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On your marks, get set, study

Contributors write about their experiences within U of T’s highly competitive environment

On your marks, get set, study

It’s not unwarranted to call U of T a pressure cooker, especially around this stressful time of year. Below, students reflect on how their experiences with competition at the university have shaped their lives, for better or for worse.

Dreams of med school bring out the best and worst in students

As a first-year Life Sciences student, I feel like U of T is much more competitive than my high school, and probably most universities in Canada. In general, for any program, the standards needed to excel are quite high — you’re expected to maintain 85 per cent averages for all courses if you aim to achieve a 4.0, irrespective of the nature of the course. This can be very difficult depending on the courses you take; while I breeze through biology courses, I struggle to do well in organic chemistry.

There’s also the fact that many people in Life Sciences are gunning for medical school, which often requires maintaining averages of 90 per cent or higher as well as a full course load every year. I’m not surprised to find many of my classmates frantically studying overnight at Robarts on a regular basis, or plowing through stacks of past papers the night before an exam.

The competition that comes out of this environment can also spawn a sense of self-importance. I was initially quite baffled when I heard friends complaining about “only” getting an 85 per cent grade. However, given that perfect grades are not merely an asset for them to get into medical school — they’re a requirement — I eventually came to understand their discontent.

Nevertheless, I don’t think that the rigorous academic culture at U of T is necessarily a bad thing. The environment has forced me to adopt better study habits and manage my time more effectively, but I’ve still managed to enjoy some free time to pursue my hobbies now and then. Plus, U of T has more opportunities in terms of research and internships compared to other universities, so I think the extra effort comes with its rewards.

All in all, what you put into a degree is what you get out of it. While it may be harder to do well at U of T or in certain programs, it certainly isn’t impossible, and being surrounded by people of equal or higher calibre can make it all the more worthwhile.

Jeffrey To is a first-year student at University College studying Life Sciences.

An emphasis on grades pits overachieving peers against one another

University is the first experience that many students, including me, have with living independently. As such, the university experience can be daunting to begin with. Add to this the spectre of responsibility thrust upon us: our lives depend upon the grades, extracurriculars, and work experiences that we can cram into our résumés within the time it takes to complete a degree.

Since I entered the Biochemistry program with expectations of getting into medical school — perhaps the most coveted aspiration in Life Sciences — my grades were always in the background of every decision I made, often waiting to jump out into unrelated conversations. The pressure to make the cut for the limited positions in a highly competitive field led me to compare my stats with others, always wanting to outscore them. Examinations, quizzes, and assignments were regular topics of discussion, as I was surrounded by friends and peers reaching for the same golden ticket.

Their scores became a measuring stick. When asked about my grades, being able to retort with a higher mark than the ones they had achieved became a target in and of itself. There was great joy when I did well and greater misery when I did not — and my disappointment would be further compounded when I heard about others’ successes. Gleaned from their reactions to my results, it was often clear that their experiences were not too distant from mine.

Despite the significant knowledge and experiences provided at university, the markers of quality are partly implied by our grades. Among my group of friends, the implicit understanding of the competition and its rules was left unspoken, as if such thoughts were taboo. Reflecting back, such competition seems to me to be a natural product of high expectations and the quest for success.

Vaibhav Bhandari is a graduate student in the Department of Biochemistry.

Competition is conducive to survival in a brutal job market

Undoubtedly, U of T has a highly competitive environment. Rigorous academic standards and seemingly neverending piles of coursework are the main staples of student life at this university. The prestige of attending what is, by many accounts, Canada’s top university also breeds competitiveness, with students pressured by intense expectations to do well. At the same time, many students work hard in the hopes that job offers will line up once they take their first steps outside Convocation Hall post-graduation.

Unfortunately, it’s a cruel world out there in terms of job prospects, even for U of T grads. As of the Statistics Canada Labour Force Survey conducted in February 2017, the unemployment rate for people aged 15–24 is twice that of the general population. In a job market saturated by graduates holding bachelor’s degrees, more than a quarter of them are underemployed — people who hold degrees often end up in jobs that don’t require them. The fear of not scoring a job post-grad generates even more competition, as students must dedicate more hours to filling up their résumés while maintaining good grades.

