My 3M NS Fellowship Application – Thriving Through Adversity

(Preface to Application)

This is my sixth, (and final), year as an undergraduate student – albeit not consecutively.

Stories such as mine are often unheard of and not explicitly and voluntarily narrated.

Perhaps because at first glance, stories such as mine tend to be grasped as outlandish, and more so, as constructions of failure rather than excursions of growth and resilience.

Despite the potential stigma which may shadow those who walk unconventional roads, I want to share my struggles and triumphs as a post-secondary student because stories such as mine are also stories of several other students across Canada – and, across the world as well.

These stories illustrate current-day battles post-secondary students everywhere face and attempt to fight on a daily basis.

Moreover, they speak and spell clearly on the need for change in higher education in this transient moment of here and now.

Here’s some food for thought: we operate in a society today which places more foundational emphasis on the possession of cognitive intelligence versus the development and formation of emotional, social and creative intelligence. Yet we stand at a juncture of time now which insistently requires large-scale innovation, new systems of thought and new ways of living.

Despite this, as learners, we are not taught how to be effective and powerful human leaders.

We are not taught to be connected with our purpose as learners.

We are not directly guided to understand how to learn and more importantly why to learn.

Rather, we are submerged with direction on how to become repetitions of who we have been yesterday.

Through this process, the formal education systems we are drawn through do not attend to our potential as learners. They do not serve the authentic evolution of our thought and the measurable growth of our mind. They do not prepare us to meaningfully and successfully contribute to the communities we operate in.

Rather, the formal education systems we are drawn through convey a message which we can no longer afford to abide by: that merely surviving is preferable to holistically thriving.

Consequently, we are currently attempting to “learn” in higher educational landscapes which no longer serve us, grow us, and which have outlived the times for which they were designed.

As we are progressively conveyed and delivered to a newer and much different tomorrow, we must concretely address an issue we can no longer neglect: the need for change in educational infrastructure – first, nationally, and second, globally.

A commendable organization that strives to embrace the fragility of this subject is the STLHE (The Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education) in conjunction with 3M Canada.

In 1986, the Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) and 3M Canada partnered to recognize exceptional contributions to teaching and learning at Canadian universities. The community of 3M National Teaching and Student Fellows embodies the highest ideals of teaching excellence and scholarship with a commitment to encourage and support the educational experience of every learner. Up to ten National Teaching and Student Fellowships are selected annually.

The National Student Fellowship asks its applicants to address three main aspects in regards to higher education:

  • To redefine leadership
  • To outline challenges in post-secondary education
  • To offer embodiment of transformational educational experiences

The (revised) transcript of my application below addresses these three facets, and moreover, walks through the dynamism and power of learning outside the classroom in order to learn more effectively inside the classroom.

I hope you as a reader are able to relate with my story, identify with my struggles, and learn vicariously through the mistakes I have made and the successes I have met along the way as a learner in our post-modern world.

My 3M National Student Fellowship Application –
An Education Outside the Classroom

I was around five years old when it struck me that my life was about to take a slightly unconventional turn. Having grown up in Mumbai, India, since I could remember, I clung on to a static life in the suburbs of the city surrounded by my close family and friends. As any other child, I assumed contentedly that I would remain eternally in the vicinity of the familiar. So, when my parents announced that we would be moving to Maputo, Mozambique, I was entirely in shock. I had never heard much about Africa, despite the stalwart insistence of world geography and history in the Indian elementary school curriculum. Nonetheless, after spending five years in Maputo, Mozambique, I had finally accepted it as my second home. During this time, as part of a privatized school system, I was thoroughly engaged and enthralled with an approach to learning which complemented my free spirit with both the diversity and discipline it demanded.

Although, yet again, I suppose life had completely different plans for our family. I recall on the brink of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, we heard news that we had officially been approved for Canadian immigration.

My parents vowed that this would be life-changing for my sister and I – particularly in interest to our higher educational pursuits. Alongside the crime rates in Maputo staining the safety of daily life, the educational system in Africa, they said, would not be valued worldwide. Like any other family from the East, my parents had by now formed their North-American dream, that, their children would graduate and grow from the best of the best institutions in Canada or the United States of America.

Although I had not mentally coined the term at the time, this was my first understanding and exposure to the power of leadership – the human ability to shoulder risk, and boldly shine light in places of darkness.

