Conclusion: The Transformative Power of Sharing Our Stories with Rebecca Gagan
UVic Bounce Founder and Director, Professor Rebecca Gagan reflect on the series, speak about the transformative power of sharing our stories, and share more of her own story.
"Your education should not be an experience you must survive."
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.
Hi everyone. Thank you for tuning in to the last episode in the Waving, Not Drowning podcast series. I’ll confess to you that I have really procrastinated producing, recording this last episode. And I’ve thought a little bit about that, and the only answer I can come up with is that I have just loved having these conversations working with the UVic Bounce team, Izzy, Daisy, and Deb, and sharing these stories with you. It has been such an honour and a privilege to get to have these conversations, to hear the stories of members of our UVic community, and I am just so grateful to have had this chance to share these stories with you. And of course, the purpose of this podcast series was always to record and to share these stories with our audience, with students, and other members of the UVic community in order to start that transformative work of changing campus culture through the sharing of our stories. But what I couldn’t have known when I started this podcast series back in January was really the way in which these conversations, these stories, would also be so personally important to me; how they would nourish me, sustain me and support me through, really, my own really painful and difficult time. Just as I did in the very first episode of Waving, Not Drowning, I’d like to share a little bit more of my own story with you, just as a way of explaining perhaps why I’ve been so hesitant to end this podcast series, but also as a way of sharing why it is that I believe, now more than ever, in the transformative power of sharing our stories with each other.
In early May of this past year, I received the news that my father had terminal cancer and did not have much time left to live. And I received this news at a time when the vaccine rollout was just starting. And so, I, you know, my parents live in Burlington, Ontario, and so, I didn’t know whether I could get there, whether I’d have time to get there, whether I could even go if I was unvaccinated. It was an excruciating time for me. Ultimately, I was able to get a vaccine. I was able to get there and to be by his side for the last few weeks of his life. And I am so profoundly grateful and lucky to have been able to spend that time with him, especially because I know that so many families lost loved ones during the pandemic, and they weren’t able to be by their side in the way that I was. I had lots of conversations with the UVic Bounce team about whether or not we should pause the podcast, whether I should take a break, take a step back in order to see you do the really hard work of grieving and to really care for myself, and it was a really difficult decision to actually continue to work with Bounce and to continue to produce and host the podcast because I didn’t want to be seen to model a form of resilience that is really based upon pushing through, and struggling, and surviving at all costs. That you put your own needs below everything else, and you prioritize your academic work, so whether that’s, you know, my work as a professor or the work of being a student and studying. That is not resilience. And while that model of resilience exists. As, uh, my dear friend and colleague, David Clark, writes, you know, this is not The Hunger Games. This is life. This is not a life in which we– you know, struggle to survive and then, you know, say, well, “I am resilient. I have survived these struggles.”
This is not how it should be. And so, I was really concerned about modelling that kind of– what I would say– false model of what resilience is.
But I wanted to continue with the podcast because sharing these stories was and continues to be so deeply nourishing and sustaining for me. When I was really living with my parents for those few weeks and caring for my dad, I talked to him about the podcast and the work that Bounce was doing. And as an academic, he had been an academic his whole life; he thought this was such important work to try to share our stories as a way of relating, changing the campus culture to make it more humane; to make it a more compassionate space and a more supportive space for students, a space where all students feel seen and heard and valued and respected, and where they are humans first, humans before students, and anything but just a cohesive student body and a space where all bodies are valued. And there is no hierarchy of somebodies mattering more than others. And so, while I was there, I continued to make the promos and find a quiet space to record intros. And in the months since, where, as I say, I’ve been doing this really intense work of grieving. I have thought back on the stories, the conversations that I had in the months before my father died. I think about the conversation I had with a chemistry professor Violetta Iosub, in which she shared with me her story of losing her father during the pandemic and not being able to get to Romania to say goodbye to him and how she was really, you know, struggling to keep teaching, and how that work was a kind of balm for her, a kind of distraction. And she said something in that conversation that, you know, has stayed with me.
She shared that when her father died, she was in the midst of teaching, and she says that she can’t remember if she shared that news with her students. She doesn’t think that she did. And I’ve thought a lot about that because I think that we, at the university, are so enmeshed in this culture really of not sharing our struggles, not sharing our stories, that, you know, we don’t speak of such things and we feel fearful about sharing those feelings, those experiences with others, even though there is so much good that comes from sharing those stories. And, you know, recently, I needed to tell my own students that I was travelling to Ontario to help my mother move and that I had lost my dad and, you know, shortly after sharing that, another student wrote to me and said that their parent had just received a cancer diagnosis and that they needed some time; they needed an extension. And in that moment of response to that student, I felt like I know how you must feel and of course, I want to do whatever I can to support you, but what’s so reassuring and comforting to me in that moment was that the student felt that they could– that they could write to me and ask for what they needed at what is such a deeply painful time in their life. And that, of course, I can be compassionate and extend to that student what they need in order to care for themselves and be present to their parent.
And so, I think too about my conversation with Deb Ogilvy, who shares her experience of grieving while being a student and feeling this kind of alienation and disconnect from others, but that her studies, her work in English, where she was making meaning and finding meaning in other stories helped her to find meaning in her own story, really reminded me of the ways in which the work we do here at the university, the ways in which our stories, and reflecting on our stories, can also help us to find meanings that we had perhaps overlooked, or to reframe our experiences; and also, that we don’t know what others are going through as we, doing our work, whether we’re studying or teaching, we don’t know about the private struggles of those around us, but in sharing them, we– I think can start to really better understand obviously each other, but also come to understand that, you know, whether you’re a student sitting in the class, or a professor looking out at the class and engaging with students, that we all have a story, and we need to try to listen to each other’s stories, try to understand them, and that by doing so, we also receive the support that we need.
