term? Consider nominating them for a TATP TA Teaching Excellence Award!

Closer to the Art

Art is great. I don’t always understand it, but it’s still great. Being able to convey feelings or stories in many ways is a treasure. Even if you’re like me and the best image you can draw is a stick-figure, visual art forms can be fascinating.

The most amazing bagel with tomato sauce, pizza pepperoni, and molten mozzarella cheese you've ever seen (with a bite taken out already by an overzealous Zach)

First Nations House Lunch on Friday Nov. 28: Simple, delicious, a work of art! (Photo by Zachary Biech)

For me, guitar can convey feelings when words just won’t do. But visuals really help me learn best.

String-level view looking down the fretboard of my electric guitar (did I mention the guitar is bright green!)

One piece of my rock n’ roll arsenal (Photo by Zachary Biech)

I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario with my Mom (which I mentioned in last week’s blog) to see the Anishinaabe Artists of the Great Lakes special exhibit. It’s incredibly powerful stuff. There were many stories, some ancient and some about present-day life. And there was me wandering around in deep thought. People probably thought I was just lost and that I didn’t know I was in an art gallery.

The top half of my head, wearing an awesome bright red Calgary Flames toque

The Flames toque I’ve needed to wear all over the place because of the November cold also makes people look at me funny, especially at the AGO (Photo by Zachary Biech)

Music can be just as moving. For instance, my Mom brought me a CD called True Blue, by a pow-wow drum group called Northern Cree. It’s awesome. Those guys can really sing. Such music reminds me how much I enjoyed starting to learn the “N” dialect of the Cree language over the summer at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto.

A picture of the CD case for the album True Blue by Northern Cree

Awesome Album (Photo by Zachary Biech)

I always enjoy the artwork in First Nations House. The more I look around, the more I find. The paintings on the walls are a nice change from most U of T buildings and I think the birch bark canoe is grand. There’s a Great Lakes Canoe project run through Mizwe Biik, in which they built that canoe and paddled it out onto one of the Great Lakes. It’s a different style of art and I recommend you check out their next project if you’re looking for a really cool opportunity.

A wall mural of a river, forest, and Toronto skyline, with a bear and it's cub, in Indigenous woodland style

Just one of the huge murals that adorns First Nations House’s walls (Photo by Zachary Biech)

At the Native Canadian Centre, you can also do a lot of fun volunteering projects. Over the summer, I helped do the judging for the Young Native Artists 2015 Calendar contest, where kids from reserves all over Ontario from kindergarten to grade 12 submitted artworks (about a thousand in total) for us to choose from. We had a blast. We picked a winning piece for each month, plus one for the cover and one for a small motif which is on all the pages.

The inside cover of the 2015 Young Native Artist's Calendar, with all the names and communities of the winning artists and other contributors

The amazing artists for this year’s calendar! Note my name under the committee member list in the bottom left-hand corner (Photo by Zachary Biech)

Those kids are amazing, they are all winners. Two kindergarten students got into the calendar, they blew me away. Their art is all very beautiful and skillful, and some of the pieces are so witty, we just had to choose them!

The calendars are available at NCCT for 5$ each. They are a perfect gift for the holidays. NCCT is also having their big craft sale on November 29th. I’ll be volunteering there as well, and maybe next week I’ll post pictures of the action!

One last note: First Nations House, The Centre for Aboriginal Initiatives, the NSA, SAGE, IEN, and the Office of Indigenous Medical Education are all working together to host this year’s Indigenous Winter Social at OISE on Friday December 5th from 3:00 to 5:00 pm. Come check it out!

A great whale wall mural in western Indigenous art style

More of First Nations House’s beautiful imagery (Photo by Zachary Biech)

Cycles of Change

November has arrived and fall is in full swing.  For me, everything seems to have changed all at once. Over the weekend after my latest midterm, I got back into my housekeeping and admin routine. Though my tasks were fairly straightforward, things just seemed different. It’s hard to describe.

Looking up at the main Victoria College building, towards the dark green coverings on the scaffolding. The building seems to be undergoing some lengthy renovations

Everything needs change every now and then (Photo by Zachary Biech)

I felt new energy starting to lift me into the new month. Even little things were ready for change like my decision to clear out some of the year-old sticky-note reminders I had left myself about lists of CDs to buy (yes I still buy CDs) and miscellaneous ideas for cheesecake baking.