From my own experience, the competitive environment at U of T only made me more zealous. To outcompete other students, I spent my summers working internships and gaining job experience. Similarly, my peers spent their summers working for different companies. With everyone grinding and hustling, the desire to compare and ‘beat’ each other becomes toxic. I have friends complaining about other people’s successes while berating and putting themselves under more pressure. I have also known overly eager students who have put their academics above all else, sometimes at the cost of their friendships. It is not uncommon to hear about probation periods slapped onto underperforming students or of students dropping out of school altogether.

At the same time, this exposure to competition — and to the realities of the job market — was a useful experience. It made me mentally tougher and more equipped to deal with pressures after university. In this way, the competitive environment at U of T is a double-edged sword. Staying ahead of the game is not easy, but given the state of the job market, a certain level of competition is a necessary reality.

Arnold Yung graduated from St. Michael’s College in November 2017 and holds a degree in History.

From stress in academia to success in student journalism

I came to U of T believing that I was going to become an English professor and an important asset to English scholarship. I had little knowledge of the competitive nature of the institution as a whole.

In first year, my self-esteem plummeted. The high school literature nerd had somehow received a C+ on her first paper in ENG150 — The Literary Tradition, while my friend had received a B. It seemed as if I was the only student performing below average on assignments while my peers were receiving As and Bs. Truthfully, even by my second year, I wasn’t able to handle the rigorous competition in my classes because of the ‘trauma’ of receiving bad grades on essays, pieces of writing in which I had always prided myself.

During my initial period of frustration at the university, I joined a few extracurricular activities that shared one commonality: student journalism. Writing for various publications became my safe haven from the low points in my classes, and I started to prioritize my journalistic work at the expense of my schoolwork. I fell in love with the fast-paced newsrooms, the daunting deadlines, and the editors with their endless comments on pieces I thought wouldn’t get published, until to my surprise, my work ended up on newsstands a week later.

I realized that I was not suited to the intense competition of getting the highest mark among my peers that I experienced inside the classroom. But competition in the journalism environment was not only addictive, it was empowering. I stopped feeling a sense of defeat from academic failures and started to thrive from competition I experienced in the newsroom. Perhaps this preference was fueled by the fact that my English peers praised me for my journalistic work, or that many of them thought they were simply not cut out for the fast-paced environment of journalism. I came to realize that competition was exciting and liberating in an environment where I felt recognized and acknowledged — feelings that I had not experienced within the classroom setting.

Reflecting on the four years I have spent at U of T, I realize that my initial career path was irrelevant to my true passions. U of T is a highly competitive school. But sometimes, that competition helps you figure out what you really want to do with your life.

Carol Eugene Park is a fourth-year student at Victoria College studying English and Renaissance Studies.

The climb to the top can come at the expense of mental wellness

The competitive environment at U of T has definitely had an impact on my own mental health. There is an inherent hypocrisy evident within the competitive attitude that the school espouses. We know that talking to others, developing a more open school environment, and sharing our problems are surefire ways to alleviate students’ mental health problems. However, the way that competition at the university manifests itself is often through the creation of cliques centred on accomplishment, which are present everywhere from upper-year classes to course-based student unions.

Within these groups, the discussion is often dominated by the most experienced students: those who are involved in research projects or those who have valuable internships or jobs on their résumés. It can be hard to break into a conversation in a class or at an event when you don’t have the requisite experiences to keep up with others in the group.

Not only does this create a crushing sense of anonymity as you go into your upper years, but it also has a damaging effect on mental health. When the community on campus is centred on individual productivity as opposed to solidarity, feeling excluded or unworthy can cause self-esteem issues and does not do much to help against the forces of isolation that drive depression and anxiety. Just as importantly, this kind of social environment is incompatible with the university’s efforts to improve mental health among the student body. It is difficult to build communities focused on unity and equity when we are pressured to talk about inherently stratifying subjects like grades and work.

If we want to work to improve our collective mental health, we have to consciously steer conversations at university away from the idea of productivity — even if that means moving the higher-achieving ones among us away from the centre of attention for once. Yet if we continue to prioritize competition, ongoing mental health crises will become harder and harder to beat.

