[Trigger warning for mentions of ableism, suicide, sexism, and misogyny]
Well, it’s official: I am now a university graduate.
I am relieved to say that after four long and painful years, I am no longer a student at Mount Saint Vincent University. Instead, I am a graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in Psychology with a double minor in Sociology/Anthropology and Women’s Studies.
It wasn’t easy, though, because let’s face it, post-secondary education is not designed for people like me, especially not at a place like the Mount – something I wish I had known long before now.
Let me explain:
In high school, I dedicated all of my time and energy to academics – often at the expense of both my social life and my mental health – in order to make sure that I would receive an entrance scholarship when I applied for university. I did this because I knew that as an 18 year-old with no work experience (something I’ll explain briefly later), from a middle-class family, a scholarship was the key to a university education that didn’t end in a mountain of debt. So, when I received a phone call from the Registrar’s Office at the Mount, telling me that I had been awarded a $30,000 entrance scholarship ($7,500, annually), I was ecstatic. I felt as though all of my hard work had finally paid off, and I was on my way to bigger and better things.
I made the decision about where to complete my (first) undergraduate degree the same day I got that phone call, and I based that decision on three simple factors:
- Finances: This, as you may have guessed, played a significant role in my decision to attend the Mount. After all, I was a kid who was unable to work due to physical/disability-related issues, and the only way I was going to get a degree without a huge amount of debt at the end, was if my tuition was paid for using scholarships and/or bursaries. Since the Mount offered me a larger scholarship than any other school I applied to, it seemed like the most reasonable choice in terms of cost effectiveness.
- Passion: When I applied to the Mount, I applied as an English student. My goal was to obtain a Bachelor of Arts degree, with a major in English, and a double minor in Sociology and History. After that, I wanted to get my B.Ed. so I could become a high school teacher. I was passionate about education and academia, and I couldn’t picture myself doing anything besides teaching at that point in my life. So, I thought that if I completed my undergrad at the Mount, I could go on to complete my B.Ed. there as well. This, too, was a factor in my decision to become a Mystic.
- “Mission, Vision, Values”: The Mount boasts that, in comparison to the other universities in Halifax, they offer a unique post-secondary experience. They claim to value academic freedom, accountability, engagement, professionalism, and respect, and they say that, unlike at other schools, at the Mount you will be more than just a number – your professors will know you by name. Furthermore, in their Mission Statement, the school claims the following, all of which had a profound impact on my decision to pursue my studies at MSVU:
- We are committed to academic excellence, and our passion is a rich and rewarding university experience.
- We are dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge: scholarship, teaching and intellectual endeavour of the highest quality, and we promote accessibility through flexible learning opportunities and services.
- We are inspired by our strong tradition of social responsibility and our enduring commitment to the advancement of women.
- Our people are our foundation and our relationships are built on respect and accountability.
Now, if you take the information above at face value, you would likely assume that my decision to attend Mount Saint Vincent University was a good one, right? I mean, it sounds like a real gem of an institution, dedicated to academic freedom, respect, accessibility, social responsibility, etc. – and those things are great!
Contrary to what the Mount would have prospective students (and the general public) believe, they are no better than any of the other schools in Halifax. In fact, in many ways, they’ve got a lot of ground to make up.
I know that there will be those who disagree with me, and I respect that. I am well aware that my experience at the Mount does not reflect the experiences of all students, nor would I ever claim otherwise. However, what I am going to share with all of you is my experience as a Mystic, and in doing so I will address the following:
- The ableism that I have both witnessed and experienced first-hand while studying at the Mount, including issues related to accessibility and accommodation, as well as the microaggressions exhibited by university faculty members.
- The administration’s failure to allow professors and students to express their academic freedom in ways that they deem unfit, for no other reason than they are, perhaps, unconventional (or… Deviant *winks*).
- The administration’s failure to remain accountable for their own misdoings, and their failure to take into account students’ opinions and, more specifically, grievances.
- The failure of some faculty members (professors and administrators alike) to act in a professional manner, as well as a blatant lack of respect not only for fellow faculty members, but students as well.
I know it seems like a lot, and I’ll be honest… it is. That said, this is something that I feel is extraordinarily important, and I believe that it is my responsibility to share my experiences with all of you. I do this not only so that prospective students who read this will be able to make a more informed decision about where to pursue their education, but so the general public is aware of the many issues I have encountered at the Mount.