Two shelves full of CD cases, with everything from Jeff Beck to Van Halen, in alphabetical order of course.

I think I’ve listened to these ones about 1000 times each… (Photo by Zachary Biech)

Rarely does the shift into a new month or season feel so abrupt in university as the days and weeks often blend together amidst the midterm madness. I’ve been trying to figure out where this new energy is coming from or more importantly where it’s leading me. After reflecting on the semester so far, I quickly realized that this rejuvenating feeling is definitely no accident. I’m simply completing a cycle, and launching into the next one.

I think it’s important to recognize the cycles we experience in life. For most U of T students, I think the cycle may look like this: Wake up, eat, studystudytstudystudy, sleep, repeat. Hmmmm. That doesn’t seem very healthy does it? Read my earlier posts about balancing and time management if you want to break this cycle.

Cycles are larger in scope than we realize. I’m not sure what’s all in the cycles of university life but I can tell you that to complete your cycle, you really need some social time. September and October have been very social for me and I think the positivity of nurturing relationships with friends has really contributed to the momentum I’m feeling.

For Thanksgiving, a friend was very kind and invited me to Mississauga to have lunch with their family and friends. What a grand feast! And I have to add that it’s well worth it to hop on the Go Train and get out of downtown if you’re stuck down there like I am. I made sure to soak in some refreshing new sights and spent some time exploring some of the peaceful neighbourhoods in Port Credit too. Good for the mind.

Halloween was also a brilliant final piece to finish off October. Me and a big group of friends all dressed up and headed to the Hart House of Horrors Halloween event.  Rest assured, we were terrifying.  Let’s just say that every Halloween from now on, U of T students will remember the fear that overtook them when the lord of the night, Count Zachula, first appeared from the shadows…

A selfie of me nad my terrifying fake vampire fangs.

Count Zachula strikes! With a selfie… (Photo by Zachary Biech)

The Debate Room in Hart House, only lit with a faint red glow, with many strange clown creatures lurking in the shadows

Some of the rooms in Hart House were turned into a freaky carnival, complete with the clown monsters (Photo by Zachary Biech)

A large clown mannequin, with a particularly snarly smile

This is my friend Fred, we met at the Hart House of Horrors. When I asked him to show me around, all he did was shrug and glare at me with murderous intent… (Photo by Zachary Biech)

A small archaic looking switchbox sitting next to a monstrous fellow in a straight-jacket and hooked to a starnge machine, with a sign that reads "Pull Switch...If You Dare"

One of my friends dared to flip the switch. We thought the mannequin in the chair would do something, but instead the switch-box flipped open and a monstrous Jack-In-The-Box began cackling at us maniacally (Photo by Zachary Biech)

First Nations House is a great place to stop by every week if you need a little socializing. Every face is friendly and every conversation is worth every moment. Just sayin’…

What do you do to socialize? When’s the last time you finished a cycle and entered into something entirely new?

Me staring aimlessly into the background (wearing my fangs and cape),in front of a photobooth backdrop

Count Zachula, blissfully unaware that the photobooth machine was still taking pictures (Original Photo by Snapshot Photobooth)

What’s the deal with “Open Access Week”?

Last week was Open Access Week (or OAweek as the hashtag goes), both at UofT and around the world. The UofT Libraries and the Scholarly Communications and Copyright Office were pretty big on pushing OAweek, but when I mentioned to the other bloggers that I was planning to write on it this week they asked: “What is OAweek and what does ‘open access’ mean?”. Good questions. Important questions. Let me start answering by asking another question:

How much would it cost you to write your last essay without library access?

That means, if you had none of the free access to journal articles, papers, ebooks, and other resources provided through the libraries here, how much money would you have to pay to access those resources you needed to write that last paper? Andrea Kosavic did the math on one of her papers about open access (yup: ironic); her answer? $488.96 USD. And that’s only because half of her sources were open access (we’ll get to defining that in the next paragraph). I took her example and did the math on one of my own papers. Thankfully, most of my works cited were open access too, but the three papers I cited which were not would have cost me $38.97.

Can you imagine paying almost $500 to submit a class paper?

The fact is, we have great access to resources through our library system, but a lot of the world does not. The Open Access movement is about creating unrestricted online access to peer-reviewed scholarly research. That means that anybody, anywhere, should be able to have access to scholarly research and knowledge, for free, online, from anywhere, regardless of who they are. There are a few reasons to do this. First, it makes it cheaper for students to access scholarly research needed to do the work we’re assigned. Did you know that the University spends $14,000,000 on journal subscriptions per year?! That’s more than the tuition of 2,317 domestic students. That’s a huge amount of money to be spending to make resources available, when they could be free.