Arjun Kaul is a fourth-year student at St. Michael’s College studying Neuroscience.

Overwhelming responsibilities sometimes become too much to bear

I often tell my friends that I could never attend Harvard, if only because of how competitive it is. It is ironic, then, that I am a student at U of T — an institution that is sometimes referred to as the ‘Harvard of the North.’

Yes, U of T is competitive. Probably thanks to U of T’s incredible PR team, I thought the competition would be healthy instead of harmful before I started at the university. Healthy competition is good; it is what pushes me to participate more in class, enables me to stay motivated, and encourages me to study harder so I can use my good marks as an excuse to treat myself.

The kind of competition I find at U of T, however, is the opposite of healthy. Students at U of T are implicitly expected to balance five courses — one of which might be a research or independent study course — and to not only finish all of their assignments and tests but also to get good grades on them. Further, students are expected to balance their academic careers with volunteering in clubs or organizations on campus to build their CCR records. Many students also work part-time because the transit fares required to get to and from campus, let alone the tickets to pub nights and socials, are not going to pay for themselves.

Juggling all these responsibilities while also trying to preserve my health, ‘networking’ in search of professional opportunities, and maintaining a social life outside of school have caused my shoulders to sag permanently under the weight of the workload. My eyes are haunted by dark circles, and my face is dotted with pimples born of the heady concoction of too much stress and too little sleep.

The pressure to be well-rounded is daunting and can take a toll on your mental health. It is hard to feel good enough, and it is easy to feel guilty for burning out when it seems like no matter what you do, someone else is doing more and doing it better.

I don’t regret my decision to study at U of T because the opportunities and resources it has to offer put other universities to shame. However, while I do think that the pressure U of T puts on me is the cause for much of my stress, the university should — through improving its mental health services — also provide the solution.

Zeahaa Rehman is a third-year student at UTM studying Linguistics and Professional Writing and Communication.

Administrative delays only add to student stress

From delays in posting marks on ACORN to the untimely release of the exam schedule, the Faculty of Arts & Science should be more concerned with timeliness

Administrative delays only add to student stress

Over the past few months, students in the Faculty of Arts & Science (FAS) have been subjected to various inconveniences. At the beginning of the winter semester, marks for several courses from the fall semester were not available on ACORN, with some marks not posted until as late as January 17. Students in CSC236, CSC324, CSC411, STA347, JAV200, and ARC251 were particularly affected by this.

The FAS did not offer a satisfactory explanation or an apology. Instead, Deborah Robinson, Faculty Registrar and Director of Undergraduate Academic Services, excused the delay by stating that most students had their marks by January 11.

More recently, “technical issues” caused a delay in the release of the FAS exam schedule. Some students did manage to access the schedule after refreshing the page several times, creating a situation in which only a small handful of students were able to access what should have been available to all.

Though the exam schedule was eventually released online after a couple of days, the FAS failed to fully explain what the exact nature of the problem was, let alone issue any kind of apology. They released a GIF of a cheerful student when the exam timetable finally became available.

Both of these delays may seem like mere inconveniences, but they can, in fact, cause real problems for students. The delayed first semester grades resulted in a great deal of uncertainty: some students found themselves unsure if they were able to apply to a certain program of study, if they had fulfilled necessary prerequisites, or if they needed to retake any classes to obtain a credit or improve their marks.

And while it is fortunate that the exam schedule was posted shortly after the scheduled release date, one can imagine the many potential problems that can come from not knowing your exam schedule. Deferring exams, or rescheduling them due to conflicts, can be an onerous process in and of itself, while uncertainty in the schedule can also delay students’ ability to make summer plans.

After these delays, the best the FAS has managed to offer its students has been to thank them for being patient. What they should have done instead was explain what was going on and clarify any technical issues while also telling students how those issues were being addressed, even if they were unable to specify a timeline.

It’s also important for students to know if these delays are merely flukes in a system that generally works well, or if they are symbolic of larger technical or organizational problems in the FAS. Students have a right to know what’s going on, especially with so much at stake. The consequences of grade delays can be very serious — they can even impact the educational and career tracks of students who need their grades to apply to graduate programs or jobs.

