Learning outside the classroom

The importance of maintaining a life away from school 

Amanda Hanemaayer discusses the importance of volunteering to gain academic perspective.
Amanda Hanemaayer discusses the importance of volunteering to gain academic perspective.  

At the surface, Queen’s University strives to promote a culture that is receptive to diversity and encouraging in the journey of self-discovery. In reality, both silent and spoken expectations allow that ideology to become warped, reinforcing time and time again that success is synonymous with superiority. 

Although I might still be in the process of completing my undergrad, I am compelled to question when exactly success in life became defined by how many credits you obtain or how many job titles appear on your resume? It is my belief that finding passions and activities outside of school allows students to not only take a break from their difficult schedules, but also to become versatile, empathetic members of their community. 

With all of the pressure placed on students to succeed, our generation seems to feel forced to dismiss life experiences in favour of an academic transcript that will lead them down a specific career path. 

In the Life Sciences program — the program I’m apart of — has come to be defined by its competitiveness. With such a considerable proportion of those enrolled hoping to make it into medical school, students have adopted a cutthroat and intense mind-set to reach their lofty goal. Ambition has now become our means of standing out amid the overwhelming number of students striving towards the same common end. 

Without a doubt, pursuing the dream of reaching medical school places a high call on prospective students. I know that this demands ambition and sacrifice, but it shouldn’t hinder our ability to explore and develop interests outside of those that are purely academic. Although the human body develops from our successes and failures in the classroom, we can’t ignore the personal growth that comes from pursuing unique opportunities and finding the things that we truly care about. 

Unfortunately, remembering this to be true is not always easy. 

Ever since arriving at Queen’s, I’ve become consumed by the idea of maintaining a high standing above my classmates. I’m guilty of allowing a grade to become more important than the information I’ve learned and the academic process that ultimately allowed me to achieve that grade. 

When faced with a particularly daunting course earlier this year, I fell into this trap. Organic chemistry is a mandatory course for Life Sciences students that’s notorious for its level of difficulty. Most students in the program consider it a nightmare, with those outside of Life Sciences often offering their sympathy when it comes up in conversation. 

Despite working tirelessly throughout the year to maintain a high grade, I found myself struggling against the belief that anything short of perfect was not good enough.

On top of this growing pressure to achieve academic excellence, research positions and hours of hospital volunteerism have basically become expected for most post-graduate degrees. As a result, I was left with a feeling of obligation to gain experience in these specific areas above all else. Starting early in the school year, I tried to make connections in the field and to perfect my resume in the hopes that someone somewhere may have a job available. 

I wish I could say that it had not taken me two full years to realize the beauty of carving out one’s own niche, but it did. 

In my first year of university I religiously devoted myself to maintaining high grades. That commitment meant that I offered myself little liberty to experiment with new opportunities. Second year was similar, only I stretched my boundaries to engage in activities that I thought matched the description and the expectations of my degree. But anything that didn’t coincide with the Life Sciences archetype was somehow forbidden and out of reach. 

Eventually, I found my way.

This past year, instead of searching for opportunities that seemed to match the expectations of my peers and professors, I carved out my own path. I got involved in leading cooking classes for patients suffering from HIV/AIDS and I taught English to a refugee family that recently moved to Kingston from war-torn Syria. Through these experiences, I discovered so much more about the community in which I lived and learned to appreciate it from an entirely different perspective.

It’s because of this volunteering that my summer plans went against the Life Sciences norm. Rather than following the routine of applying to labs and hospital volunteer positions, I found myself instead applying for a four-week volunteer position in Bududa, Uganda. The responses I received to this decision were varied. Most simply questioned why I was so willing to forfeit my time and resources to travel to a hidden region of the world alongside an organization that most wouldn’t be familiar with. 

Although I know when I get back to campus in the fall that I will be confronted with the same overwhelming pressures for conformity, I’ve vowed to break this repetition. For me, being a Life Sciences student doesn’t have to follow any certain path, but rather the one best suited for the individual.

Of course, I am not under the impression that these issues only arise within Life Sciences. So many other students fall into the trap of defining themselves by what will be printed on their diplomas. It’s unfortunate that people forget sometimes to slow down and recognize that there’s beauty and value in the process of learning, not just in a grade that shows how learning is quantified.

Under our current educational system, we place such a high priority on the future. While I understand that it’s important, it was only once I looked at the world through the eyes of those I volunteered with that I truly understood the value of living in the present moment. 

Our degrees may be a wonderful starting point for our future careers, but without the room, time and encouragement needed to explore different aspects of life, the value of the work that we do is strictly one-dimensional. It’s only once we step outside our comfort zones and see what challenges and pushes us, that we find exactly what we can truly love and be passionate about in life. 

Amanda Hanemaayer is a third-year Life Sciences major.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.