And it’s not just students, but researchers everywhere. It’s hard to do original research when you need to pay money to do it, and especially hard for those who do not have access to the resources we are privileged with. How many researchers do you think there are at institutions who can’t afford journal subscriptions, or who aren’t even affiliated with academic institutions? How can public libraries afford to keep up with costs like this? This is what OAweek is about: raising awareness for open access issues. The video below (by the guy behind PHD comics) gives a really good survey of what we talk about when we talk about open access, as well as addressing the money matters: the costs of publication and the roles they play in the open access movement.

What roles can we play? Well, as potential future academics, we can make a commitment to ensuring our own future publications are published in an open access paradigm. More open access journals are popping up all the time, so it shouldn’t be a difficult task in the end. But there’s also a need for an attitude check. It’s not just about making articles free and available, but recognizing that everyone ought to have access to knowledge and knowledge media. Keep that in mind when you’re pricing out your next paper.

Have any questions or thoughts on the Open Access movement?
Leave them in the comments below!

UC Does Rocky Horror Picture Show

This past Wednesday I attended the UC Follies Rocky Horror Picture Show Shadow Cast presented by the UCLit.  Although I’ve seen Rocky Horror Picture Show many-a-times, I’ve never actually been to a live performance or interactive screening of it.  I’ve heard how fun it can be, getting to throw rice onto the stage or yell things back to the cast, but nothing prepared me for the night of shenanigans the Follies had in store for us.

I think a part of me was still expecting things to be toned down the way they were in high school.  They couldn’t possibly re-enact every provocative scene from Rocky Horror… could they? 

Two Photo Set: Photo on the left is of a man standing on a table with a movie projector in the background. He is naked except for a small blue speedo and bandages across his chest. He has a crazy look in his eyes and has just been "created" by the mad scientist. Photo on the Right: one of the party-goer characters being thrown into the air in the middle of a dance routine.

Oh my naive, naive mind. 

To start off the night, my best friend and I came dressed as the main character duo of Brad and Janet – gaining ourselves entrance into the intermission costume contest along the way. The University College JCR was packed full of people in costumes enjoying food and drinks, and discussing all the insider secrets of an interactive Rocky Horror show.

Photo of boy and girl staring at each other seductively, posing heavily for the camera. Man is dressed in a lab coat and white briefs with slicked back hair and nerdy glasses. The girl is hidden behind a large red bed sheet.

My friend Matt and I dressed as our very best interpretations of Janet and Brad!

At 9:30 the lights dimmed, and the show began.  I actually didn’t understand what a shadow cast was until the show had began, but essentially the UC Follies acted in the foreground while the movie played in the background.

Two picture set: Picture on the right is of characters Rocky and Janet laying in bed together. The second picture is of Janet after her "transformation" performing the final number.

At the beginning of the show you could buy a “kit”, the purchase of which went to support the chosen organization SKETCH.  The kit included all of the things you would need to interact with the show such as rope, a sponge, and newspaper.  The narrator behind the screen would announce to the crowd when to get their object ready, and on cue from a line in the show, we would throw the object into the air or out onto the stage.  The first opportunity to use this arose when Janet and Brad were stuck out in the rain, and the chorus came around spraying the audience with water unless you put the newspaper over your head.

The cast was absolutely amazing, and the production was hilarious.  They had the crowd (myself included) laughing, gasping, and even singing and dancing along at some points. The characters would walk through the aisles, dancing with audience members and eliciting involvement, all while staying perfectly in character.

Girl dressed in outlandish costume of leather and fishnets with largely teased hair and over-the-top makeup, throwing her hands in the air dancing.

The cast leading us in the Time Warp dance!

The whole night was a perfect break from midterm stress, and definitely an amazing first Rocky Horror experience.  The UC follies do a variety of performances throughout the year, including musicals such as this, as well as dramas and improv nights.  Any member of University College can join and exercise their acting muscles, or just come along and view one of their shows.  Check out more pictures from the night, and find out more about the UC Follies, at

Mythbusters: Teaching Assistant Edition.