Beginning Fifth Grade in the suburbs of Mississauga, to now having almost completed my post-secondary education in the city of Guelph, my thirteen years in the Canadian educational landscape have drastically shaped me into the person that I am today. The following outlines exactly how my learning journey has unfolded in a land which rightfully boasts of diversity and freedom –

Coming from a family background which values authentic education over everything else, I was constantly bombarded with messages from my parents that all the money in the world would never deliver me the stability, happiness and inexorable richness as a solid and authentic educational background would. Haunting me with the echoes of the Eastern educational system, I happily rebelled, and was insistent on etching my own path.

Having frequently moved during my elementary years, I finally found an ultimate place called home in the Canadian education system.

Initially, what was quite striking to me when I began middle school was the vast difference the Canadian system of teaching condoned. I fell in love with the freedom it came with. Accustomed to the rigidity of the Indian and African educational system, which I personally dreaded as a child, I soon grasped that being unique was not only a possibility, but an acquirable feat in this new country.

Far from the dread of the ‘survival of the fittest’ fever, standardized tests, and an intensely competitive learning environment, I thrived in a place which valued words just as much as numbers.

However, eventually, through the process of overindulging in the freedom this new system of education conveyed, I lost my momentum as a learner and subsequently lost my self-confidence as a learner sverige-ed.com/.

I lost the confidence to garner strict and disciplined study habits.

I lost the confidence to mentally solve math.

I lost the confidence to tackle conceptual courses which required analytical thinking.

As a connoisseur of the richness of words, I forgot about the cruciality of strengthening my pragmatic side of mind alongside my artistic one. Inadvertently, I was soon to discover that within this educational structure, there was no fear pushing me to strive harder when I fell. Rather, I was extremely comfortable in the flexibility I was encompassed in. If not now, I often told myself, I could learn later. After all, in High School, my personal life seemed to take precedence over my academics. Hence, I was fleetingly ecstatic, aware, that in Canada, it was never now or never – there was always an opportunity for tomorrow.

With this spirit, my post-secondary education dauntingly welcomed me. Perhaps it was this very overconfidence which offered me my very first academic downfall. I recollect the foundation of my self-worth collapsing as I saw the results of my first semester. I felt entirely delineated and traumatized by the sixties and seventies I saw. Despite not being a drastic overachiever during high school, I was far from habituated to receiving a grade below 80%.

The only highlight I could recollect from the entire semester was attending myIntroduction to Bachelor of Commerce class, which ironically was not graded, but a requirement for graduation. What I loved about this class, was hearing from real-world entrepreneurs and social leaders who had made it past their formal post-secondary quest to pursue a path which was rather avant-garde – a path which seemed to initiate authentic change. Their stories inspired me at a time when my academics were arresting my thirst to push forward.

In addition, enduring severely challenging and paralyzing personal struggles during this period, I felt I was growing immensely as a person, but drowning greatly as a student. A part of me strongly felt that I was not at all ready for the expectations of the undergraduate life. I remember resenting the implicit pressure I had felt to immediately select a University program following high school. More than anything, during this time, I wanted to hear from someone who had been through the lows of University life, and yet had made a successful comeback, just so I could cling on to some hope that my first few mediocre semesters would not end my path to finding success.

I constantly wondered how I could renew myself as a learner despite the below-average grades I was receiving and the ever-declining lack of engagement I was struggling with in my studies.

At this time, my frustration allowed me to define what I saw as the most significant challenge in post-secondary education:

1) a lack of resources for new undergraduate students, looking to gain stability in their new environment, and

2) the dearth of faculty who emphasized the importance of learning outside of the classroom.

Mostly, what I started to witness was the shortage of programs and initiatives to help those who fell in between the cracks.

In a sense, I was a firsthand example of what a lack of foundational arithmetic skills, a lack of disciplined study habits and moreover a disconnect with purpose could lead to: an embodiment of mediocrity.

It made no practical sense to me that as students, the majority of our academic assessment was left to an ultimate midterm and final exam, with no introduction on how to learn – both effectively and efficiently.

I was beginning at this point to observe a pattern and herd of students around me who were not truly learning but rather memorizing and regurgitating blindly. It occurred to me that this type of approach to class material not only deemed it as futile in real world application, but moreover did complete injustice to the journey ofself-knowledge and self-development.

Mostly what I began to recognize was that there was a huge learning gap students were expected to fill independently with no helping hand, direction or guidance in the slightest.

