Episode 26: Learning That Your Grades Do Not Define Your Self-Worth with Adaezejeso Ezeaku
Adaezejeso Ezeaku is a recent graduate from UVic with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Psychology. She is currently the UVic Bounce Student Ambassador, a role that came to be after her experience with overt anti-black racism on campus. After this incident, she joined the UVic Reflection and Challenge Committee (RCC) to help create action-oriented plans to tackle issues of racism, inclusion, and diversity on campus. Her experiences with racism and her passion for healthcare and its systemic role in the broader community led her to a path in the legal profession. In the future, she hopes to obtain a legal education and pursue a career in medical and animal law where she can advocate and create policies that are fair, humane, and just.
"It's not about how well you're doing on paper. It's about your ability to translate what you learn and apply that to human beings."
Waving, Not Drowning
Rebecca Gagan: Hi everyone. I’m Rebecca Gagan, and this is Waving, Not Drowning, a UVic Bounce podcast. Today’s episode is being recorded on the unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Wsáneć and Lekwungen peoples.
In today’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning, I talk with another member of the UVic Bounce team, Adaezejeso Ezeaku. Adaezejeso is a recent graduate from UVic with a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology. She is currently the UVic Bounce Student Ambassador, a role that came to be after her experience with overt anti-black racism on campus. After this incident, Adaezejeso joined the UVic Reflection and Challenge Committee, or the RCC, in order to help create action-oriented plans to tackle issues of racism, inclusion, and diversity on campus. Her experiences with racism, and her passion for healthcare and its systemic role in the broader community, led her to a path in the legal profession. In the future, Adaezejeso hopes to obtain a legal education and pursue a career in medical and animal law, where she can advocate and create policies that are fair, humane and justice. Now, if you follow UVic Bounce on Instagram, you probably already know Adaezejeso, or Daisy, as she also goes by. Each week, as the UVic Bounce Student Ambassador, Daisy offers her thoughts, her takeaways from that week’s podcast episode of Waving, Not Drowning, and Daisy always offers the most amazingly thoughtful and insightful responses to the weekly episode.
And as I say, if you’ve been watching those, then you probably already know a little bit of Daisy’s story of her own experiences as a student because she’s always sharing parts of her own story as she reflects on the episode at hand, but it is an absolute honour and pleasure to get to sit down with Daisy and to talk with her at length and really hear her story, which just is full of so much wisdom and supports for other students. In our conversation, Daisy shares her experience of being an international student at UVic, which she started when she was just 16. Daisy talks a lot about the struggles she had with expectations that weighed heavier on her because she was an international student coming from a different cultural background, and as she explains, certain expectations from her family, and she talks a lot about how there was quite a process for her, in terms of being really able to take in some of the beautiful wisdom that she had been offered by her father around prioritizing learning and growth over grades, and how it took all of her undergrad to really be able to hear those words of advice and to really take them in.
And so, she talks about really struggling with expectations with grades and assessments and how that affected her own mental health and wellbeing. Importantly, she also shares how she felt that in many ways, as a black woman on a predominantly white campus, she couldn’t afford to not do well. That, in many ways, the expectations of her seem tire. Daisy talks about some of the challenges she had around experiencing quite traumatic racism on campus– how that affected her and how that changed how she understood herself. Throughout our conversation, Daisy emphasizes that there is no fast-tracking the growing that you do at university; that is, while she received some really wonderful advice from her father in her very first year, as she explains, it really took a long time for her to be able to embody that advice, to be able to really take it on board and live it out in her own life. I so appreciate Daisy’s willingness to be vulnerable here in this conversation and her honesty as she reflects on her own story this week and not on someone else’s experience of being a student and how she really gets at the complexities of that process of growth at university. I’m Rebecca Gagan, here today with Adaezejeso Ezeaku, and this is Waving, Not Drowning.
Hi Daisy, thank you so much for being here today to share some of your story with us, and congratulations on your graduation!
Adaezejeso Ezeaku: Hi, Rebecca. Thank you so much for having me here. I’m pleased to be a graduate officially. I would say that it does feel a little bit different this time of the year cause we’re kind of hoping that we might get some sort of an online graduation, but we got the best that, I think, the university could put forward at the time, and we’re just grateful to be done with school at this point in time.
Rebecca Gagan: Well, I can imagine that you are– and it’s also though, as you say, it’s– you’re grateful to be finished, and you’re excited to be done, but we also know that the ways in which we mark those huge milestones are also important and I think that probably you, along with so many graduating students, are just really missing that moment, where they get to gather with their classmates and their family and friends, and really celebrate what is such a huge milestone. And particularly in what has been just such a challenging year for students. And so, does it feel different, Daisy, to be graduating, you know, at this moment after so many months of real, you know, struggle through the pandemic?
Adaezejeso Ezeaku: Well, yes. I would say it’s been very different, and I wouldn’t lie, very disappointing, to be honest, because I do remember around the time when I received the email from the university, say “your credentials have been awarded.” It did not feel right. It definitely did not feel right. I remember talking to one of my other friends who I graduated with this year, and we were just like,” oh, we’re done? We’re done?” You didn’t feel… it just felt…it just sat very differently. I do remember, though, that I watched the videos because I was like I need to– like as much as I could, just get that feeling of completion in my heart. And so, I watched all the videos with the vice-chancellor and all the professors from the different– at least, from my department in psych. I don’t think I got from the other departments. And it was very much– I cried a little bit because I was just like, “I’m done. I’m actually done with school.” It feels different because there’s just– you don’t want to be that selfish person who wants a graduation party, but at the same time, you also be that selfish person. It’s like, “I want to be celebrated.” It’s a bit of a weird– you understand the situation like very well, and you understand that this is the best that could be done at this time, but at the same time, you can’t help that feeling of wanting to celebrate that feeling of completing such a difficult degree, given that the last year, I think, personally– I don’t know about other people– was probably the most difficult year– I’ve had my entire degree because I thought that, you know, after the first semester of online school, I would have the online thing figured out, but that was definitely not the case for me. But yeah.