Last week, we shared a moment about tutorials, and briefly mentioned that they are usually run by Teaching Assistants (TAs). What exactly a TA is can be elusive to most students, and I think it’s important to spend a few minutes together this week to talk about TAs and bust some myths.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been meeting with some of the folks at the Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation (CTSI) and the Teaching Assistant’s Training Program (TATP), and students and TAs, to find out what exactly is the deal with TAs. So, without further ado, onto the mythbusting:

           1. TAs are Good Bags Screenshot of a google search, where "Teaching Assistants are" is autocompleted as "Good bags" and "Great bag"

Contrary to popular belief, most TAs are actually human beings, and most of those are graduate students at the university.

2. TAs are only there for the money It’s true that TAs get paid to do their jobs (would you grade a few hundred papers for free?), and that often falls as part of their funding packages. But, most TAs are there teaching because they’re big ol’ nerds who love what they’re teaching!

Think of it this way: most of your TAs are graduate students, studying things in graduate school, at one of the best universities in the world. This means they are some of the most passionate students in the world about what they’re studying, and they probably really want you to study and love it too.

3. TAs know everything It would be great if TAs knew everything, but here’s a secret: they usually don’t. Many TAs are first year grad students, meaning that they haven’t taken many more classes than you might have. Some of them have never even taught before. The truth is, TAs don’t know everything, and are constantly worried about how to engage students in the classroom, how to answer questions they don’t know the answer to, and how to help students learn. They’re there to learn with you.

4. TAs are only there to teach and grade Nope! If you tuned in last week, you’ll recall that tutorials are supposed to be about engaging with material, not just learning even more. TAs are there to help foster your engagement with the material, and help build understanding: not to teach twice.

5. TAs don’t care whether you succeed Go back and read the last four myths getting busted: TAs are big ol’ nerds, who used to be undergraduates like you not so many years ago. If you ask anyone at the CTSI or the TATP, they’ll tell you that grad students are constantly asking questions about how they can improve their teaching skills, and how they can best help students to do better. TAs are not robots, they are not good bags: they are people who are passionate about teaching and about helping you.

So there you go: myths busted. Have any other myths to bust? Queries about TAs? Let me know. Until then, my thanks must go out to all those with the CTSI and TATP who let me pester them for this post and last week’s: Bethany Osborne (TATP Tutorials Training Coordinator), Megan Burnett (Assistant Director of CTSI/TATP), Michelle Majeed (TA; Course Instructor Training Coordinator), and Elliot Storm (TA; Microteaching Training Coordinator). See you next week!

*** Is your TA doing a great job? Consider nominating them for a TATP Teaching Excellence Award! Nominations open November 17th.

Have other questions about TAs, or myths you’d like busted? Let me know in the comments!


The Diner’s Club Experiment

After seeing my first post in writing, I felt I needed to get out more – out of my own head, out of my own room, and into the wider U of T community. It was no good to claim difficulties in meeting others and getting “out there” if I could instead develop solutions.

Having returned this year to U of T after a two-year absence, I observed that the biggest adjustment was eating by myself. I had the good fortune of two years of family dinners, so this was the most obvious difficulty. Now back at school, it has again become much easier to take food out in a takeout container – I thought I’d feel more isolated and look silly by being alone in a room full of people eating as groups, and I could catch up on CBC Radio or This American Life podcasts in my room. Practically speaking, takeout containers slung over one’s arm in a shopping bag are just easier to manage than a cafeteria tray. But the alone meal time made me feel worse; I knew something had to change.

Please don’t misunderstand me, U of T, I do have friends. But a couple of years away means that those closest to me in residence with me are long gone – having moved off-campus, graduated, or having left the city altogether .

So a solution to my loneliness problem became obvious: I couldn’t eat alone in my room anymore. This became a week-long experiment, the results of which I present to you now.

The first thing, in any experiment, is to lay out the hypothesis for that experiment. For me, it went something like: “I will feel more connected to my residence and to U of T in general if I eat in the cafeteria every day for a week.”

Then, all variables but one must be fixed, so that the researcher (me, in this case) knows how the changes in one variable alone affect the hypothesis without being affected by other variables. For me, the variables in question were as follows:

  • My residence building and room remained unchanged (I wasn’t going to live differently.)
  • The food would be the same (I wasn’t going to change how I ate.)
  • The staff would also be the same (this was obviously beyond my control, anyway.)
  • The environment in which I consumed it would be different (in our Hogwarts-esque dining hall rather than in my room.)

