Episode 8: Financial Stress, Timelines, and Self-Compassion with Brittany Halverson-Duncan

Brittany is currently working as an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Math and Stats department. She teaches first and second-year Math and Stats courses and loves to engage in community outreach. She also recently completed her MSc in Statistics. Brittany received a President’s Extraordinary Service Award at UVic in 2017.

"At the end of the day, everyones experience through their education is sunique and specific to you as an individual that there isn't really a norm."

Brittany Halverson-Duncan

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, I talk with Brittany Halverson-Duncan, an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Math and Statistics. Brittany teaches first and second-year math and stats courses, and she loves to engage in community outreach. She’s the recipient of a president’s extraordinary service award for her work, she has already earned a master’s in science from the University of Victoria, and she’s now working on a MSc in statistics, which she hopes to be finished with this summer. In our conversation today, we talk about Brittany’s experience as a student and, in particular, her experience living with quite a lot of financial stress as a student; she shares how she was working several different jobs and trying to juggle, you know, heavy academic workload, and how she really learned to cope with that by starting to really practice self-compassion. And so, a lot of our conversation today is actually about exploring what exactly is self-compassion? How do we offer that to ourselves? And how did she come to see self-compassion as a way for her to really cope with some of the challenges that she was experiencing, and now as a teacher, herself, how she offers that and really encourages her students to practice self-compassion as well.

Our conversation today feels so timely. Given that for the past year, we’ve really been hearing from Bonnie Henry the mantra to be kind, and to be patient, and to be safe. And I think that for all of us, the message to be kind hasn’t always applied to being kind to ourselves. And so certainly, when I hear Bonnie Henry repeat those words at the end of every briefing, I think about being kind to others. But I’m pretty sure that Bonnie Henry is also thinking here about the importance of practicing self-compassion and of being kind to ourselves. And self-compassion, of course, isn’t just needed during such a challenging time as the one we’re living through right now, but I think particularly for students, it’s something that is really a way of supporting yourself through some of the challenges of university. And I think that self-compassion is a practice that is so essential to learn and to learn as early in your adult life as you can, and then to practice it frequently.


I was really fortunate the other day, actually, to be a part of a conference or participating in a conference that was actually for parents. And one of the panels was, or one of the workshops rather was hosted by Dr. Kristin Neff. So, Kristin Neff, just to back up a little bit, is a researcher in self-compassion, one of the first really in the world to start researching and publishing scholarly material on self-compassion, and I will put this in the show notes, but I found that her words in that workshop were just powerful. She talks about the importance of learning, how to be an ally to yourself, and that self-compassion is a lot more than just being gentle with yourself or being kind to yourself. That’s a part of it, but a way of being kind to yourself is also to see yourself as somebody who can take care of themselves by saying no, by setting boundaries, by putting your needs first. And this is something that Brittany talks about in our discussion today. On Dr. Neff’s website, she offers a definition of self-compassion that I find really compelling and useful, and so I just want to share a little bit of that with you today before we get into our conversation with Brittany. So, in Neff’s definition of self-compassion, she suggests that we remember that the word compassion itself literally means to suffer with. And she talks about when we offer compassion to others. We feel warmth. We want to offer caring, and it’s the desire to help the suffering person in some way. She writes, “having compassion also means that you offer understanding and kindness to others when they fail or make mistakes rather than judging them harshly. Finally, when you feel compassion for another than me or pity, it means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfection is part of the shared human experience. There, but for fortune go I.” She continues, “self-compassion involves acting the same way towards yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don’t like about yourself, instead of just ignoring your pain with a stiff upper lip mentality, you stop to tell yourself, ‘This is really difficult right now. How can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?'” And so, Neff goes on to talk about how practicing self-compassion and of course, offering compassion to others allows you, as she writes, “to open your heart to this reality, instead of constantly fighting against. The more, you will be able to feel compassion for yourself and all of your fellow humans in the experience of life.” And she writes again that quote, “having compassion for yourself means that you honour and accept your humanness.” I’m Rebecca Gagan, here today with Brittany Halverson-Duncan. And this is Waving, Not Drowning.


Hi Brittany, it’s such a pleasure to have you here today. How have you been doing?