Rebecca Gagan: Well, I don’t think it’s selfish at all, Daisy, to want to have that graduation celebration. And I think that what you describe is that it felt kind of anticlimactic to be done, but what you’re sharing is that you were also really wanting to feel it, as you say, like in your heart that– I mean, it’s a big deal. It’s a huge moment in a student’s life to complete that degree, and you deserve to be celebrated. And I think that it’s so just normal to really want to have that celebration and to feel like you can’t, and you know that others are in the same position as you, but I think it still is– it still feels hard because you want to mark it somehow. And so, you know, as you say, you watched all the videos to try to feel the weight of what you’ve accomplished, right? Which is so huge, and I think we’ve all really been finding this year that some of those rituals that maybe we took for granted, right? We won’t anymore because we know that they’re so essential to really marking these huge moments in our lives, so I hope that even if it isn’t for a few more months, at some point, you’ll be able to have some kind of a celebration. Do you think that you will, Daisy?
Adaezejeso Ezeaku: I do think so because I am the child of Nigerian parents, and there’s no way they’re not going to make a big deal out of this. So, I’m, for sure, looking for to that.
Rebecca Gagan: That is good. So, you think maybe there’ll be planning something for you when everybody is able. And I know that your family are in Ontario, so you’re still–you’re also dealing with just all kinds of limitations and difficulties in terms of trying to gather, so I certainly hope for you that that celebration is coming, and Daisy, I, as you know, have asked to interview all of the three members of the Bounce team because each of you graduated this term, and are in a really unique position, I think, to reflect on your own journey. Now, Daisy, you reflect– as the Bounce Student Ambassador, you reflect every week on the videos– sorry, on the episodes in your videos, and you’re always thinking about other people’s stories and the kinds of challenges and difficulties that they’ve experienced. And so now, it’s really your turn to share your story with us so that we can really have a chance to hear about your experiences as an undergrad and just really– as we’ve been doing all term. And with every reflection that you offer, we’ve been learning from you. I’m sure you’ve been reflecting on your own experience, and I’m hoping today that you might be willing to share some of your story with us.
Adaezejeso Ezeaku: Yes. Yes, I am.
Rebecca Gagan: So, Daisy, I’ll get the ball rolling with– I know a little bit about your story– and one of the things that stands out for me is that you started, if I’m right, at UVic, when you were just 16, is that right?
Adaezejeso Ezeaku: Yes. Yes.
Rebecca Gagan: So maybe we start there?
Adaezejeso Ezeaku: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, it’s so funny because I think– maybe because I’ve spent a little bit more time in the Canadian education system, I can understand how mind-boggling to a lot of people that was, but to me, it just seemed like a very natural transition because like I said, I don’t know how it is here, but in Nigeria, we start school really early, and you stay in school for a very long time. And it’s just the norm. Like it’s not any– it’s not something you think so much about, and I think it was also given the fact that I was also born into a very interesting time in the education system where at that time they were willing to push children ahead if you were able to absorb and, should I say, what’s the word– like maintain the vigour of the material in that higher class. You had to take an exam to do that. Initially, they were going to push me to classes, but my mom was like, no, I am not doing that to you, so I only skipped one class. I skipped class five. That’s what we call it there. It’s called grade five. I don’t know if that’s the same here. I skipped one class of primary school and that– and also, given the fact that I was born in December, made it that my age just never matched up to a lot of people.
Whenever I told them like, oh, I’m this young and just like, what are you doing here? But starting school at university at 16 was– it’s definitely one of those things that now when I look back at it, I keep wondering, was that a good thing or was it a bad thing because I feel that at that time, I was a very different person, where on some level, I might almost be more critical and say, my head was screwed on a little bit straight, mostly because I was not caught up in a lot of other things that I think that most people my age were caught up in. And I didn’t know if I liked that or not because as I grew older, I started realizing that those were things that I wanted to get involved in more. And 16 in university was hard because I also struggled a little bit with figuring out what I wanted to do. I was– I initially came into school for a biochem degree, and it was purely on the belief that because I enjoyed biology so much and I was pretty good at chemistry– why not find a degree that combines them? When I saw the name biochemistry, and I thought that was it! I found my calling, and I was literally like, “I know exactly what I wanted to do.” After taking my first chemistry class and taking my first midterm with that course, I realized that I didn’t do very well in that exam. And ever since that particular moment, I think everything about my learning style, and even just, I think, my self-confidence as a student, really shifted in a way that I was somewhat used to, mostly because I was never– I never considered myself a strong science student in high school. That’s back in Nigeria, and in my perception, I always felt that then they put a lot of pressure on the students to be so excellent in a very limited area of school that if you didn’t do well in that area, you were tended to look down on. And sometimes, I don’t think the teachers knew that; that sometimes they did that, but it kind of came off in the way they talked to you, regarded you, and assumed things about your capabilities when you were in certain classes, instead of encouraging you and supporting you and giving you all the tools to really help you do better.