This is definitely the most significant challenge which impedes learning in the undergraduate level of studies.

What I had discovered also was that I learned significantly more when I completed an assignment, essay, or set of problems, than when I was expected to write a cumulative midterm or final exam. I was genuinely frustrated that most courses did not have frequency in assessments, and began to understand that this type of educational system not only progressively nurtured procrastination but indirectly encouraged it. I strongly grew to believe that if each course had at the very least a bi-weekly assessment in the form of an assignment or quiz, that students, including myself would be able to grasp the material at hand, which would be in smaller quantities to much greater depth than if we were expected to only be accountable twice at the very most during the span of a semester.

Hence, if I had the resource capacity, I would implement a concrete solution of ensuring that each course at the undergraduate level has a weekly graded assessment in the form of a quiz or assignment to ensure that students are consistently engaged in their material throughout the term.

In addition, I would ensure that each course has an introductory tutorial which is led by either the Professor or Teaching Assistant on how to approach the subject at hand; the required time management, evidence-based study tips, and recommended study plan. When the foundation is placed in an organized manner, there is a greater opportunity to succeed. This is the art and power of meta-learning: how to learn and more importantly, why to learn.

In entirety, I see this as being the greatest challenge facing post-secondary education in Canada as a whole. Due to the lack of interaction from the University faculty, students are left to drown in their apathetic attitudes. Why? Because this apathy is inadvertently bred from a lack of initiatives from Canadian institutions which explain to their students that there is more to be made of the undergraduate journey than simply passing courses, getting a degree and eventually landing a job.

Students are not enlightened to recognize that the point of a post-secondary education is to expand their mental boundaries, deliberately find activities outside the classroom which complement what they learn inside the classroom and focus on enhancing their transferable skills, which will all eventually build them holistically as a student, as an educated, evolved and fully bloomed scholar, rather than another person who merely has a posturing degree.

Recognizing this, I made it a point to personally do exactly this for myself and my peers around me, within my capacity. Racing at the opportunity to get involved, I signed up for my first extra-curricular activity which I would eventually grow to thank for instilling a sense of confidence in my abilities.

The beginning of my involvement outside of the classroom affirmed to me something I knew since I was five years old: that I wanted to change the world in a way I could.I romanced the thrill when I was able to convince just one other person to view something in a more enriched perspective, to change their understanding of the world, to embrace an idea they had never thought of before, and to enable them to look view life through a different lens than what they had been accustomed to for so long.

It was then that I began my very own leadership journey – a time when I committed myself to using my ground to elevate and inspire those around me.

At this time, while facing an overwhelming set of personal challenges, which ultimately strengthened me as a person, I continued to hold on to my involvements outside of the classroom, as they were my only source of sanity and self-confidence at the time. Having experienced an entirely full onset of a mid-life crisis at the ripe age of twenty, I felt lost, damaged and unable to catch up to the demands of my academics. I couldn’t see it at the time, but this was not only my blessing in disguise, but my saviour and opportunity to rebuild what I had lost – a perfect storm.

Taking a semester off with the conviction of returning the following semester with a new sense of direction, I immersed myself in a period of self-education.

My mind had been a victim and advocate of powerful negativity, and I had made the decision to redesign and re-engineer my way of thinking and living. It took a couple of months and a plethora of books, to transform my mind, perspective, habits and life. Inspired by topics examining the field of neuroplasticity and the power of habit, I was convinced I could change and rewire my mind as a learner and I was determined to find out how.

After discovering solace and enlightenment within dozens and dozens of books, I adopted the power and impact of positive thinking, discipline, focus, goal setting and execution. I felt reborn, and compelled to rebuild my undergraduate experience into one that would do justice to my potential and ambitions.

At this point, I recognized that I no longer wanted to pursue a degree which had no meaning for me. Switching from Accounting into Human Resources Management, I felt alive again- I was passionate about learning about people management and work systems.

Recognizing the need for personal change and authenticity, I pushed myself to pursue activities I was passionate about.