Brittany Halverson: Hi, Rebecca. Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here. You know, I’m doing well. It’s hard to complain when you’re sitting at your desk wearing a nice shirt and pyjama pants. It’s very comfortable. And I say that I’ve been busy. I think like everybody in life has been a little bit hectic, a little bit different and busy, but overall, I’m getting through.


Rebecca Gagan: Have you found that there’ve been any particular challenges that you’ve experienced since we made the pivot to online teaching?


Brittany Halverson: Yeah, I think for me, it’s been taking those breaks, reminding myself to stand up and leave my desk. I think it’s without having that little 10-minute stretch to walk between buildings or just have a little break between classes. I find myself filling that time by answering emails and working all the way through. And there have been days where I realized, wow, I didn’t even leave my house today. So that’s definitely been a challenge. And I notice on those days that it definitely impacts my mental health if I don’t get outside and get a bit of fresh air. That’s definitely something that I’ve had to be really cognizant of and just be careful to take those moments and to take those breaks. And I got actually a really good piece of feedback from my supervisor, and she said, don’t cut out the commute, even though the commute really is from your bedroom to your desk. Try going for a walk around the block instead and just pretending like you still have to commute to get to school, which has been good. It’s a good way to force me to get outside during the day.


Rebecca Gagan: I really love this piece of advice from your supervisor because I think that for me too, I’ve noticed that since my commute is just down two flights of stairs to my home office like you, there are days where I just won’t go outside, and then I have that thought that very strange thought of, oh my goodness, I haven’t left the house. And sometimes I’ll have the thought that I haven’t left the house in two days. And so absolutely. I love this way of thinking about it that maybe, somehow, just simulate the commute by getting outside. And I was saying to another guest, very, recently that I have really taken for granted all of those opportunities in the commute and moving from class to class, where not only are you getting fresh air and being in the outdoors, but you’re also having those chance encounters and conversations that I think we’re all really missing, quite a lot. And so, I’m hearing this advice, and I think that it’s a good reminder for all of us to, as hard as it can be, to get out the door, even if it’s in your pyjamas.


Brittany Halverson: Yeah, it does force me to put on a full outfit of real clothes when I go outside.


Rebecca Gagan: Oh, Brittany, you just haven’t mastered the– you need to get the bottoms that can pass for outdoor clothes.


Brittany Halverson: That’s true. Yeah. I’m wearing sweatpants when I say my full outfit.


Rebecca Gagan: We’re here to say, Brittany, as you know, because I’ve been talking with faculty from across campus about their experiences as students and, more specifically, their experiences with challenge and with difficulty so that we can support students, not only during these really tough times of COVID-19 but also if we ever go back to something resembling normal, which we will, I shouldn’t be so pessimistic. But also, in the future, when we are back face to face. And so, I was hoping today, Brittany, that you might be able to share with us just some of your own experience as a student.


Brittany Halverson: Sure. Absolutely. It’s funny because I almost want to open with a line of, I had maybe an unusual experience, but I think that we all feel that way, that our experiences as students are not the norm and that can be really isolating, but I think at the end of the day everyone’s experience through their education is so unique and specific to you as an individual that there really isn’t a norm. And I know for me– so I guess my trajectory, I have done an undergraduate degree, and I took a year off and then I did a master’s degree, and now I’m currently working on my second master’s degree, so that’s my broad story. And I would say that a similar challenge each time has been trying to support myself financially while being a student. And so, during my undergraduate degree, I was very fortunate financially for probably the first two years. And then, by the time I got into my third year of school, I was struggling a bit financially to support myself, and so I needed to take on some part-time work. And so, I worked part-time in a bar, and I also tutored part-time and did a bit of TA work. I was fortunate enough to get some marking work, which was really nice.


So, it was kind of these three different part-time jobs that managed to take up quite a bit of my time. And I definitely would say that my schooling suffered as a result of that. Certainly, I didn’t have the same type of time to dedicate to my studying, into my classes, working in a bar environment too–I was working quite late into the evenings. And so those early morning classes, I would be lying if I said I made it to every single one, so there were some that I just slept through and so my understanding of the material definitely suffered, and my grades in some cases also suffered. And so that was something that was difficult for me to manage and even, as a graduate student, it was a very similar theme of, maybe I started off at the beginning, all prepared financially, and then usually by a year in, your situation can change. Life happens. Things change. And so yeah, I ended up picking up additional work outside of my TA work. I worked at a bank probably about 20, 30 hours a week, and I was tutoring on the side a similar amount of time. And so again, you blink, and your whole week is taken up. So yeah, I think working at the same time as being a student can be really challenging. Absolutely.