And I did have teachers who did that for me, but you find that as a student, you tend to look at– the teachers who always seem to put you down, sometimes, are the ones who you looked up to because for some reason, their approval seems to make or break whether you’re a good enough or not. And so, I wasn’t– it wasn’t a new feeling, but it was a feeling I dreaded so much because it was a feeling that really made me dislike myself as a student. And coming from that accelerated program I had in Ontario. I did really well in that in all my science courses. So, it was that kind of thing where I had finally gotten to a point where I believed in myself that I could do this. Like, I am not dumb. I can figure out math. I can be good at physics. I can excel in bio and chemistry, so it wasn’t a me problem. And I was starting to gain that confidence, but then I came into university, and that was smacked down again. And that feeling of just low self-esteem really crept back on. And I remember vividly, in the Elliot building, that basement building, the toilet– I remember calling my dad and crying to him, and I told my dad, I don’t think I can do this anymore.
I told him that, you know, I think I’m not made for this. Like how can I write a first exam and get a 22%? And then a second exam, get a 44%. And the most annoying thing my dad said, of which I look back at, was probably the best thing someone could tell you: “well, I don’t know if you noticed, but you did improve by 22%.” At that time, it didn’t seem like a lot, but it really showed that what he was trying to call my attention to was just because you’re not doing or getting an 80 or a 90, like some of your peers were– what you are failing to see is that you have the ability to improve, and that is your strength. You’ve always shown that you’re adaptable. You have the ability to improve. You can morph into any environment you are in. You’re 16 in university. The fact that you are not even kicked out the first year that’s a huge thing because most 16-year-olds really are trying to just pass, like maybe AP calc or AP physics or trying to get through their last year of bio. You’re in university already; you need to give yourself a bit more credit for that. And that changed a lot of things and really helped me as an individual continue to look at things from more of an improvement and growth mindset perspective, and I really appreciated him for calling me out in that weird moment at that time.
So, 16 was definitely a difficult time. I will not recommend for everybody because it’s not an easy thing to tackle as a young kid because when I look at other 16-year-olds, I just keep thinking, God, your life is too nice. You had so little responsibilities, but I was taking on the responsibility of like an 18-year-old most of the time. And so, it really shaped my sense of responsibility, my ability to plan, and it really forced me to become a very, very responsible student at a very young age, but it wasn’t easy. It was definitely not an easy one, but I was thankful for the experience, nonetheless.
Rebecca Gagan: Well, I do think, Daisy, it’s quite remarkable that you were able to really handle so much at university at what is a young age. You know, I know some of our students will start at 17 and turning 18, but 16, as you say, it’s– you know, you’re on this accelerated track, and I guess what really strikes me about what you’ve shared is that even now, when you look at other 16-year-olds, and you can sort of look at them, and they go, wow, like you aren’t doing what I was doing at that age. And that there are some feelings, you know, connected to that, but I’m also really struck by the words of advice that your father gave you. And I know, we were sort of chuckling about those words, but I think to hear those words at that age, starting university, I imagine, has been pretty profound for you in terms of having an understanding of just like what was important, right?
So, what your father was saying was, well, it’s not the grade. What this shows is that you have the ability to improve and also that you are improving. And at a time when– as I think so many students are quite understandably, you know, concerned about grades. What your father was saying to you was really to try to shift your approach and your perspective so that you weren’t focused on the grade, right? So, he was basically saying, in a way, that at the time might’ve felt annoying to you, but like the grade doesn’t really matter here, it’s that can you learn from this to improve? Right. And I think, even so, you know– I have conversations with my colleagues about this, and we had a conversation about it recently, a colleague and I, about how well, you know, grades are necessary, you know, for scholarships and all kinds of things and, you know, getting into grad school and all professional programs, there’s a way in which students can become very anxious and very fixated and really distressed right by those bad grades. And I know, Daisy, you and I have talked about this as well, that it can kind of overtake you. And so, I think, what your father was trying to do at that moment when you were, as you say, in the bathroom, you know, the bottom of the Elliot building– and I bet you there’s a lot of students who are really relating to that moment and I, myself, as a student can relate to– you know, this was back in the time before cell phones. So, I wasn’t able to call anybody– make a call from the stall, but if I could have, I would have. You know, just feeling that kind of sense of devastation around like– and feeling like just that you’re not sure you can do it. And you know, whether that’s having received a bad grade or just feeling that kind of sense of desperateness and making that call to somebody who you hope will offer the advice to you.
And so, as I say, I think many students can relate to that, but that is quite a gift that he gave you at that time. Whether or not you were able to really receive that in that moment, but it sounds like that did shift things for you, Daisy, in terms of thinking about your own skills, how you understood yourself as a student and what was important as you were continuing on. Does that seem about right? Like, did it, did it change you, what he said?