Incidentally, technical difficulties at U of T do not just occur within the FAS. In May 2017, thousands of U of T email accounts were inaccessible for days after access was meant to be restored. However, in that instance, there was a clear explanation: the accounts had been temporarily deactivated to facilitate their transfer to a more local data centre. The lack of access was obviously frustrating, but at least we all understood the source of the problem and knew that it was unlikely to happen again.

Hopefully the posting of the exam schedule signals the end of the FAS’s technical issues. If not, I hope that student frustration will at least encourage the FAS to be more open about the causes of any future issues as they take steps to fix them.

Adina Heisler is a third-year student at University College studying English and Women and Gender Studies. She is The Varsity’s Student Life Columnist.

Narrowing the gap between graduate students and The Varsity

Room for improvement in coverage of graduate students

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As a PhD student at the university, I’ve sometimes felt a disconnect between The Varsity and the graduate student body. Recently, other graduate students have noted this disconnect as well, commenting on stories that either miss opportunities to engage with graduate students or expose a limited understanding of the graduate experience.

Last week, The Varsity ran an article entitled “Scientific research’s race problem” that argued against the use of race — commonly recognized to be a social construct — as a control in genetic studies. A U of T graduate and now PhD student studying population genetics at Indiana University commented underneath the story on social media, pointing out that although race is understood to be a social construct, it is often correlated with geographic location and controlled for in his discipline as an available proxy for population stratification.

The issue is a reasonable one to disagree on, but it was the PhD student’s closing comment that stood out to me. In it, he wrote, “Despite being squarely in the realm of human population genetics, this article doesn’t cite a single paper or interview a single researcher from that field.”

It’s a good point. As the university’s campus newspaper, The Varsity is uniquely situated vis-à-vis the campus’ academic communities. It is surrounded by the expertise of the university’s scholars and graduate student scholars-in-training. It has little excuse for not incorporating this knowledge into its coverage.

In other instances, The Varsity’s coverage of campus has suggested it doesn’t quite have a feel for the issues that matter to graduate students. In a recent example, the paper covered the university’s announcement that international PhD students would no longer pay higher tuition than domestic students. Yet the piece quotes at length a master’s student not covered by the change. No PhD student affected by the change was interviewed.

A second example involved a January comment piece arguing that the University of Toronto Graduate Students’ Union (UTGSU) should be playing a larger role in addressing sexual assault of graduate students by academic advisers. The column was not a problem from the perspective of journalistic ethics — it was a comment piece, and the author can express the view she wants to, so long as it is based in a reasonable interpretation of fact.

My question is whether commentary on the issue would have been the same if The Varsity had a larger graduate student presence. I do not speak on behalf of the graduate student body, but my own conversations with colleagues tell me that this perspective might not fit with how graduate students experience and engage with campus. The UTGSU exists to advocate on behalf of graduate students as students. Many graduate students also interact with academic advisers as employees, or education workers, of the university, and they are represented by the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 3902 in this capacity. In response to the comment piece, the UTGSU itself argued that it simply does not have the resources to remedy the university’s shortcomings in handling sexual violence.

It is arguably unfair to have too high expectations of The Varsity’s coverage of graduate student life. The newspaper’s per-student levy has only ever been paid by undergraduate students. Consequently, only undergraduates sit on The Varsity’s masthead, its main decision-making body.

But The Varsity is the university’s largest student newspaper. Though an undergraduate paper, it is often the best — and sometimes only — source of campus goings-on for both graduate and undergraduate students. Its mandate — to keep readers informed on campus affairs — is essentially unfulfillable without coverage that impacts both groups.

Last week, graduate students voted in favour of establishing a $0.80 levy for full-time graduates. The results were close and turnout was low, but the referendum’s success means that for the first time, graduate students can have a spot on the newspaper’s masthead and can sit on its board as elected directors. It remains to be seen is if this change will help narrow the disconnect between The Varsity and the graduate student body.

Drumroll, please, for Our Lady Peace

In conversation with drummer Jason Pierce on the band's new album and tour

Drumroll, please, for Our Lady Peace

In 1991, U of T criminology student Michael Maida, now known as Raine, put out an ad to find musicians for his band. Now, 27 years later, that band, Our Lady Peace, is still touring Canada and releasing new music.