Rebecca Gagan: Well, I want to start by talking Brittany, a little bit about what you said when you sort of started sharing this story of your own experience as an undergrad and as a grad student with your comments about it may be that maybe your experience isn’t normal and that there can be a way in which we feel on the one hand, that our experience– that we are isolated or alone in our experience, that no one else is experiencing this, but on the other hand, there’s also this sense in which we are quite often cut off from knowing what others are experiencing. So, I think that what you’re speaking to in terms of the financial stress of education is something that so many students experience, whether they’re undergrad or grad. And also, as you say, feeling that they don’t– that they’re the only ones who are going through that particular kind of challenge. I know, and I’m sure you, in terms of your own students right now, that and I think what’s interesting, Brittany too, is that you’re– you can maybe tell us a bit about that– but you’re doing your second master’s now. So, you are a student, a graduate student who is working, teaching hundreds and hundreds of students first-year math, right? Calculus?


Brittany Halverson: Yeah, exactly.


Rebecca Gagan: Right, and so, you have this, I think true– like this very unique perspective of living it, but also being in the position of seeing students who are also doing what you are doing. So, getting– furthering their education while also working a lot and that I think that from my own experience and certainly from what I hear from my students, that sometimes they have not one, but as you said, two jobs, three jobs, and that it becomes increasingly difficult to manage, but it’s a necessity, in terms of needing to pay your tuition and support the work that you’re trying to do. So, Brittany, how did you cope maybe then? And how do you–now that you’re doing this again, maybe you also have some really sort current words of support or guidance?


Brittany Halverson: Sure. Yeah. I’d like to say that I’ve gotten better at managing my time, but I don’t know if that’s an honest answer. Certainly, I hope at least that it’s impacted a little bit less or that I have learned more tools to deal with it. You know, third time around working and being in school– definitely the first time, I think– I needed a bit of a wake-up call to realize that I was struggling. And I had to let certain things go. And so, it took me coming very close to failing a course because I just wasn’t organized my time. I mixed up certain dates with final exams, and because I was working, and I just was taking too many classes, so I think it took that moment of me almost failing a class to feel like, oh my goodness, I need to be more careful.I need to be aware of my situation and find a way to at least organize my time in a way that I can remember when things are. And part of that, and this is something I still to this day struggle with, is learning to say no to certain things. There were certain volunteer initiatives that I really loved, but it was, you know, I had to let certain things go to take care of myself and to be able to actually get through my degree. That was something that I learned to do. I don’t think I’m the best at doing that still, but I would say same sort of idea, in my first masters, it got to a point where I had to learn, you know, you don’t have to say yes to every-single thing that comes through, and you don’t have to take on every single thing. It’s okay to say, “you know what? I’m actually a little bit too busy right now. I’m really sorry, but maybe in the future.” And so that was something that I sort of learned. Yeah, and I think also something that I learned more as when I started seeing the other side of education– so when I became a graduate student, but also a TA and just seeing that side and an instructor, that side of education– I learned the beauty of taking less courses, which is not something that I thought was possible when I was in my undergraduate degree. I felt very pressured to finish in the four-year time slot. I was taking a full course load, five courses every semester. I didn’t take courses in the summer because I worked during the summer.


I just think about how much better I would have learned the material if I had taken one or two years longer, and fewer courses each semester, and taken those summer courses are a wonderful thing. I’ve realized that since it’s my favourite time as an instructor to teach, and I think the students usually enjoy it more, its smaller class sizes, it seems to be less stressful somehow. So yeah, I think if I could do it again, I would take less courses. And as a graduate student, at least you’re fortunate your course load is much lower, and so you’re only taking a couple courses in a semester, and you realize just how much better you can really engage with the material when you’re only trying to focus on a couple of things.

I think that that same philosophy should be applied to undergraduate students, realizing you don’t have to do it in that time period that has just been like decided and widely publicized because in fact, that time period makes it pretty hard to have a positive, stress-free experience.