Adaezejeso Ezeaku: Oh, yes. And I think it’s important for me to really highlight the fact that it didn’t take– it took me about two to three, maybe four years– probably my entire degree, for that message to actually kick in. And the reason why I had to highlight the fact that it took me that long is because I’ve always had a problem with when people talk about their stories, where they almost compress things– give people that assumption that the moment this happened that changed my life, and everything became anew. No, it did not. I was still fixated on my grades, and I eventually dropped out of the biochem program and ended up taking into a psychology– I ended up taking a psychology class, and the interesting thing was that the main reason why I stuck with psychology aside from my absolute fascination with my professor Laurie and her teaching skills, was just because I did well in that course. So it shows that I’m kind of a stubborn person when it comes to certain things– about like the way I see the world, and because I saw that– the world of academia, at least at that time, was so heavily focused on what said what it says about me on paper, that I thought to myself, my dad is right. It is one of my biggest strengths that you can put me in any environment, and no matter how much I cry or how much I whine about this is so difficult; I will figure it out, and I will eventually thrive. I still wanted to get good grades on paper. And I was still fixated on that. And I stuck with my psychology degree because I was doing well in psychology. And the reason why I had to be honest about that is because sometimes, I feel that it’s very hard to really give yourself that room to be like, you know, I’m improving. Just let yourself grow. Allow things to happen. It can be very difficult mostly because I came– I come from a culture where it’s very academic-focused, and it’s very hardcore; a lot more hardcore than it is here, and I need to be very upfront about that because that is the kind of mindset that I brought coming into university, where I’m a Nigerian kid who is literally a thousand kilometres away from my home.
I’m paying international fees of like $10,000 more than every other student in the class. I’m a black kid, probably the only black kid in my class, and. There was just so much going on. I could not afford to fail. And so, getting a 44%, even though my dad seemed to see it as an improvement, I still saw that as a failure. I eventually still got a D in that class, but in my other classes, I did well, and that was the reason why I was able to stay in. I wasn’t kicked out. I don’t think I was that bad to have been kicked out, but it’s very much– given the perspective that I was still that student who saw grades as the one thing that defined me. And a lot of times, I always compared myself to my peers who got better grades and used that as the ultimate determinant of who is the smartest in class or not. It wasn’t until I took a course with professor Iris Gordon that that really smacked me in the face because she told me like, honestly, I will be very honest with you. Like, I can have a 9.0 GPA student in my lab, and they’re probably not going to be half as good as probably a C plus student in my lab because it’s not about how well you’re doing on paper. It’s about your ability to translate what you learn and apply that to human beings and really make something more positive about that.
I did not get that message until I graduated, and it’s important that students know that that was not a perfect– it was not that perfect story– that after that moment, I did do well after then. I did– like if anybody who goes through my transcript to see I improved significantly, I was still getting all the A’s and the A minuses in a semester, my dad was really surprised. He’s like, “wow, I’ve never seen this many A’s in my life, in your transcript.” I’m like, “I know!” But it was what rewarded than drove me. But I didn’t understand that fully until I had left school. And I realized that as much as I enjoyed psychology as a program, I didn’t want to pursue it because I just fell into it. I kept telling people I fell into psychology. I had no idea what psychology was. And that means that like, number one motivator for me was grades. And I really– I really hope that people don’t do that to themselves. And it’s hard because, like a lot of times, the students who I think may relate to my stories are international students who are coming from countries where there’s so much at stake for you to not do well. And it’s important that when we’re talking about that, I think that’s why I think I have a bit more of an approach of– instead of telling people that, oh, you know, grades is not everything, I tell them, “okay, grades are important because you have so much at stake and you probably are like the first kid of your family who’s able to go this far abroad to study, so how can we help you to get what you need on paper, but not do that to the detriment of your mental health?” That’s the key part, not to the detriment of your mental health. And I think for me, that was the problem.
Rebecca Gagan: Well, Daisy. You know what you have just shared there– and thank you for sharing that– I think is so important for students to hear and for faculty to hear too. That sure– we can say grades don’t matter. I mean, I think we all acknowledge that they do, but what you’re also getting at is that for you, as an international student, as a black woman, as somebody who was raised in a particular educational system, in which grades really did matter, it is easier said than done, right? So, it’s one thing to say, “oh, you know, focus on your improvement. Don’t focus on the grades.” And that, as you say, was excellent advice from your father, but it wasn’t advice that you were fully able to take on board as you’ve shared until much later in your degree.
And even then, again, I just want to thank you for saying this, that even then, you know, you can’t do away entirely with that perspective about grades being important; it’s that you have to mitigate against the ways in which being grade-obsessed or focused on, you know, the grades on the paper. You have to be aware of how that can be detrimental, as you say, to your mental health and find a way to, you know, as you’ve said, not say it doesn’t matter, but find a way to manage it somehow right? So that it isn’t hurting you. And I think that what you’ve shared is just– it’s very realistic because this is a podcast in which faculty members really share advice about– you know, they share their stories, they offer, you know, advice and support and guidance, but just as you’ve shared, I don’t think I’ve talked to a single faculty member who, you know, had some realization or was given advice and whose life then changed that next minute, or that next hour.
Right? I mean, this is our life’s work. You know, taking these things in and learning from them and changing and growing. And so, I just really appreciate you saying that while you were given that guidance, when you were 16, you’ve now graduated, and it’s taken that long to really be able to say, “yep. I was really grades-driven, and some of that wasn’t good for me and my mental health. And I was working on it. I’m a work in process and still working on it.” And I think that I’ve shared on this program as well, that, for me, that, you know, building a kind of healthy relationship with assessment has also been a very long project that is still ongoing. Right? It’s not that you just figure it all out. You know, you read some book or get some piece of advice and, you know, Presto, you understand it, and you can stop doing that. It takes work. It takes time. And so, yeah, thank you, Daisy. And also again, thank you for reminding us that for so many students, there is a lot at stake– that there are a lot of pressures, a lot of expectations, and that it’s not helpful to simply say, “oh, you know, don’t worry about grades” because that’s not realistic.