First and foremost, let’s talk about ableism.
For those of you who don’t know what that means, let me explain: Ableism is the wrongful discrimination against or social prejudice towards disabled people. This means that it is a form of structural oppression against members of society who are in some way disabled, whether physically, mentally, or otherwise.
To be clear, ableism is gross and wrong, just like any other form of discrimination.
When I first started studying at the Mount in 2011, I was not currently diagnosed with any mental or physical illnesses or disabilities – I was, at that point, still considered a medical mystery. As an exceedingly stubborn, over-achieving perfectionist, with a vigorous yearning for success, I was able to excel academically despite the many mysterious medical challenges (both physical and mental) that I was facing – at least in my first year.
However, in my second year, everything changed.
Until that point, my health had been on a steady but mild decline. As second year began, though, that “mild decline” transformed into what can only be described as a nosedive off a cliff. Suddenly, I was incredibly ill. I was experiencing constant feelings of anxiety and depression, struggling with exacerbated physical symptoms (joint pain/dislocations, headaches, etc.), and trying, with little success, to manage it all while battling recurrent bouts of self-loathing and suicidal ideation.
I was sick, I hated myself for it, and academically, I felt like I was drowning.
Despite my best efforts – which included reaching out to professors, friends, and family members – my grades the first semester of that year were the worst I have ever received. I knew that if I wanted to keep my scholarship that year, I had a lot of work to in the following months, so that’s exactly what I did. With the help of my family and friends, I started seeing an incredible therapist, I started taking medication for my debilitating anxiety, and I started to do everything in my power to maintain my own mental and physical wellbeing, while still succeeding in school.
To do this, my (temporary) family physician suggested that I look into registering with the school’s Disability Services Centre – something that, until that point, I had no idea even existed (because I was never informed by the university that there were resources available to struggling students). I did, but unfortunately I found that I was unable to register as a disabled student because the Mount was, at the time, one of the only schools in the province that required students to meet a deadline in order to register with the DSC. (Note: This deadline has since been eliminated, which is great because it was a ridiculous policy to begin with – disabilities don’t run on a schedule, and I can assure you they most certainly do not meet deadlines, so prohibiting a student from receiving accommodations based on the fact that they may have been diagnosed after a deadline is absolutely absurd, but that’s another can of worms).
So, I continued my studies that semester with absolutely no assistance from the university – a school whose administration, might I remind you, claims to value students, and boasts about such things as the school’s ~strong tradition of social responsibility~, accessibility, and respect.
Despite the school’s lack of assistance, I did well second semester – just not well enough to compensate for my first semester’s poor grades.
So, I lost my scholarship.
For many of you who know me, this will come as a surprise. This is because for a long time, I was completely and utterly ashamed of the fact that I had lost something I worked so (so, so) hard to achieve. So, when asked by friends and classmates if I had kept my scholarship that year, and in the following years, I lied and said that I had. It was a matter of pride, I suppose.
In reality, though, my scholarship was taken away at the end of my second year of study – something that I felt (and still feel) was extremely unfair, given the fact that I knew (and still know) that my grades would never have been as poor as they were in that first semester had I been provided with any of the support or assistance that I had requested from the school and from my professors.
So, because of how unfair I felt the situation was, I decided to appeal.
Interestingly enough, I was informed by the Registrar’s Office that I was the first student ever to appeal the loss of a scholarship. I did it anyway, though: I paid the fee, I wrote a letter to the Academic Appeals Committee, I sought out multiple reference letters (academic, character, and medical) stating that I would not have lost the scholarship had I been provided (or at least made aware of) some kind of assistance by the school, and I researched the university’s policies to the point that I knew them by heart. I made it clear that I had done everything in my power to reach out for help from the university, and finally, I filed my appeal. I was told by the Registrar that the Appeals Committee would read everything I had provided to them, and I would likely be summoned for a hearing (which, after reading the school’s policy, I learned was structured very much like a criminal trial… fascinating, really).