On February 23, Our Lady Peace released its ninth studio album, Somethingness, before heading on a cross Canada tour. Their newest band member, drummer Jason Pierce, spoke with The Varsity about joining the band, his personal career, and what to expect at the band’s two Toronto shows.

The Varsity: How is this album different than others that Our Lady Peace has released in the past?

Jason Pierce: Well, this will be the first record that I have any involvement in playing on and writing, the first record that has been released since I joined the band.

TV: You’ve been on tour with the band and you’ve played songs off of previous albums. Are there any differences between this record and those before?

JP: I feel like there’s a more edgy element on the new record, specifically on tracks like “Head Down” and “Drop Me In The Water.” There is a more edgy, dirty guitar-driven sound on a few tracks, compared to the last few records.

TV: Our Lady Peace is one of the most successful Canadian bands, with their records going 12 times platinum and one-time diamond in Canada while releasing nine albums in over a quarter of a century. What do you think makes this band so successful?

JP: I feel like it has a lot to do with being honest and being true. None of the songs on any of the records, from what I’ve seen, are contrived. Everything is very much there for a reason and there because everybody wanted it to be there. It’s not there just to put a song on a record. What also makes the band, from my perspective, is the fans. The way they appreciate the band… they are the reason that we still get to do this.

TV: You’re working with Raine, and he is technically the only original member left. He went to the University of Toronto. What’s it like working with him?

JP: Incredible, just incredible. He’s got this built-in dynamic. Something incredible to see. I’ve got to learn a lot from watching him.

TV: How does the band carry themselves when writing new music, specifically now that it’s been 24 years since their first released album?

JP: Actually, I believe this record is done a little bit differently. Duncan [Coutts, the band’s bassist] and I get together a few times a week and we write together. So, we’ve been presenting songs for the new record to the rest of the guys. So, it is a pretty equal share of songs that Duncan and I have started and songs that the other guys have started. It’s really a collective on this record.

TV: You technically joined the band in 2014 on tour, and then officially in 2016. Before that, you toured with acts such as Paramore, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Justin Bieber. I was wondering what tour is most memorable to you, outside of Our Lady Peace.

JP: Outside of Our Lady Peace, it would probably be my first tour with Paramore. Just because it was the first time I got to play with a band of that scale and shows of that scale. We were over in Europe doing arenas and stadiums. It was incredible. It really opened my eyes to the fact that that level of touring still exists, especially in this day and age.

TV: You’ve played stadiums, arenas, and now you’re going to be playing in smaller venues. What do you prefer when you’re playing onstage? Is it looking out to see thousands of people, or is it when you have a smaller audience and feel more connected?

JP: It’s kind of a double-edged sword, because [at] the bigger venues, there’s this energy you just cannot get from a smaller venue. But like you said, it’s so much less connected once you get used to that. When you do start going back to the smaller venues again, it’s eye-opening how terrifying it is when you can actually see past the people in the first 10 rows. So, I don’t know which one I actually prefer. It’s a completely different skill set. As a musician, you play to the room, and playing to a smaller room is different than playing to a football stadium.

TV: Other than Raine, Our Lady Peace is a band that has seen their members change over time. Is it hard to join a band that’s already solidified their name, or is it easier knowing that the support is already there?

JP: Yeah, it’s great that the support is already there. I think one of the hardest things to do is to almost live up to people’s expectations of you, just because you’re filling the shoes of people who are already great. It’s just trying to do your own thing and still trying to stay at that level.

TV: You’re going to be playing two shows in Toronto. What’s it like knowing many, if not most, of your fans that are going to be out at the shows on this tour are not old enough to know the first records that were released by Our Lady Peace?

JP: I have never thought about that before. It’s kind of scary.

TV: I’m speaking from experience; I wasn’t born when the first two Our Lady Peace albums were released.

JP: That’s incredible that the band has been around for this long. I love that. And it’s going to be cool because then you get to actually play that old material and it’s new to them. That’s totally a plus.

TV: These fans both new and old, those who have been with the band since 1991 and those who are just picking it up from Somethingness — what can these fans expect on this tour?