Adaezejeso Ezeaku: Yeah. 100%. And I think, the reason why– I really reflected on grades so much because I think the reason why that struck me was because the last year of my degree was when the pandemic hit. At the time when the pandemic really was at its most critical–, I wouldn’t say critical, but just as its most unstable– that’s like March 2020, I thankfully wasn’t in school at that time; I was on co-op, and my co-op was affected by that, but it was also that at that time, I didn’t have to bear the brunt of just that shift from regular learning to online.
However, when I took a summer course and then started the fall semester of 2020, I struggled so severely that year because I had shared with you about, like, you know, my experience with anti-black racism at my workplace and how that affected me. And the reason why that affected me the way it did was because I noticed that that whole year, my grades was the most irregular I had ever seen. And I remember after I graduated, I was looking through just like a collection of my envelopes, where I have important documents– I should probably have them in better places, but I saw the transcript from my high school– Sacred Heart College in Nigeria. And I remember looking through that and looking at my grades and thinking to myself, “I don’t remember seeing that many F’s in the paper ever.”
I don’t think I have seen that many F’s in my life before, and that really forced me to reset that whole perspective of– I had always looked at this past year and thought, “oh my God, this was the worst year of my life.” Like after that whole incident, I struggled so much academically. I even surprisingly– I don’t know how I coasted through that semester and still got through it, but I struggled so much even afterwards because I didn’t start really feeling the effect of that experience until the next year, and that was my last semester, but I saw myself that time as like, “oh my God. My grades were so irregular, and because of that, my accumulative GPA turned out to be one grade lower than what I was initially planning to graduate with. And I looked at that, and I looked at that transcript, and I thought to myself, my dad was right. The entire time he was right because I thought that, “oh my God, this was the most life-changing thing that changed my whole life and really forced me to fail or not do well.”
I didn’t fail, but I didn’t do as well as I was used to in school, and I looked at it and thought this was horrible. And then I looked at that transcript that was like, that’s so much more of an improvement. It’s from the kid who had about five F-nines. And the course load is a little different because we take about 16 courses back home, but I had about like– I had like so many F-nines. I had like maybe two B’s, many C’s, and I didn’t even see a D like, that was just how much of the difference in my academic journey– like it showed me how I was such a different person. My grades were so different then, but I’m a much better person now, even though I didn’t get the grade or graduate with the accumulative GPA that I wanted. I still have that ability to adapt, and I still have that ability to thrive in any environment you put me in. And that was when I think I fully understood what my dad was talking about and was telling me that first year in the washroom stall. And I don’t know. It’s interesting looking at it because, I think, grades had been too much of my life as a student. And I remember that the root of why I think I was in so much mental distress– almost wasn’t so much about my experience with racism; it was the fact that that racism incident affected my grades. Do you get what I mean? It’s like, it was so– it’s almost like the anchor of my anxiety and my stress and my personal issues with school was so anchored on the grades. And that’s why I said your mental health is very important. That–that is, you understand how to, like you say, have a healthy balance to that.
Rebecca Gagan: So, Daisy, are you saying– and maybe you can share a bit more about this if you feel comfortable– but it sounds like you’re saying that because your entire sense of yourself in some ways was caught up with the grades, and all of your stress was located around grades that when you experienced this very traumatic event in which, as you’ve shared, you were really experiencing anti-black racism, then it was your grades that were affected because that was where– like you were so sort of invested and caught up in the grades. Does that make sense? Like, is that sort of how you’re describing it?
Adaezejeso Ezeaku: Yes, because the problem with that, though, was that it didn’t allow me the room to reflect on the other aspect of myself that was affected by that incident. I was just focused on how can I not make my grades tank so much, but the truth was like, my whole self was not banked on the grades– like even if I ended up failing my last year, but at the end of the day, I think I still got to a better place mentally because I didn’t spend so much time trying to– it was, I don’t know how to explain it– it’s like when you’re trying so hard to save one particular thing, and that’s actually not the most important thing you should have been focusing on. And I don’t know how best to explain that, but that was what was going on, where I was almost trying to fix the problem that was not really the issue.
Rebecca Gagan: Yeah. Yeah. You’re saying that you were caring about your grades. You were worried that your grades are going to tank, but really what you needed to be doing was caring for yourself and your soul– you know, in that moment when you had really experienced that, that trauma, but that that the concern for your grades kind of trumped everything. Yeah, and you know, it’s such a tricky feeling, as you say, to articulate, and I, too, have experienced that and looking back, I think, “why did I think that that was so important when this other hugely important thing was going on in my life?” And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t look back with some regret on those moments, really, where I didn’t care for myself– I wasn’t in my– you know, where I needed to be in terms of being present to what was going on because I was worrying about something related to assessment– like school grades, something like that. And, you know, particularly, when I was in graduate school and again– like thank you for sharing that, Daisy, because I think it takes a lot of honesty to say that that’s how important those grades have become. But also, you’ve also shared that in some ways, it was like a default reaction and probably easier to go there than to address what was happening. And as I say, I don’t know if you feel comfortable, just sharing a little bit about, you know, how that affected you in your last year of your degree?