Great Hall of Christ Church College

The Great Hall of Christ Church College at the University of Oxford was replicated to create Hogwart’s Hall in the Harry Potter movies. [Image: Flickr | nathanaels (CC BY 2.0).

Having established my framework, I laid out some rules of engagement for myself.

  1. I didn’t necessarily have to eat with others if I couldn’t find them, but I did have to eat in the cafeteria for every meal.
  2. If given a takeout container (by awesome staff who remember my usual preferences) I had to eat in my residence common area.
  3. I could not have my phone with me when eating (what’s the point of eating in public if my mind was elsewhere? I’m also really afraid of damaging my phone with food.)
  4. I had to use a tray when ordering and carrying food.

The experiment itself was uneventful – I got food “for here” on a tray, and was often helped (very kindly) to a free seat by cafeteria staff. What surprised me was the almost instantaneous effects.

I felt more at home than I have all term, possibly my entire university experience. Something about eating on a real plate at a table with silverware, and not out of a cardboard container on my bed with plastic cutlery made me feel more welcome. I was never able to meet up with others to eat (I kept missing my new neighbours), but this didn’t bother me. I wasn’t joined by others, but I didn’t feel so alone. Perhaps because I chose this experiment: I wasn’t left alone by my peers, I was among them and alone voluntarily. Of course, I would have preferred company sometimes, but perhaps the thought that I was making more effort to be with my peers was comfort enough for now. Self-isolation due to fears of regressing back to a lonelier, more anxious incarnation of myself, and worries of looking weird eating alone kept me away, but a willingness to show up and be visible gave me confidence I could never have imagined.

Another interesting effect was how I ate. I didn’t wolf down food as though it were a necessary but inconvenient interruption in my day – I slowed down and took the time to enjoy my meals. I let my mind go blank. I confess that this often meant that I eavesdropped on my fellow diners. I have no shame in this: I figure if others people-watch, I’m entitled to entertainment of my own. 😉

There was only one uncomfortable moment when I sat down directly across from a group of friends. I felt I was too physically close not to be intruding on their lunch.

Overall, this experiment was a greater success than I could have ever imagined. I took it on doubtfully, but now am a full supporter of public, voluntarily solo eating.

The next logical step is to make more efforts to find people to eat with and reconnect with existing friends in Toronto. But I’m headed in the right direction towards socialization, however slowly I’m getting there.

Hi, My Name’s Sarah

the word hello and a smiley-facein a computer fontHi U of T! For my first post as the Arts & Science blogger, I wanted to introduce myself to my fellow students. But then it occurs to me how downright uncomfortable introductions to my own peers can be — especially online, which by nature, is a rather detached way to communicate.

It’s not ALL personal introductions I have difficulty with. I can go to a networking event in a room full of professionals (and strangers) and generally hold my own. I participate in class if I have something I think is worth saying. By nature of my disability, introducing myself to instructors and teaching assistants is a must — it’s my own peer group I have trouble with.

Here’s the thing: I don’t consider blindness a hindrance on a day-to-day basis: it can be an inconvenience at times, but it’s only one part of who I am. In the case of introducing myself to peers however, I feel it definitely holds me back.

How will I know, for instance, if the person I want to speak with (say, beside me in class, or in my residence common room) isn’t otherwise occupied? Perhaps they’re reading and haven’t turned a page yet, thereby giving an audible clue? Perhaps they’re on their phone or have earbuds in? Perhaps they’re looking the other way, or have smiled or given some other visual acknowledgement of my presence and further attempts to engage in conversation might be considered pushy or “trying too hard”?

Perhaps I have met them several times before but haven’t memorized their voice yet, so reintroducing myself would be incredibly awkward for all involved? (In a perfect world I’d ask them to identify themselves from the moment they said hi, but I still don’t know how to do that without feeling embarrassed). What if someone else joins us: how can they be brought into the conversation and introduced to everyone present without being weird? Worst of all, perhaps someone in a group’s gotten up and moved away, leaving me to talk to thin air? I have a bit of vision, but not enough to always know whether the dark blob that was a human near me a second ago is still there.

Of course, all of these concerns could happen with instructors, teaching assistants, or members of a professional networking event, too. But there’s something about these groups that makes me feel less judged than by students, a perception I can’t quite explain.