JP: Expect a good amount of new material but also paying respect to the catalogue. We’re still playing the hits, but we’re incorporating different new material every night. We have songs that we pop in place of other songs. We’re playing a larger, more diverse collection of songs.

TV: Would you say that going to both shows in Toronto, you would experience two different shows?

JP: 100 per cent, there is no way we’ll play the same set.

TV: Does that exemplify how the band is staying true to itself? It’s not out there to play to the majority, it’s out there doing its own thing.

JP: Totally, totally man. You have to do that stuff that turns yourself on before you can try to present that to the masses.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Our Lady Peace will perform at Massey Hall on March 15 and at Rebel on March 16.

Overlooked: The Florida Project

Another year, another awards season snub

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Perhaps by now I should be used to the fact that some of the greatest films will go unappreciated by the Academy. However, this year, I could no longer sit idly by as another movie joined the ranks of undeserved Oscar snubs. The Florida Project does everything a great movie is supposed to do, but its contribution was unjustly overlooked at this year’s Academy Awards.

A dreamy visual experience that at least warranted a nomination for Best Cinematography, The Florida Project puts you in the shoes of Moonee, a six-year-old girl living in a rundown motel on the outskirts of Disney World with her young mother, who is in many ways a child herself. Moonee is mischievous, carefree, a bit of a brat, and part of a demographic in America known as the ‘hidden homeless’ — those who live in temporary housing and are often forgotten by society.

While Moonee’s situation may be heartbreaking to many, the film is not made to make you feel hopeless. Instead, it’s a celebration of childhood, friendship, and family — just not in a context that many of us have experienced.

But through the genius of writer and director Sean Baker, you almost feel like you’ve lived through what Moonee is experiencing. Baker fully immerses you into her world, one in which the adults loom over the camera and the sky is shot as a wide, open expanse. The world seems so vast from the perspective of a child, and, through Baker’s talent with the camera, that’s exactly how the viewer sees it.

Beyond the visual elements of the film, Baker also manages to blend perfect childhood innocence with the realities of poverty in America. Moonee plays in abandoned houses with her friends, which to them seem like a playground, but to us are yet more failed housing developments in post-recession America.

It’s little signs like these, the bittersweet notes that surface throughout the film, that give an indication of what lies just beyond the periphery of Moonee’s world. You come to love Moonee, with all her sass and charm, but you know what hardship lies in her future and in the futures of all the real children who live a life like hers.

Movies are made to take you out of your own life and open your eyes to the different lived experiences of others. When a film truly does its job, you come out of it as a changed person with a better understanding of a small part of the world.

A good movie makes you empathize, not just sympathize — The Florida Project succeeded in doing this in every way, and it doesn’t need an Academy Award to tell me that.

Overlooked is a recurring feature in the Arts & Culture section where writers make the case for pieces of culture that don’t get the attention they deserve. To contribute, email [email protected]

Planet 50:50 conference emphasizes female empowerment in the entrepreneurial world

The event at Hart House was hosted by multiple U of T clubs

Planet 50:50 conference emphasizes female empowerment in the entrepreneurial world

On Saturday, March 3, the Gender Equality: Planet 50:50 Conference was held at Hart House. The event was hosted by the UN Women of University of Toronto, the Eastern African Students’ Association, Her Campus U of T, and the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

The event on women and gender empowerment was UN Women’s first academic conference — hopefully with many more to come. Proceeds from the event, which had a suggested admission fee of $5, went to the nonprofit organization Girl Up, which funds United Nations programs that promote the health, safety, education, and leadership of girls in developing countries.

The event showcased a wide array of speakers, who all had something different to contribute to the arena. Speakers were categorized into three different themes: “Women and the Media,” “Women in Power and Decision Making,” and “Human Rights and Women.”

The main organizer of the event was Julia Mogus, the president and founder of the UN Women club. Mogus and the other members of the UN Women executive wanted to draw attention to local leaders in the community who were challenging norms, breaking the glass ceiling, and empowering other women.

The first speaker was Zaina Moussa, a fourth-year Communication Technology major. Moussa talked about how she discovered her passion for entrepreneurship after being a vendor when she was 10 years old. She started an event planning business when she was 19, called Zuri Curated Ladies Events.