Rebecca Gagan: And Brittany, I think that when you’re talking about the unique experience, that is your education, what you’re also getting at here is that even if you’re having to work, you don’t have to do everything on somebody else’s timeline. I think that’s what I’m hearing you’re saying, that it is taken you to be in the position of the– to be on the other side, in some ways as the instructor to be able to realize, wow, no. Why, why take six courses when you could drop a couple because you’re working and you’re trying to do everything all at once when you don’t have to. And I think that you, as an instructor. I hear that from students that they’re trying to just balance and do everything, and it’s so much pressure to put on oneself. And I don’t know– what’s interesting to me and hearing you talk, I was thinking about this some more– what’s interesting to me is that I don’t know– where does the model come from, right? That it’s that this is how you do it. And this is how you complete your degree. You do this number of courses. It has to be done this way. And that sort of the path when– like I don’t know, do you have any ideas with that model– cause I think that many students compare themselves to that mode. And I know I did write that. I thought I need to finish my undergraduate degree in four years. And when I was doing my PhD, which ended a bazillion years, but this sense that there is a schedule and maybe it’s not your schedule, but you’re following it. I don’t know if you have any ideas about where that comes from.


Brittany Halverson: You know, I don’t. I think all I can think of is the timeline that is widely publicized is like the bare minimum timeline. It’s like, if you know, a 100% of your time can be focused on school and if you have this ability to retain information from so many different subjects in such a condensed time period, then you can finish in four years.

I feel like that’s how it should be phrased at least because it should be the lower bound of your length of your degree, and it took me until my master’s to realize that it’s okay to take longer. You don’t need to stick to these artificial timelines. I went over by a semester in my first master’s, and I’m headed towards going over by like a year for my second one.

So, I’m no longer demanding of myself to stick within these specific timelines. And I think it took at the end of my first masters, when I was offered an opportunity to teach. I spoke with my academic supervisor, and I said, I’m really passionate about teaching. And I think that for me, I would rather get this opportunity and take an extra semester and then graduate with this opportunity and this experience under my belt. And I think understanding that delaying your graduation for whatever it is, if it’s taking care of your mental health or if it’s because you have to work and taking care of your finances, or if it’s to better understand the material or to take your time and deciding what you love and finding your passion in school, it is so worth it to take that extra time, but it’s hard to see it. I think it is hard to see it when you’re an undergrad. And I think that it’s just been so ingrained into us that this timeline is your life. And if you take an extra two years, it’s going to delay your whole life. And it’s not true, but it is hard. I can absolutely empathize with feeling that way because I felt that way as well.


Rebecca Gagan: And I think it’s also, Brittany, a way of having compassion for yourself to be able to, as you say, no to certain things, but also to say to yourself, hey, you’re supporting yourself through school. You’re working your trying to take care of yourself and prioritizing that by deciding to follow the schedule that fits best for you. And that you’re the only one who can ultimately take care of yourself in a sense that what’s best for you. And if dropping a course or two courses or taking them in the summer– and I agree with you, I love teaching in the summer. I feel like it’s this, it’s not a hidden gem, to take summer courses, but in some ways, it’s a such a wonderful time to be on campus, and the pace is different, and that can really work for students too, who are working, for example, and needing to still pick up one or two courses could do so in the summer.


So, I think that what you’re really getting at is the importance of deciding for yourself. What do you need? And Brittany, I know we were talking before we started recording, and you said something about as an undergrad, you’re also dealing with grief and with some losses that you also needed time for, and you referenced that in terms of needing to take care of yourself. And that you needed the time, not just because you were working, but just because of some other things going on in your own personal experience. And I think a lot of students feel that they can’t slow down, even when life–it’s not the case that the university operates in some separate dimension, in a separate sphere outside of our lives. And so, it is the case that we need to slow down and to be able to do so without feeling shame. I don’t know if you want to speak to that a little bit.