The first opportunity which was a transformational learning experience for me was taking on the presidency for Guelph SOS – a student run organization which held midterm and final exam review sessions for students to enhance learning, while raising funds for development projects in Latin America, such as building sustainable schools. Through this venture, I was able to take advantage of a platform and reach out to students who were possibly in a similar state to me when I felt lost. As the Chapter President of Guelph SOS (Students Offering Support) – a charitable student-run organization, from May 2012 – April 2013 my team and I managed to raise almost $6000 for education projects in Latin America and impacted approximately 400 students through our leadership in SOS Guelph. I began this transformational learning experience by recruiting four students to be a part of my Executive team for the year and provided orientation for them to get them on board with the vision I had for Guelph SOS for the upcoming year. Next, I initiated a collaboration with the Department of Marketing and Consumer Studies to register SOS as a client for their CBaSE Applied Community Project Course so that my executive team and I could receive academic credit while working on creating a marketing plan for the Chapter. I did this to ensure that my student volunteers would remain engaged throughout the process of building this cause from scratch. Our team eventually conducted a 200 person primary research student survey to collect relevant data in configuring an effective and comprehensive marketing plan. We asked several questions to students about their study habits and whether they were seeking additional resources to help them learn. When analyzing results, we witnessed a dire need for review sessions teaching material for courses which required comprehensive analytical and problem solving skills such as economics, finance, accounting, calculus and physics. Seeking to address these needs, our team recruited for, coordinated and facilitated three review sessions for Operations Management and Issues in Canadian Politics and raised $2,080 in funds and impacted 104 students’ learning efforts on campus. We also presented our final marketing plan to SOS Head Office with plans of executing the strategies in the upcoming semester. Next I was keen to expand operations, so I applied for project approval from the Department of Business to enlist SOS as a HR project through a faculty instructed course- Applied Business Project I to develop a strategic HR plan to research and examine effective recruitment, selection, engagement and retention strategies for not-for-profit student organizations. I wanted to understand why students on campus – those who did- got involved in extra-curricular activities, and also why those who didn’t chose to not apply themselves outside of academics. Sensing a lack of awareness as being the primary cause, I suggested to my team that we host a motivational event for students on campus, where guest-speakers would be asked to speak to students about their views on success. It was called: Redefining Success- How to Win at University & Life. (Guest-speakers booked were: Brett Wilson from Dragon’s Den fame, Mark Fenske, a Harvard-trained neuroscientist, Matt Steffler and Glenna Banda, two Guelph alumni entrepreneurs who founded the Southern Ontario Amazing Race and Greg Overholt, the founder and Executive Director of Students Offering Support).

Doing this alongside my academics, I gained an understanding of how to study more efficiently, how to manage my time much more effectively and moreover how to goal set and successfully execute. My interest in teaching those around me and personally continuing to learn began to thrive off the feedback I was receiving from the students I was interacting with. Students were sharing that after hearing stories from successful people; they found new inspiration to make more of their time at university.

They shared that they often felt lost in understanding what to make of their undergraduate studies, and were appreciative of events such as the one our club ran in promoting awareness about becoming proactive about their educational experience at the undergraduate level.

Relating back to my experiences, I understood what the impact of profound learning could do; hence I was inspired to do something similar for another cause I was beginning to witness: the lack of female leadership around me. Therefore, I co-founded a club on campus – Guelph Commerce Women in Business – to motivate other female students to take charge and fall in love with leading for change just as much as I had.

Through this venture, my team and I initiated another motivational speaker event hosting a panel of powerful women titled: Building Beyond the Glass Ceiling: Empowering Women to Lead & Succeed. Affirming the need for additional learning and growing platforms outside of the classroom, I look forward to expanding upon this venture once I return to my studies in the Fall of 2014.

Overall, personally, leadership has always been about setting an example of courage and conviction – just as my parents had initially done for me.

Effective and stirring leadership lies in demonstrating that hardships are not the end of the road, but rather the foundation to build a bridge upon; that successes are never ultimate, but in fact stepping stones to touch others and help them out of their darkness as well.

Today, I can humbly share with my peers that if I can escape a place of despair, that they can too. The student I was entering my post-secondary journey as and the student I continue to remain today are the very same person – except with an entirely new perspective and hunger on what it means to authentically learn.

I hope my story is able to share with you, that as a student and learner, the pursuit of education is life-long; it is never confined to a period of years or to the requirements of a degree; rather, the pursuit of learning is the only key to survival, as we humans have an eternally curious mind and a great thirst to discover.

Reflecting back, today, I continue my leadership journey by following my convictions, in hopes that others around me are inspired to do the same.

More so, I’m lured by a lifelong quest which asks:

“Why not me? Why not here? Why not now?”

– and I hope you are lured in the very same way too.

Be Always Blooming,

Shwetha

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