Cindy Ewing is an assistant professor of contemporary international history. Among others, Ewing teaches TRN250 — Ordering International Relations in the Age of Empire, a signature course of the International Relations program. Her research interests focus on twentieth century international history, specifically the Cold War in Asia and the development of international institutions. Drawing on her extensive experience in these fields, she is currently working on her first book and holds a position on the editorial board of The New Rambler Review of Books. She sat down with The Varsity to speak about her life and time at U of T.
The Varsity: What do you think you know about living a happy and successful life that you didn’t know when you were 20?
Cindy Ewing: When I was 20 years old, I was still in college and I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, and I didn’t know what I was going to do after graduation. But college is full of so many different experiences that you learn a lot about yourself in addition to what you are passionate about. There are a few things I learned in life, in college, that really have been helpful for me now.
I have also learned since my college years that there are things we worry about when we are 20, and we think we will decide a lot of things that really don’t matter. Or we feel that the decisions we make will decide things permanently, when in fact we have more options then we think. Life is so much more surprising than we are aware of when we are 20 years old.
Something else that I have learned is that life is so much more colourful, interesting, varied, and adventurous than I could have imagined when I was 20. And that the choices and mistakes I made then don’t have the same impact that I feared they might. It is possible to come back from things, or rebound from things which may feel very dramatic or determinative but, in fact, are part of shaping who you are.
TV: Have you ever driven important lessons from difficult or stressful experiences? Can you give some examples?
CE: I have personally had a challenging life and there are a number of different experiences I could talk about, but I will focus on a few that are relevant to college. When I was a university student, I had to work a lot of part-time jobs to make ends meet. It wasn’t something that many of my friends did, so that was something that at times felt like a challenge that only I had to experience, and it was difficult.
There are all kinds of social and cultural reasons why that is difficult but more than anything, balancing everything was really hard. It helped to be organized, but on the other hand I felt that I really had to find ways to sustain myself and to find my meaning and self-worth in things other than the types of benchmarks for success that I think often we feel are true for everyone in college. It was difficult for me to work sometimes 30 hours per week while pursuing full-time education and still be part of extracurriculars and still be a good friend.
At times it was exhausting, I worked so hard that at one point I got very sick in college and I had to think about whether I was going to stay enrolled or not. I was able to take a little bit of time off, but also stay enrolled and graduate, do well, and pursue what I care about — which is now teaching. I learned that it’s really important to understand how to care for yourself and to ask for help.
I was able to do both of those things because I was privileged enough to go to the school I did, and had friends who were looking out for me. It was very possible that I would not have finished college. That can be surprising to hear from a professor, but I think that many of us experience things in that time and other times that make it unclear if we can go on. Again, I think the important thing is to know how to care for yourself, how to rest, how to find what really is peace for you, and to know when to ask for help.
TV: Do you have any advice for students dealing with uncertainty about the future?
CE: The first is that it will be okay and that the future is uncertain at every stage of life — not only in college. It will be uncertain as you go forward. The uncertainty is something that we live with; it can shape our lives, but it can also control us. I think that instead being flexible and going along for the ride is probably the best way to approach it. It can feel impossible to balance everything. Ultimately, you do make choices about what matters to you. I don’t think it’s true that you can have it all, I think this is something that especially bears heavily on women, especially women who are well educated and feel that they need to be successful in a conventional way.
In fact, we make choices about what matters to us and I think it’s important to be true to those choices. Those are commitments we make; they may be passions we follow or they may be responsibilities we have. But whatever choices we make, my advice to my students is to always do those well and to do those completely. Once we can disabuse ourselves of that myth that we have to have it all, it becomes much easier to find what we love and be able to love those things well.
TV: What are you currently working on?
CE: So I am an assistant professor of history, but I am also a faculty member in the International Relations program at Trinity College. So I teach courses in global history, international history, and diplomatic history, mostly focused on the modern period. I teach a course called TRN250 — Ordering International Relations in the Age of Empire, which is the signature course of the International Relations program. It’s a large course but we cover all of the history in the modern era.
I also teach courses on my passions. One of them is on the history of the Vietnam War and another is a focus seminar on human rights and empire. In the future, I will teach courses on US foreign policy and the Cold War.
I am working on my first book, which is a history of the post-colonial world and its contributions to international human rights. I am working on a few other projects; one of them is on the enduring problem of recognizing minority rights in the Indian subcontinent. I have some other work on what it meant to say no to the Vietnam War and the Cold War. These are all historical subjects that I love very much and I’m working on developing them into different books and articles. Otherwise, I try to stay involved in Trinity College.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The photos from this article were inspired by Sean Tucker’s Mentors series.
Editor’s note (March 17, 2021): This article has been updated to add context on the artist’s inspiration for the series.