Brittany Halverson: I think you’ve said it so beautifully. It’s absolutely correct. And actually, something that’s become a bit of a mantra for me throughout this pandemic has been, to be kind to yourself. And it stemmed from the realization that I was having some fairly negative thoughts towards myself, and I wasn’t cutting myself a break– the same type of break that I would cut another human being, and you know, I was treating myself worse than I would treat anybody that cared about. And so yeah, be kind to yourself and take care of your mental health. I can’t stress that enough, and I’m so happy that I’ve seen– I’ve been in higher education, oh, gosh, since 2007, for a while now. And I’ve seen the growth and the increase in discussion around mental health. And I think has been really positive. I felt really encouraged seeing that. And any time that I’ve dealt with grief or a situation in my personal life where I was struggling, I have had to reach out to instructors, and I’ve only ever been met with compassion and total understanding because your instructors are people too, and they’ve likely dealt with something similar, and so they are going to feel for you, and it’s okay to reach out and to talk to them. So, I always encourage students to do so and to understand that your mental health is more important than a math class. It just always will be. And I will always say to prioritize that first. And so, I’m encouraged, but I think that we still have ways to go, as a society, to just really to prioritize our mental.


Rebecca Gagan: Absolutely. And I think, as you say, it’s a way of being kind to yourself and also a way of taking care of each other as a community, so I will have students write to me sometimes and send me an email asking for an extension. And sometimes it’s because they are working and they have said, very frankly, that there are just so many demands on them with work with school. Is it possible to have another couple of days? And of course, this is, I understand, contingent on the professor, and I certainly will not speak for all professors, but I think good for you for asking, good for you for prioritizing your wellbeing and recognizing that two days would actually make a difference for you. And sometimes it’s a week, right? It depends, but I think the first step is for students to recognize that their professors also have encountered those challenges in their own experiences and have had to reach out and ask for help and sometimes asking for help might come in the form of an extension, but it can also come in the form of just reaching out to a prof to ask for a meeting, to talk about an assignment that you’re working on to ask for some extra help or possibly to negotiate to some new deadlines. But the importance here is doing what feels right for you and doing so in a way that is kind to yourself. Brittany, just before we go, I’m wondering if you have any words of support that you might want to leave students with?


Brittany Halverson: Sure. I think, yeah. I just want to reiterate that on the note of being kind to yourself that, it’s okay– and actually, probably a really wise thing to do– would be to let go of those artificial timelines and those pressures from society and just focus on yourself, focus on what works for you. Take the extra time that you need. You won’t regret it. Even though it might feel like it in the moment, I think that you’re always going to look back and cherish giving yourself those moments and giving yourself the time to be happy and to be mentally healthy. And so, I think, just, yeah, give yourself those times, give yourself those moments.


Rebecca Gagan: And I think what you’re also getting at Brittany, it’s about giving yourself the space to grow and to learn and to be kind to yourself by not adhering, necessarily, to a standard that is, in many ways, artificially imposed, even if there is a kind of imposition of that schedule. And there are many, many pressures, and I don’t pretend at all that those pressures don’t exist. Because I know there are pressures to find a job. To get working, to pay back student loans, to support oneself, sometimes pressures to care for family. And so those timelines can feel, and in many ways, they are very real. They are not artificial, and yet, there is room in those timelines. And I think that’s what, Brittany, you’re really getting at here, that there is still space that can be opened up to give you some breathing room so that you can take care of yourself, and I just had a student write to me recently and say, “oh I’ve dropped two classes because I was working. And it was a lot, and I wasn’t feeling very good, and so I took this action.” And I just really applaud that because I think it shows a way of, as I said, just really caring for oneself that is so necessary because as you say, there will be no math class or English class, that at the end of the day matters more than your health.


Brittany Halverson: Absolutely.


Rebecca Gagan: So, I guess with that, Brittany, I just want to thank you so much for being here today. It’s been such a pleasure talking with you, and I think that our conversation will be so helpful for students who are doing what you have done and what you were still doing. I just also really want to say that your words of advice from both sides are so appreciated and so welcome. So, thank you so much.


Brittany Halverson: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure.


Rebecca Gagan: Bye for now. 


In next week’s episode of Waving, Not Drowning. I talk with Dr. Jessica Rourke, an assistant teaching professor in the department of psychology here at UVic. In our conversation, we’ll talk about what to do when you hate what you’re studying. We also talk about how to form connections, both in an online learning environment and when you’re face-to-face. I really hope that you’ll tune in for that conversation. You can keep listening to episodes of Waving, Not Drowning on Anchor FM, Spotify… wherever you stream your podcasts. 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.


Until then.


Be well.