With Your Woman Wednesday: Erin Kanygin

Photo credit: Andrew Stripp

This week on With Your Woman Wednesday we’re talking to Erin Kanygin. Born and raised in the small fishing town of Prospect Bay in Nova Scotia, Erin moved to Toronto to study at the Randolph Academy of the Performing Arts before embarking on a cross-country (then international) journey and eventually returning to Toronto to obtain her Specialized Honours BA in International Studies. She is currently living in Australia and preparing to start law school at the University of Melbourne.

Past education:

Study abroad experience in Brazil through NACEL Canada while in high school

Two-year intensive Musical Theatre college program at the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts

International Studies program at Glendon College, York University

Tell us a little bit about yourself and the journey that led you to where you are now.

After graduating from Randolph in 2008, I moved out west to Vancouver (then considered to be Hollywood North) in order to chase the dream. I lived in Vancouver for two long and difficult years and managed to find some successes, however, by the end of 2009 I was already realizing that I did not want to be an actress for the rest of my life. This was a massive epiphany for me as I had always identified myself as an actress and the decision to change my career path (even though I was only 20 years old) felt like breaking up with a part of myself.

I decided I wanted to go to university and started researching programs online. I had a feeling I wanted to live in Toronto again, and when I read about Glendon’s bilingual International Studies program, it felt like the perfect fit. Glendon was the only university I applied to.

In the meantime, I got a job at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, which was not only an incredible experience, but also a lucrative one. I had just turned 21 and I had a bunch of money in my pocket. I was waiting to hear back from the University, and nothing was holding me to Vancouver, so I decided to move to London, England. Almost the minute I landed, I got my acceptance letter from Glendon College. I was elated, however I knew that I did not want to leave London so soon, so I deferred my acceptance and lived in London for nine wonderful months. I was working like crazy at a restaurant, travelling all over Europe (I never had a plan – I just flew to whichever city was cheapest that month) and falling in love. It was an amazing experience that had to come to an end so that I could begin my studies in January 2011.

During my third year of studies, after returning from another four months in Brazil, I decided that I wanted to apply for law school, instead of pursuing a Masters degree. One month after writing the LSAT, I was accepted to the University of Melbourne’s Juris Doctor Program and recently moved to Australia in order to start this new chapter of my life.

You’ve worked with the Two Brothers Foundation, an NGO that promotes education and social services in Brazil. You’ve done quite a bit of volunteer work that includes time spent at the Women and Trans Centre at Glendon College where you earned your Specialized Honours BA in International Studies. The thread that seems to run through all of your work is a commitment to social causes, particularly on a global level. So what came first: An interest in making the world a better place and then the decision to pursue law, or the decision to pursue law followed by a desire to use law as a tool for improving the world?

Ever since I was a little girl, my plan had always been to become an actress. I had been in a number of professional productions at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre, including Gypsy and Evita, and I had dreams of finishing theatre school in Toronto and then moving on to Broadway or perhaps even film and TV. When I graduated from theatre school and moved to Vancouver, I quickly realized how unfulfilling the life of an actress was for me. This was mainly due to the fact that it all felt so self-involved. After living in Brazil and seeing the massive financial gap that exists between the rich and the poor, I felt as though even if I did ever make it big as an actress, I would not be contributing towards society in a way that I felt mattered.

This was the epiphany that pushed me towards applying to university. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine becoming a lawyer or even applying for law school, mainly because my impression of lawyers was that they were money hungry and good liars. The fact that many of them also use the law to defend those who are defenceless was not something that I had considered. My mother was a social worker, so when I thought of the people who help others I associated them with that career. It was not until going back to Brazil in 2013 and working with the Two Brothers Foundation that I saw how useful an understanding of the law could be. So, to answer your question, first came my interest in social justice, and much later my desire to learn the law in order to apply it as a tool to help people.

This may be an irritating question to ask someone entering law school since the point of the program is to introduce you to different areas of law, but do you have an idea of what type of law you’d like to specialize in?