Moussa’s company creates women-only events to promote women in entrepreneurship and celebrate diversity. The latest event she is promoting is ‘The Second Annual Run The World Ladies’ event on April 28, which will showcase and support local “girl bosses,” as well as feature a diverse fashion show and a female empowerment speaker to inspire attendees.

Another speaker of note was Ani Castillo, a local artist who creates art that emphasizes body empowerment and breaking gender norms. Castillo discussed her childhood in Mexico and how she got her start as a cartoonist for a local newspaper. She then met her husband on MySpace, which is what brought her to Toronto.

Castillo was open about her struggles of transition as an immigrant in a new country, which was one of the motivators behind her now popular cartoons and artwork. With her husband, she has co-founded Miniature Massive, a communications firm, and also currently works at Metro News Canada as an artist and cartoonist.

Other speakers included Shahab Madhi, the founder of BLACKORCHID, a clothing brand that uses pop culture to create positive representation of Muslims; Darine BenAmara, the founder and CEO of EasyPoli Consulting and The Smart Woman, which support the advancement of gender equality in the workplace; and Susan G. Enberg, an independent documentary film director and photographer whose work focuses on social change and human rights.

The final speaker at the conference was Hanen Nanaa. Nanaa discussed how she had to pause her education in 2012 because of the Syrian civil war. She also detailed her experience of moving to Canada in February 2017. Today, Nanaa supports others — especially women and youth — to be active in their community and follow their dreams.

Overall, the Planet 50:50 conference was an eye-opening and liberating experience. Hearing such personal stories of female empowerment was encouraging, and it was a privilege to witness the work the speakers do, not only for their own communities but for the progress of gender equality and women as a whole.

14 tips for navigating a bad mental health day

Be kind to yourself — this, too, shall pass

14 tips for navigating a bad mental health day

A few weeks ago, I was rejected from a job, some of my friends were unsupportive, and I lost a pair of brand new 100 per cent cotton knickers — all before lunchtime.

When you’re already overwhelmed, it’s easy to have days when the ‘non-issues’ amplify your anxieties. The winter season in particular makes it especially difficult to balance academics, work, and a social life, often resulting in strains on our mental health.

As the academic year is wrapping up and the pressure is on, I’ve compiled a list of 14 top tips to help you navigate a bad mental health day.

  1. Allow yourself to be upset about the ‘non-issues.’ While it’s probably a good idea not to dwell — personally, I have a tendency to obsess over small events — it’s imperative that you remember that your feelings are valid and that you are valid.
  2. Drink water, lots of it. I like to put slices of oranges, lemons, cucumbers, et cetera in my water bottle — it makes me feel bougie.
  3. Go for a walk! A run! A swim! Running has helped to tame my own anxieties. Shockingly, exercise does actually help perk up those pesky endorphins.
  4. Protect and put yourself first. I’ve become a master at removing myself from situations or distancing myself from individuals who cause me stress or unhappiness. There’s a scene in Love Actually in which Andrew Lincoln’s character says, “It’s a self-preservation thing.” That’s what you have to say to yourself every time toxicity ebbs its way into your life.
  5. Mindfulness, meditation, and yoga are great ways to relieve stress. You can do them in your bedroom or go to a class. There are even free workshops dotted around campus.
  6. Talk to a friend. This one can be hard, because occasionally people don’t respond constructively. However, I’ve found that even a ‘for goodness sake Kashi, stop weeping’ is better than spiralling out of control while alone at 5:00 am.
  7. Write a list of things you’re grateful for. They help to shift your perspective, and I’ve heard Oprah swears by them. If Oprah’s doing it, you should be too.
  8. Shower, sleep, and eat properly. Create a routine and stick to it — I’ve yet to master this one, but I know it works. I did it for all of two weeks and I didn’t cry once.
  9. Surround yourself with positivity: watch trashy films, listen to happy music, read The Varsity. Don’t forget to treat yourself, whether that’s with an extra hour in bed or buying a donut for an indulgent snack.
  10. Spend less time on social media. It’s emotionally exhausting to compare yourself to others, even if you’re only doing it subconsciously. You’ll also have more time to spend on course readings!
  11. Learn to accept where you are and how you’re feeling. Sometimes you have to let your mental health waver in order to bounce back at full strength.
  12. You are more than your academic grades. Doing poorly on a midterm, paper, or in a course does not define who you are or what you’ll become! You’re doing great! Focus on being happy with who you are and with what you’ve already accomplished.
  13. Remember that there is a difference between mental health and mental illness. Sometimes it’s more than just a ‘bad mental health day,’ and drinking cucumber water is not going to make you feel better. If you have been struggling with more than just your mental health and are feeling vulnerable, you can ring Good2Talk at +1 (866) 925-5454 or Accessibility Services at (416) 978-8060.
  14. Be kind to yourself. Remember to breathe. This, too, shall pass.

