With Your Woman Wednesday: Naomi Wolfe

This week on with your woman Wednesday we’re chatting with Naomi Wolfe. Leaving school doesn’t mean the end of your education, and for a lot of people deciding to take a break from college or university is a frightening step. Naomi was generous enough to share her current experience navigating her academic career, and she provides thoughtful insight about making honest decisions when it comes to pursuing post secondary studies and looking after your mental health.

Please give me a brief outline of your academic path after high school.

  • Started at the University of Toronto in September 2012
    • Decided to leave the following year (September 2013)
  • Returned in September of 2014 with a major declared in Women and Gender Studies and Environmental Studies
  • Left midway through the first semester of the 2015/2016 school year

Deciding a program is not for you or not in line with your goals is something a lot of students go through. Deciding to make a change is so much scarier, and something few students actually do. Tell me a little bit about your thought process that led to this transition.

In my first year of university, I struggled with some mental health issues that really pushed me to re-examine why I was in university, or rather, why I was in such a rush to figure it all out. Leaving high school, I really had no concept of what it was like to exist outside of an education system that was structured to teach us in a very specific way. Despite that, I went right into another educational institution that had been pre-ordained by that same system. While what I learned in university was hugely eye-opening and beneficial, something didn’t seem to click, so when the time came to decide to stay or go, there was a thrill in leaving that meant exploring a side to me that maybe I hadn’t thought of before.

The idea of making that jump is pretty scary, because there really is no plan when you finally do it, but that’s also part of the excitement. It presents new challenges and forms of stress, but in doing so, also teaches you the skills to manage them. When I left, however, I knew that I would go back to University at some point. I guess I hadn’t completely let go of the structured system to which I was so attached. When I returned to U of T in 2014, I expected to be a new version of my academic self – one that was more committed, engaged, and maybe slightly less of a procrastinator. I was very wrong. It turned out to be the worst academic year of my educational career. The confusion and self-doubt that came out of it really sucked, for lack of a better word, but instead of letting it consume me, I forced myself to again re-examine the choices that had led me there. When I finally decided to leave my program a second time, I was less certain I would return. In some ways it was scarier, and in others, not scary at all.

While I didn’t know what I was going to do, I knew that I was finally open to exploring new options and experiences. It’s important to allow ourselves some room for creative, personal growth outside of the things we know, and more often than not, this can lead to amazing things. While I don’t have more certainty, answers, or even direction, I can safely say that I’m confident in the decisions I’ve made. It’s amazing how believing in those choices really helps you understand the personal strength we all have.

What program are you considering now, and what things do you want to do before diving into it?

I am currently hoping to pursue a career in midwifery, but since it is quite a jump from my plans earlier in life, there is some catching up that is required. In high school, I was determined to be a lawyer, and ignored the sciences to follow other passions. Unfortunately, this now means I have to complete grade 12 biology in order to meet program requirements. I never thought that high school, of all things, would be such an experience in self-motivation. I also need to start saving toward the program itself. Luckily, having taken time off has helped me build some work experience and an understanding of how to manage work and leisure in a way that allows for some balance. So on the whole, I’m just trying to learn and save, while leaving room to continue exploring my passions.

What are the biggest lessons or takeaways from your time in your previous program?

I think that I can safely say that the most important thing my previous program taught me was how to critically think about the world in which we live, and how to apply that thinking in a way that promotes positive change. So, I guess I would say that the lessons were both personal and academic. In the realm of academia, it has allowed me to further explore and challenge the material with which I engage, in a way that has changed how I think about information in relation to the greater social, cultural, and political contexts. On a personal level, however, the takeaway has been so much more. Critical thinking allows for a re-examination of our own beliefs and preconceptions in such a way that we are able to form, and continually re-form, our opinions. I guess you could say that before university, I had ideas of what my opinions should be, but after I left, I could believe in the things I was preaching. I think that believing in what you say is so important in the process of knowing and liking who you are, and so this skill has been valuable in some of the most important ways.

What are you currently doing for work, and how does your current job allow you to learn new skills and stay challenged?

 I currently work for a couple of farmers who both grow organic food and produce baked products for farmer’s markets around the city. It is a job that not only continues to challenge me both on a creative and social level, but also has a customer service and management aspect that works together in building valuable workplace skills. As someone who hopes to pursue a future career that focuses on relationship building and one-on-one interaction, I have found it to be an invaluable experience. I have also had some amazing opportunities to get involved in Toronto’s neighbourhood communities and meet some interesting, dedicated people. Interacting with people who are passionate about food systems and ethical farming has not only taught about a realm of labour about which I had previously never thought, but has also increased my awareness about local environmental and community issues. It has pushed me to re-examine the way that I exist within these systems, and has opened my eyes to an important economic and lifestyle choice.

What are some issues or causes you are passionate about, and how do you plan on incorporating them into your future work or career?

I think that part of the reason that I left my program was that, while I was passionate about the topics I was studying, they were fields into which I was already engaged and exploring on my own. While I loved the information I was learning, it felt like my time could be better focused on a career that put those principles and beliefs into action. I think that midwifery appeals to me for this exact reason. Issues surrounding female health, support, and access on a local level are hugely important to me, and as a career, it focuses on the importance of self-agency in decision making, allows for healthcare access where other options may not exist, and can be a great opportunity for building positive female relationships.

If you were a trust fund baby with terrific connections, and you could work at any organization or on any project or initiative, where/what would it be?

 It would probably be a mental health initiative. Having seen so many people struggle with mental health issues, I see the major problem to be solved being that of communication between, and for, those who are living with what can be debilitating illnesses, or just simple day-to-day life. Often, the conversation surrounding mental illness is about eliminating the stigma of the illness itself, but I don’t think that’s enough. Part of eliminating that stigma is about allowing for people who go through these experiences to feel able to connect with others who may be experiencing similar things. Medication has been something that has hugely helped me in my daily life. While mental illness itself has started to be destigmatized, certain forms of treatment are still often frowned upon. I think that people being able to share their narratives with others who may be struggling means a break down of those prejudices. It means that we can fully understand the tools and resources available, and continue working toward positive relationship building that allows for different experiences and informed decision making.

What are your favourite spots for getting things done in the city?

I have to say, I love the UC Junior Common Room at U of T. It’s cozy, has lots of outlets, and is home to some leather couches that are GREAT for naps. (Just remember to bring some headphones!). Otherwise, I tend to be a coffee shop kind of girl. I like to visit a small cafe in my neighbourhood and get my work done, or visit some beautiful parks around the city, and pray that my computer battery doesn’t die in the process. That can really prevent you from getting things done.

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