This is not an irritating question at all, however I do not have a precise answer for you yet because I truly have no idea what law school will bring, and I want to keep an open mind. For now my areas of interests are International public law (human rights law, immigration law) and also International private law (commercial law – how do businesses interact between states?) I have a massive interest in learning about commercial law and I imagine that straight out of law school, I will most likely work for a commercial law firm in order to pay off my debts. I do not see this as selling out. I think it is important to learn how the devil operates if you are ever going to take it down.

Did you consider graduate school as a way of pursuing your career goals? What ultimately made you decide on law school?

I absolutely considered grad school as a way of pursuing my career goals. I was considering programs like International Development or something policy related. After working for the Two Brothers Foundation and living in a favela (the word used for Brazil’s slums) for four months, my mind changed. I saw how effective NGOs could be, but I also saw their limits. I also saw how terribly exploited the residents of the favela were, and I felt that this was mainly due to the fact that they did not know their rights. Then came yet another epiphany in my life that I myself did not have an understanding of my own rights, so how could I ever help others if I did not have a true and deep understanding of the system? This thought, paired with the fact that I had taken some amazing legal philosophy courses at Glendon (Law & Social Thought and Law & Morality) brought me to the conclusion that I wanted to apply for law school. I had no idea what I was getting into or how challenging the whole application process would be, but from the moment I decided to apply, I knew deep down that it was the right decision.

You’ve dedicated quite a bit of time to drawing attention to different social issues, particularly in Brazil, on social media. How do you manage to stay, if not optimistic, then proactive when it comes to working towards positive change? There’s the risk of becoming cynical, I think, and it can be hard to maintain hope that things can get better especially when we are taught about the large-scale systems behind so many of the world’s problems. How do you combat this?

I think that I maintain a strong belief that there is possibility to create a better world. Especially today, our world is a constantly changing and evolving place. There are a lot of horrible things happening, but also so many glimpses of good. I am not delusional in the sense that I don’t think that I am going to single-handedly “change the world”, but I do believe that I can make a small and positive impact. In my mind, cynicism is pure laziness. It is so easy to be dismissive and say that it’s all shit and there is nothing anyone can do. It is also empirically false – there is so much that can be done and as easy as it is to make this world a worse place, it is possible to make it a better place. It can be daunting when you consider that there are so many supra powers operating way out of reach of general society’s grasp, but that is why it is okay and even a good idea to start small. I surround myself with engaging, intelligent, driven people, and I think that is one step I take to keep me driven and inspired.

I also love to do community work and see the way people are working with each other to leave this world a little better off than when we found it. My concern right now is giving people access to justice, and I am so excited to learn more about how to do that. I am sure I will confront many challenges along the way, but nothing good ever came easy, and I will continue to take on the next chapter of my life with an open heart and a positive outlook.

Australia. You are literally a day away. In summary, you’re from Halifax, went to school in Toronto, and have also spent a significant amount of time in Brazil. The decision-making process overwhelms a lot of people who consider making big moves, and when it comes to school, there is concern about how their qualifications will be weighed. How do you ultimately decide on a new location? Is it a gut reaction to a beautiful place? Is there some sort of strategy you’ve developed involving an assessment of career and life goals? A combination of those two, perhaps?

Well Neya, honestly, most of my decisions have been based on the heart coupled with a desire for adventure. I don’t over think things and for the most part, I have moved places without having much of a plan. It is impossible to plan for the unknown, so I tend to just go with the flow.

The choice of applying to the University of Melbourne was based on a few things; I have always wanted to visit Australia and not just for a three-week vacation. I have met many Aussies whilst travelling, whom I have loved and who call Melbourne home. After the past two winters in Toronto I knew I emotionally could not handle another bleak and depressing 6-8 months. Finally, the University of Melbourne is currently ranked the eighth best law school in the world.

I always knew that I wanted to do my Bachelors degree in Canada and then my Masters somewhere abroad, however originally I was thinking the U.S. or the U.K. When I started looking into it though, Australia was more affordable not only in terms of university fees, but also as a citizen. With my student visa I am permitted to work 20 hours a week and minimum wage here is 20 dollars (AUD) an hour. A living minimum wage! Imagine that! The U.S. and the U.K. simply can’t compete with that.