Seven years after Fukushima

Nuclear disaster aftermath affects environment and energy policies today

Seven years after Fukushima

March 11, 2018 marks the seventh anniversary of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, the most significant nuclear incident since the 1986 Chernobyl explosion in Ukraine. The disaster has led to extensive scientific research in the affected areas in an effort to learn about its effects.

Triggered by a 9.0 magnitude earthquake, a massive tsunami off the coast of Japan destroyed the power and cooling systems of three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. With the reactors melting down over the course of a few hours, the disaster caused significant environmental, economic, and psychological damage to the area and its residents.

Environmental research has examined the impact of the release of radioisotopes from the meltdown on terrestrial and marine wildlife. A review from 2015 observed declines in bird, butterfly, and cicada populations in Fukushima forests as well as abnormal morphological growth in aphids and trees.

In addition to environmental harm, researchers estimate that the total human mortality from the event will be around 10,000 with an additional lifetime cancer mortality of 1,500.

The remains of a house in Iwaki, Fukushima. ANDY TAKAGI/THE VARSITY

At the time of the event, over 150,000 people in the area were evacuated en masse, with many ending up in temporary housing. While Japanese authorities claim that the area is safe and are proceeding to move residents back to the area, people remain hesitant.

Skepticism about safety stems from recent reports of robots being destroyed within hours of being sent into the reactor buildings. Likewise, a recent Greenpeace Japan report claims that current radiation levels remain three times higher than government targets despite cleanup work in the area. This suggests that the area may not be habitable just yet.

Globally, there has been growing skepticism toward nuclear energy. While nuclear generation provides cheap electricity and does not emit greenhouse gases, a 2013 study examining 42 countries found that the Fukushima event has shifted views on nuclear energy toward the negative.

Japan shut down its nuclear power enterprise in the wake of the event and currently provides monthly updates to the International Atomic Energy Agency on the status of the Fukushima Daiichi. Germany has shut down several of its reactors and recently reaffirmed its commitment to phase out nuclear power by 2022.

Collected trash and radioactive dirt from government clean-up effort.
ANDY TAKAGI/THE VARSITY

Other countries appear open to the idea as well. South Korean President Moon Jae-in promised to eliminate both coal and nuclear power, though there are clear challenges to keeping this promise: nine reactors have opened in South Korea since 2000, and five are currently under construction. Japan has brought five reactors online as of September 2017, with more to come in the future.

Despite changing attitudes, not a lot has changed in relation to the production and generation of nuclear energy since the event, according to Steve Hoffman, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology.

“Among the large nuclear producers, only two nations shifted their nuclear energy policies in a significant way in the wake of the Fukushima disaster – Japan and Germany… [However], the reductions of major producers like Japan and Germany has been offset by the increased production in China, which has been growing their nuclear fleet at an extremely rapid rate,” wrote Hoffman.

Hoffman has researched the impact of the Fukushima disaster on German and American energy policies.

There have been several protests against nuclear energy in response to Fukushima. In Europe, 50,000 people from Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands formed a human chain in June 2017, calling for the closure of two of Belgium’s nuclear reactors.

The disaster has also shifted energy-related policies such as plans for the development of a deep geological repository to store high-level nuclear fuel waste. Countries like South Korea now have a ‘wait-and-see’ approach to storing nuclear waste.

“The big story of energy policy around the world in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster is that very, very little changed. Globally, nuclear production has levelled off, but that has been happening since Chernobyl. By and large global production is about the same before and after Fukushima,” wrote Hoffman.