Adaezejeso Ezeaku: Yeah. In fact, I’m very happy to talk about that mostly because I do think that was probably the most pivotal point in my life because a lot of my career decisions– changes in career decisions– were banked on that experience. I would say that–I had I talked about this in my previous reflection with, I think, Dr. Corinne Bancroft’s video, where I talked about how when I– because I was an international student who came from an upper-class family, I always had that financial capital, the money that afforded me the peace of mind to like go through school and not be dependent on the Canadian system for anything– to live in this bubble that prevented me from being aware or fully comprehend what my blackness meant in the academic space. And it wasn’t until I had experienced that racist incident that even when I look at why I was so focused on my grades, it was very much tied to that– my identity as being a black woman in a space where if I’m not excelling, I am all of a sudden dumb. I’m no longer as intelligent as people perceive me to be because my grades are falling short. And a lot of things about me being black, me being a woman, was tied to my grades. And it was almost like the way of me proving to people that “I’m not that dumb black kid that you think I am… like I do well in school, and I have that on paper.” And it’s almost like that incident took that away from me. And because of that, I suffered with my own self-identity because I couldn’t see myself pass what the paper said about me, but the interesting thing about that paper is that that paper is administered by white people in the system telling me that this is what you are on paper.
And I remember talking– I remember calling, UVic mental health support– and I thank God for those people because I think they saved me so much through that year where I called this woman, and I told her, and I said, “I saw my graduating cumulative GPA, and I refuse to accept that. That is not who I am, and I know I’m capable of so much more. My last year was hard, but that is not who I am.” And the interesting thing about that moment was I have never in my life challenged what the paper said about me or what the paper said I was capable of because I had always taken that as the gold standard of what Daisy is able to do and achieve, but I told myself– I was like, “no, I refuse to accept that.” And the reason why that was important was because that was really what helped me sink into that understanding that black people, in general, and for people who I always seem to always have– I call them– they have this extra negative factor.
So, it’s almost like it’s this social status thing, where if you’re black, you’re a man. It’s almost like a black man tends to have a bit of a plus because he’s a man, but if you’re a woman, it’s a minus, but if you’re a trans woman, that’s an extra minus. If you’re a Muslim woman, that’s an extra minus– they call it like a triple-negative kind of thing, where the more you seem to fit the lower minority of people, the more of a disadvantage you seem to have in society, and I noticed that there was this common theme where even black people spend so much time using what was said on paper to determine who they were or how they showed up in the academic, and even the professional world. And I watched this movie called Queen and Slim, where the girl, the main character, the female main character says– she was telling the guy that “I’m a lawyer,” but the way she qualified herself– she said, “I’m an excellent lawyer.” And he said to her, “why do black people always have to seem excellent? Why can’t you just be average? Why can’t you just be? Why do you always have to qualify yourself with that exceptional quality of, I transcend all of these things.” It’s almost like you’re constantly having to affirm yourself in a way that is putting you above things because that’s the only way to make yourself feel like you do belong, and that– it’s so funny because I watched that movie a long time ago, but my memory works, interestingly, where it tends to piece certain things together when I go through experiences because I just think a lot. It’s a good and a bad thing, but it helps me be very reflective of my experiences, and that’s how I came to that, understanding that I was focusing on grades because I thought that was the only way for me to validate my worthiness as to show up in an academic environment and say, “I’m worthy of being here. I’m good enough to be here, despite all of the things that you threw at me that were outside my control, that was as a result of me looking differently from you; I can still do this,” but not truly believing that because my grades did not show A plus’s, A plus’s, A plus’s. Do you get what I mean?
Rebecca Gagan: Yeah, I absolutely hear what you’re saying, Daisy, and I think that it’s the piece that you were getting at earlier, that you– the stakes for you were different. Different than for a white student, right? That you felt you couldn’t be average, that you had to be excellent on paper and have that validation from largely white professors, right? White administrators saying, “okay. Yeah, you’ve got it on paper.” And so, when you’ve talked about grades slipping for you, that really was so profoundly difficult because it meant in, some way, that that validation was being taken away.
Adaezejeso Ezeaku: Yes. And that was why I think when people say– oh, when this person called me, I hope it’s okay if I use those explicit words, but when he called me the “N bitch.” It really– at that time, the first feeling was, “oh, that made me feel small,” but when I reflect on how that feeling of being small, really, like how it– should I say– had a ripple effect. It was that the smallness was almost like you were taking all of the things that made me finally show up in a space with confidence where I finally felt like I’m part of this. I can be a part of this, and you took that away from me. That’s what that feeling of feeling small felt because it felt like someone was peeling off the layers of my onion. And I started just going back to the onion bulb, which is really tiny when you actually look at it, and I didn’t like that feeling. I always tell people that, like, I have a bit of pride because I’m– it comes with a bit when you’re at the high-achieving type. You have a sense of pride in your ability to execute, do things and achieve things, then that is what you use to show that, you know– but being a black woman, that pride was tied to even my existence and my identity so much, even more than the way it is for people who don’t attach so much to their social identity if you get what I mean. But yeah. That feeling of being small. That’s what it did, and that’s what it means. It’s so much more than just feeling invincible. It’s almost like you were taking away those parts that I had worked so hard over the past four years to prove to myself– even more– that I had what it took because my grades now suffered; I was angry that you took that away from me.
And it was a very complex thing because I cannot speak to that person at all. I don’t even– I would probably be able to identify them if I saw them again because I’m good with faces, but at the same time, it’s one of those things where you kind of have to force yourself to have closure without doing that in that revengeful type of way, where you kind of had like a clap back moment kind of thing. But it was– I think of that experience as a bit of a gift. Not a bit of– it was a gift. It was a painful gift because it was one of those gifts that I think really shook me out of myself in a way that most white people would say like, you know, we all deal with that. It’s kind of the norm. And it’s true. That is true. But I think for me, because I’m such a sensitive and very reflective person, that can be a good combination with the right circumstance, and sometimes not. But I’ve been thankfully blessed with a good social support system that has really helped me buffer some of the negative effects of just being so sensitive to things around me.