As far as how my qualifications will be weighed, it’s not something I am too worried about right now. I also have a gut feeling that I will not be calling Canada “home” again for a very long time.

For a lot of undergraduates, balancing multiple extracurricular activities, course load, and a part time job is quite the task. For those who have to take care of rent and living expenses, even more so. As I understand it, in your last two years of your undergraduate degree, you were working, organizing the International Studies Symposium (a conference on a chosen country organized and run by students at Glendon College), working on your senior thesis, and preparing for the LSAT. What are some concrete steps you took towards time management and, most importantly, staying committed?

In the last two years of my undergrad, it’s safe to say that I bit off almost more than I could chew. I have always been highly ambitious and as I mentioned previously, I tend to go with my gut, so when I take on projects it’s because they feel “right” to me. Staying committed has never been an issue, since I don’t commit to something unless I am genuinely interested. To say that I have “balance” though would be a lie. I missed many nights of sleep during my undergrad and totally ran myself into the ground. The only way I was able to get through it was because I was genuinely passionate about the work I was doing. I chose to do my thesis because I cared about the subject matter. I chose to apply to law school because I knew it was the right choice for me to get to where I want to go. Working was something I had to do in order to pay rent. I do not do anything half-assed, and if I feel uninterested or uninspired in the work that I am doing, it tends to show. I think the key for me is to just “get ‘er done”. The longer you put a task off, the more daunting it becomes. I am not saying that I don’t procrastinate – I do – but I am getting better at it. I also learned to prioritize. In other words, whatever project was worth the most would be the project that got more of my time. Earlier in my undergrad I would study ten hours or more for exams that were worth 15%. It was not worth my time. I over studied. As I got busier and busier, I no longer had time to make those mistakes. I allotted the amount of time I felt each project deserved, and I tried to accomplish tasks that were given to me right away so they didn’t get lost in the storm of chaos that was my life. I also gave myself strict deadlines, made lists, and always kept an actual agenda. I write everything down or else I will forget it.

What are obstacles you’ve encountered while pursuing your studies, and what did you do to overcome them?

I have encountered many challenges during my degree. Probably the biggest one was a health issue that presented itself in January of 2014 and was directly linked to stress. I have an autoimmune disease called Psoriasis that was triggered by stress. Psoriasis not only affects you physically (which was devastating), but also left me utterly exhausted and greatly impacted my ability to focus. This was all made even more difficult by the hospital visits I had to make twice a week for six months, which would leave me very drained and in severe pain.

This was also the year that I helped run the International Studies Symposium, wrote my thesis, applied for law schools, and wrote the LSAT all the while going through some pretty serious emotional trauma due to my sickness. My big mistake was that I didn’t talk about it and only began to open up about it AFTER it started affecting some of my work. I should have been more open with my professors about what I was going through because I think I missed out on a lot of support trying to fight the battle alone.

That being said, being sick also forced me to really start taking care of myself. I had to totally revise my diet, my sleep and my life and the stressful way I was conducting it. I think that because I got so severely ill, I will manage myself in law school in a healthier and more balanced way to avoid ever becoming that sick again.

You are no longer living in the greater Toronto area (our loss), but when you were here what were your preferred spots for getting work done?

When I was living in Toronto I was lucky enough to have an incredible home that I shared with my two best friends in Kensington Market. I spent a bunch of time working in our bright, naturally sunlit kitchen and beautiful living room. When I wasn’t at home though, my favourite spots to work were;

  1. FIKA Café, on Kensington Avenue in Kensington Market
  2. Pamenar on Augusta Ave. in Kensington Market
  3. Voodoo Child on College St.
  4. The Green Grind on College St.
  5. Boxcar Social at Yonge and Summerhill

Learn more about Toronto Discursive’s new Q&A series At Your Man’s House Mondays and With Your Woman Wednesdays here.

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