And so, in continuing to have these conversations and continuing to produce the series, and in reflecting back on the conversations that I’d had with various members of our community, I gained such support and comfort. I was also really able to understand that I was not alone, and there are certainly so many moments where I feel very alone in my grief, where I continue to feel that way, and I reflect back on these conversations; each are different. Everyone has their own unique story, and everyone’s story of struggle, of challenge, of difficulty, is different, but we remain connected. And we remain connected in so far as we journey through life collectively, and what we have in common is that we do experience seasons of great pain of struggle. We all experienced these times of real challenge. We go through difficulties, and it doesn’t matter if you are a professor or if you are a student; you are going to have these challenges. You are going to have, you know, pain, and what I’ve learned from having these conversations is that if we can share these stories with each other, we come to understand the nature of each other’s pain; we come to understand each other’s struggles, and in doing so, we come to understand our own, and to be able to make more sense of it, to reframe it, and most importantly, to know that we are not alone in it.
We can continue to study, to teach, to be at the university, and to have this campus community in which there is room to hold all of it. In continuing to do Bounce to make this podcast, I realized that it doesn’t have to be an either-or, that you are pushing to the side the very real things, the losses, the pains, and of course, also the joys, but it doesn’t have to be the case that that is partitioned off from your experience of being a student, from your experience of being at the university. As I say, whether that’s as a student or as a professor. There is room, and there is room within our hearts. There is room within this community to hold it all.
I continue to read in various forums stories of first year students in particular, but I know some of them are more senior students who are really struggling and who feel so desperately alone. And what I see happening in some of these forums is those who respond coming and sharing their stories, and in very much in the same way that we’re trying to do through this podcast series of sharing our stories with each other. And I imagine that it is such a comfort to those who are putting those messages out there to receive this kind of response and to recognize that they’re not alone. So, perhaps this has explained a little bit about why I have been so hesitant to bring this podcast series to a close. It wasn’t just that the work of hosting and producing was a healthy distraction for me in my grief. It was that these conversations were just so nourishing and supportive and helpful to me personally, and so as much as I wanted these conversations, these podcast episodes to support our students and our community, as it turns out, I also needed to hear these stories in order to feel less alone, and in order to really feel that I was connected to others through the struggle that I’ve been going through. The stories I’ve heard are filled with such joy and beauty, and pain, and struggle, and also love.
And so, I want to talk a little bit about the act of sharing these stories, the act of coming together in this way, also as a kind of act of love as a way of teaching and learning with love. I started our podcast series by talking about my experience of learning from Andrea Cranmer, up in the Alert Bay, and how she shared with me the importance of teaching with love as a way of honouring all those who suffered the trauma, the colonial violence of residential schools, and who never had the chance to learn with love. And I shared with you in that very first episode that I had decided in that very moment in the big house that I would never again shy away from using the word love in relation to teaching; that I would never again be afraid to think about the work that I do; to be afraid, to think of teaching as a labour of love, and now having completed this podcast series; I can say with certainty that the work of sharing our stories with each other is very much a part of that work of teaching with love. It is a part of that labour of love, of doing absolutely everything that we can to create a campus culture in which students, in which faculty, in which staff, can come together in love to learn in love, to teach in love, so that students feel, as I’ve said, that they are seen. That they are not just a homogenous student body; that they are visible to their professors; that they can come here and feel cared for; that they can come to our campus and receive understanding; that they will come here and not be wounded. And that this is the work of love that we here at UVic Bounce are trying to do.
We are only one small part here, and I have never pretended that the work we are doing will fix or, you know, transform all of the systemic issues that prevent students from thriving, but I do believe that by sharing our stories with each other, we can make a difference. As I’ve said before, university, whether that’s your undergrad or grad school, it is not something just to be survived. School should not be an experience that you need to survive. Education, your education should not be an experience that you need to survive. If we are to prioritize the health and wellbeing of our students, we have to understand this one simple fact. And in doing so, we honour those who were never able to learn with love, who came to a so-called school and didn’t survive.
We also honour all those who did survive and who have been left with a legacy of trauma and pain, not only for them but for their families. We have to do better, and we can do better to make the university a space that is truly hospitable that is humane; that cherishes the souls who come to study there; that sees them in their uniqueness, their beauty, their pain, and says, sit here, learn here. I see you. I care. And I love.
Thanks for tuning in to this last episode in the Waving, Not Drowning podcast series. I am so grateful to all of you for listening and for being a part of this UVic Bounce community. I want to thank each and every one of you for, um, supporting the work of this podcast, and in particular, I want to thank my amazing UVic Bounce team, Izzy Almasi, Adaezejeso Eazeaku, and Deborah Ogilvie. One of the hardest things about ending the podcast is not getting to work with them anymore on this series. I have loved every minute of being a part of this team, and the truth is this podcast simply would not have happened if it weren’t for their creativity, their hard work, their kindness, and their dedication to UVic Bounce. I’d also like to thank the Strategic Framework Impact Fund; so, the president’s office, for supporting this podcast with a grant and also the faculty of humanities, the faculty of social sciences, law, and also engineering and computer science.
Thank you for listening, and be well.