And that’s what’s given me the ability to look back at this and say that that was a painful gift because it’s what drove me in the direction that I’m going today. It’s what fuels some of my passions and my career choices and my– and how I really want to show up in the world as an individual. So yeah, it’s one of those things I don’t wish. It’s one of those gifts I will not wish anybody’s given, but sometimes, I think of it as like, this was God’s way of saying like, “This is where I think I need you to be,” but because I’m so stubborn, it wouldn’t have taken anything other than that to show me that, okay, this is what is going to– this is really where I wanted to– this is where I really wanted to make a difference. I’m stubborn. I know I am. My mom knows I am because she talks to me every single day, and it’s almost like you’re constantly having a debate with me because I’m so good at coming up with rationales with reasons. I’m so good at analyzing things and telling you why it’s not what you think it is because I’m so stubborn, and I’m so proud in my ability to, you know, just like always come back at you with something.
But sometimes with people like me– and I think this was just unique to my experience– I needed something as self-shocking, as this was in a very personal way, to really get me to pay attention. This is what I want to do. Cause I was also finding it difficult to figure out– you know, I was initially going to go into medicine, and I was really struggling with trying to understand. Like I know I want to help people, and I would like to be a doctor. I have a good memory. And so, I can learn the material if I get into medical school, but why do I still feel slightly disconnected with why I’m going to medicine? And it’s not because I– I love human anatomy. Like it’s probably the weirdest thing about me. I just love human insides. It’s so cool, but it wasn’t enough to motivate me to get into medicine because I felt like if I was going to be a doctor, I’m not just going to be a doctor. I have to make a difference in a way. But I also looked at the fact that if I was a doctor, I am still limited to the policies that I’m guided by with my hospital. Meaning that once a person walks outside the four walls of my clinic, I’m no longer obligated to be responsible for them. And that bothered me because I recognized how for people who look like me, everything that affects me on the outside follows me inside. And even when I leave, that still affects me in the healthcare system.
When you talk about even your access to healthcare, when you’re talking about how you’re even treated within the four walls of a place that’s supposed to be a safe space for people to get treatment, all of those things affect me both inside out. And I thought to myself, “I can pretend to only want to deal with them on the inside because their problems still continue when they go outside. I want to be able to do something about that,” and that’s kind of what I think just took me away from that path because I realized that, as a doctor, it’s going to take me too long to get to be able to make that much of a difference because there’s a bit of a hierarchy with that kind of with that kind of profession, which I respect like hundred percent respect, but it’s like I’m too impatient of a person to wait 15 years to be able to do that if you get what I mean, but yes.
Rebecca Gagan: Well, Daisy, I actually didn’t know that that was what was motivating your decision to put your plans or thoughts about becoming a doctor aside and to actually start to think about law school. So, do you want to say a little bit about how you made that shift to now studying for the LSAT?
Adaezejeso Ezeaku: Yeah, I think the truth is that this didn’t come until much later. It wasn’t the initial thing that really motivated that change in path. It was more so actually having a conversation with professor Ireh Iyioha. She was very much someone who inspired my decision to pursue law, and it was mostly because–I remember when I was writing her bio– I think this was when we just started working together in UVic Bounce, and you asked me to like compile a list of candidates. And I remember reading through her bio and thinking, oh my God, like I just. I was so– I went through like three other people’s bio in the same faculty, but I just kept thinking to myself, I need to have a conversation with this woman because I didn’t know that it’s possible for me to still pursue law with some sort of specialization in the healthcare system because I really did want to work in the healthcare system. I had volunteered in that. I had invested so much of my time and energy and thought that I just could not see myself not trying that out, at least. And so, that was definitely something that she rather was definitely someone who inspired that decision because I just admired how she showed up in spaces and how positive she was, despite all of the– should I say, obstacles– she has to live with on a regular basis; being a black woman in this field and being one of few in her level of professional heights– I keep falling short of words sometimes, but I really admired how she was so honest and transparent about certain things that I had also identified about the way the healthcare system worked. Because people– when you come to Canada, a lot of people talk about how great Canada’s healthcare is. And I came here, and I didn’t want to challenge that because I felt well; if it’s working, you can’t fix things that are not broken. And it wasn’t until like, I’ve really started– like I took certain classes, so I took a philosophy 331, which is biomedical ethics.
And she made us write a paper on a particular topic. And I was really investigating how people of colour, especially black people, are treated within the healthcare system, and you see, especially when it came to pregnancy– and because I always knew like pregnancy, it’s such a vulnerable time for any woman, so it’s an even more vulnerable time for women who are more of a disadvantage when they walk into the hospitals– and I was investigating the story of Serena Williams and Beyonce with their experiences when they were having their children and how a lot of the message that I was getting was that as a black woman when you get into the hospital, you have to advocate for yourself. And I thought, “wow, why do I have to do that? I’m sick. I need attention. Why do I have to expend extra energy, having to do this extra work?” And I talked to professor Ireh. I wrote a paper on that. And all of those things combined just really helped me see that this was really what I wanted to focus on. My mom has also– every time my mom has told me about her experience being in a hospital, being a clinic, it’s never been a good experience where they’re more likely to undermine what you’re saying, especially when you’re talking pain. When you’re speaking about the fact that you’re in pain, they’re less likely to take my pain as a black woman or a black pregnant woman or a black sick woman seriously than they are to take for a white woman.