Perhaps it’s the notion that those “adults” – who may indeed not be much different in age than myself – will be less intimidated by a blind person and therefore more willing to talk to me. My lack of vision limits conversation topics, but in more professional situations this isn’t usually a problem. With students, however, since I can’t talk to someone about a picture on our phones, any clothing or accessory they have, or anything at all on Snapchat or Instagram, I feel awkward and behind the times. My conversation topics can be a bit more personal – a person’s program of study, the courses they’re taking and what they think of them, their commute, their interests, even their future aspirations. I understand this can be off-putting to some, and I fear I sound like some weird hybrid of a person’s mom, grandmother and social worker.

It is therefore with a great deal of hesitation that I seek out peers to meet. I’m not unfriendly – on the contrary I think I’m quite the opposite – but I usually let people come to me. Sure, I’ll say hi to classmates and neighbours, but I’ll hesitate to really get to know them. I let my fear they’ll think I’m “too much” rule my desire to make new friends and have company.

So, dearest U of T students and friends, I say hello to you now in writing, and will work harder to do it more in person. Maybe we’ll be friends, or study buddies, or maybe just see each other in class and leave it at that. Just do me one favour, okay? Identify yourself when you see me: “Hi Sarah, it’s Fred” gets you instant blind street cred; “Hi Sarah” alone (unless I really know you) doesn’t do much for me.

What do you think? Do you hesitate to meet new people? Or are you one of those master communicators who can talk to anyone? Let me know in the comments.

Finding A Little Balance

If you could only tell one story about yourself, what would you tell? Is your story long, or short? Deep, or lighthearted? How would you break the ice?

I’d start with an introduction: My name is Zach and I’m in my third year at U of T, in the undergraduate Public Policy and Governance program. I also minor in Aboriginal Studies and Russian Language, just to keep things interesting. I’m from Calgary and more used to mountains and meadows than I am to towers and transit. Some of my ancestors were Cree and Russian. These roots guide my story.

Pathways through the trees.

Sometimes you find yourself in need of a guide, and that’s actually a good thing (photo taken by Zachary Biech)

But I’d go beyond the basics. I’d include other parts of my life, to paint a better picture. In short, my story needs balance. Actually, my story is about balance.

I’ll start back in grade school. I think I’ve always had some mental balance. I always found time to work hard for my marks. Don’t get the wrong idea, I had time to goof around too. In class. In front of teachers. Oops.

Before grade twelve, I lacked physical balance. I’d get home from school and eat a whole pizza sub or two for a snack. I wasn’t a shining example of athleticism. But after recognizing this imbalance, it was easy to change my ways. Ok, not that easy. My calves burn just thinking about the exercise regimes. Finding the willpower to eat healthy was even harder. Thankfully, I dropped over eighty pounds. It’s great although I miss binging on chips and milkshakes.

Next, I landed in Toronto. Imagine you’re an alien visiting another alien world even crazier than where you’re from. Now you know how I, a small-town Albertan, felt in big, bustling Toronto.  After wobbling around in this immense place like a goofball for a year, I read the writing on the wall. I needed emotional balance. Over the second year, I dealt with every emotion known to man (and maybe some unknown ones as well) and came out on top. My goofball score dropped dramatically too. I think.

A view out over the Bow River Valley in the foothills of southern Alberta

My old view from my home in Alberta (photo taken by Zachary Biech)

Toronto's impressive skyline on a bright clear day, from 18 floors up in a tower

My new view from my Toronto apartment (photo taken by Zachary Biech)

Afterwards, I still lacked something. Maybe you’ve felt the same way like you need to complete your soul’s inner circle. Profound, right? I simply realized I needed spiritual balance. So I worked up some courage, embraced my heritage, and dove headfirst into Toronto’s Indigenous communities including U of T’s First Nations House. Engaging was easy and I received the warmest of welcomes.

The vines and trees just outside the First Nations House building

Just outside First Nations House (photo taken by Zachary Biech)

Mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual balance were vital for embracing my Indigeneity and finding my personal, academic, social, and spiritual center at U of T. I even enjoy my other interests more fully, like music and cooking. If I could only tell one story, I’d talk about balance to show my perspective. But luckily, I have much more to tell! I also like listening and I think we can have a great time storytelling together.

How balanced are you?

If you could only tell one story about yourself, what would you tell?

Looking straight upwards at the big blue sky, through foliage and campus buildings

Finding centre at U of T is not as hard as you’d think; you just need to know where to look (photo taken by Zachary Biech)