And it was one of those things that it didn’t make sense to me because, as a doctor, you would think that I would be as neutral as I can be because any patient coming into my hospital, my clinic, should be treated equally, but that’s not the case, and I really dislike that. And I think law school really helped show me that if I went down that path, I have all the knowledge, I have the skills, and I would just have– and it’s also a shorter period of time, too– because remember I said 15 years was too long. Yes, it is. It’s a bit of a long timeline, but law school was– it’s not because a shorter time is any easier. It’s that it’s helping me. It’s a more direct path to where I really wanted to be and who I wanted to show up as in the professional world, and professor Ireh really helped me with that, and I’m so thankful for that experience because I don’t think UVic Bounce would have even happened? And that’s why I see that whole incident was a painful gift because I would never have reached out to you at that moment to have found out that you were working with UVic Bounce to then have to like be the person in charge of finding the people for the podcast that led me to professor Ireh.
And it was just a series of things that, I think, fell into place in such a timely manner that I couldn’t help, but feel like this was a divine way of leading me to where I felt like I really wanted to be. And when I finally made the decision that I am going to go to law school, I don’t think I had felt as convinced of a decision as I was in my life. I was convinced about medicine, but it took me a while, and I was still feeling very iffy about the whole process, but with law school, I was like, I was convinced because I knew the value of what a law degree would give me and how much that would help me get to where I really want it to be. And it was like, okay, this is it. My mom was very much like, “I saw this coming since high school. I always told you, you were going to be a lawyer.” And I was like, “Na ma; I’m not going to be a lawyer. I don’t want to be one. I don’t like lawyers”, is what I kept telling her. And when I told her about this, she was just like, “yes, I called it. You have to give me credit for that.” I called her. I was like: Sure. I will give you that.”
Rebecca Gagan: Well, I mean that I think that what you’ve described, Daisy, is that you were trying to find a way to– you know, even though you say you’re impatient and that you didn’t want to do however many years of med school, I actually think that you were trying to find a way to be able to pursue, you know, your passion for social justice and to be able to work in– you know, help people in the ways that you want to, and you want to start doing that right away as soon as you can. And I can tell you that, first of all, with UVic Bounce, already, you know, as the Student Ambassador, your thoughtful reflections, your insights, I know that you are already supporting and helping your fellow students, and I know that I learn so much from you every single week. And so now for the hard question, which, you know, given everything we’ve shared, I think it’s pretty tough to sum it up, but let’s say you were given the chance to talk to your 16-year-old self who was just starting university or to, you know, a student who at any age is just starting out their undergraduate career. What would you want to say to them?
Adaezejeso Ezeaku: I would like to pretend that I’m that person who can come up with outstanding words of wisdom, but I have to think a bit for this one because I think one thing that came to mind was– it’s something my dad and my mom always told me every time I went into any new, different, most of the time, academic environment– even when I started out my accelerated program at CIC in Ontario, Waterloo. I remember sending an email to my father, actually. It was the most bizarre thing I’ve ever done. It was the most professional email I could come up with as a 15-year-old. And I listed all the reasons why my dad had to withdraw me out of that institution and take me back home to Nigeria, and his response to that was, “always remember that your journey is not their journey.”
And I always loved and hated Nigerian parents for the fact that they were always good at coming up with something like that. Like how do you do that? It’s quite impressive, I must say, where they just stop you in your tracks and just say something so profound that you just think, “wow, did you– how did you come?”– but that’s really it. Because I do feel that, as much as I can isolate different experiences and different– it’s just mostly with different experiences and try to come up with the best thing I can say from those experiences. It all sums up to the fact that your journey is not their journey. Everybody’s journey is so unique and so different that you can only have a general blueprint, but you always need to own the fact that this is my journey. And however, that is showing up– whether to others or to you– you need to trust the fact that it’s your journey and you have what it takes to complete it. And I guess, completing is when we die, and that’s quite morbid, but it’s very much– that’s pretty much what it is. Yeah, I don’t think I have anything else to say other than that, to be honest.
Rebecca Gagan: Well, Daisy, I think that really, that is a very profound note on which to end this conversation and. I just want to thank you so much for talking with me today. I’ve really loved our conversation and, as always, just learned so much from your insights and I just really value the words that you’ve shared today. So, thank you so much, and congratulations again on your graduation.
Adaezejeso Ezeaku: Thank you. It’s always such a pleasure talking with you. There’s never been a dull moment whenever we get together and talk. It goes on for hours, and we’re just like, “okay. I think we should probably get started with our actual work now.” So, thank you so much for having me here. I’m genuinely honoured to– that people actually care to hear what I have to say. And I recognize that my journey may not be relatable to some, but I hope that some parts of my experience may give people the courage to know that it’s not easy and you don’t have it figured out all the time. And sometimes, when things feel slow and feel like it’s not working as speedily as you expect it to be, it’s just life taking its course like Professor Christine always says. I keep going back to that because I thought that was a phenomenal thing she said, so, yes. Thank you.
Rebecca Gagan: Thanks, Daisy. Bye for now.
In next week’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning, I talk with Dr. Victoria Wyatt, an Associate Professor in the Department of Art History and Visual Studies at the University of Victoria. In our conversation, Victoria shares some of her experience of being a student, and in particular, a graduate student who was really struggling to find her path and defined what she was passionate about. I really hope that you’ll tune in for this amazing episode. You can keep listening to episodes of Waving, Not Drowning on Anchor FM, Spotify, or wherever you stream your podcast. We’d love it if you would give us a like and a follow on Instagram @uvicbounce. Tune in next week for another great conversation.