A few weeks later, I received a letter in the mail from the Academic Appeals Committee, in which they essentially stated that they believed I was lying about having sought help from the school, blaming me for the lack of resources available, and denying any responsibility or accountability whatsoever. They defended the DSC deadline, ignored my provided medical documentation, and dismissed each and every one of my grievances, just like that. Reading the accusations in that letter was like a kick in the chest, but what really topped it off was learning that they were not even going to grant me a (*cough* standard *cough*) hearing. The decision to revoke my scholarship stood, and that was that.
After that, I found myself really struggling. At times, I considered transferring to a different university for the remainder of my degree, but ultimately I was unable to do so due to financial constraints. So, for the next two years, I remained at the Mount, despite feeling like nobody there gave a damn about me, despite knowing how poorly I was treated by administration, and despite the fact that I – someone who had worked tirelessly and without aid for my entire academic career – was abandoned the first and only time I asked for help (Funny how that happens to marginalized groups, eh? We’re told to reach out and when we do we’re shoved aside. Hmmm, interesting!).
A lot of things changed after I lost that appeal. I was diagnosed with a number of medical conditions, and I became more aware of things like ableism (as well as other forms of discrimination and prejudice). It is because of this that I was able to recognize the ableism that I had experienced in this instance, the ableism I experienced in the following two years, and the ableism experienced by my friends and peers. Suddenly, I was much more aware of all of the things going on at the Mount that are just completely unacceptable, like:
- Professors refusing to provide attendance accommodations, and even threatening to kick disabled students (read: me, I am the disabled student in question) out of their classes for missing time, despite being provided with documentation from the DSC that attendance accommodations were required.
- Professors refusing to allow their classroom to be relocated in order to accommodate a student who used a wheelchair (Fun fact: Did you know that many people who use wheelchairs are unable to access the main entrance to the auditoriums in the Mount’s Seton Academic Centre because the entrance ramp is at an inaccessible incline? Did you know that this is something nobody at the university has addressed? #TheMoreYouKnow).
- Professors blatantly referring to people diagnosed with mental illnesses as crazy or violent, with no regard for the mentally ill students in their classrooms (this was in a psychology class, by the way – if that doesn’t get your blood boiling, I don’t know what will).
- Administration’s failure to provide mobility-impaired students with a feasible means of getting around campus – because no, that is not a task that should be provided by campus security, who don’t always have time to act as a shuttle between buildings on that awful hill (Fun fact #2: Did you know that you can work with car dealerships to provide students with a shuttle in exchange for either a fee or some other kind of compensation? Like advertising or a partnership? #TheMoreYouKnow).
- The university’s failure to make all buildings on campus accessible to disabled people, while still claiming that the campus is “accessible” (are you serious? It’s laughable that the NS Centre on Aging is inaccessible given the high rates of disability in the elderly population, but hey, that’s just my opinion).
- The university’s failure to ensure that bathrooms are wheelchair accessible (Fun fact #3: If the door to the “accessible” stall swings inward, wheelchair users cannot use the stall, and you should really stop calling those stalls “accessible” because they’re not! Just fix the hinges, it’s not hard! #TheMoreYouKnow).
- The university’s ignorant and misguided decision to have the DSC located in Evaristus Hall, a building that is located at the top of the campus hill, which is only accessible to physically disabled and mobility-impaired students if they are driven straight to the one accessible door, and if the elevator is working that day, because the DSC is not on the first floor (come on).
I could go on, but I think you get the point: The Mount has some shady things going on in terms of accessibility and accommodation, and these are things that are simply unacceptable. Disabled students exist, and we deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. We deserve to have access to the resources we need, and we deserve to be provided with the accommodations we need, too. It’s as simple as that.
Funnily enough, I also started to notice other things – things not necessarily related to disability, but things that were still… wrong. For example:
- The administration’s tendency to target professors because of their “unconventional” teaching methods, despite being recognized by students all over the city on multiple occasions for their outstanding work.
- The administration’s refusal to provide students with an explanation as to why a professor had been replaced by another faculty member who spent the remainder of the semester either (1) speaking ill of the original professor – his colleague – in front of students, or (2) making sexually inappropriate comments towards female students, to such a degree that one or more students dropped the class.
- The administration’s dismissal of students’ complaints about the behaviour of the aforementioned professor and his blatant lack of respect for both us as students and his coworker (I know because I was one of the complainants – surprise!).
- Instances of blatant disrespect from professors, including whistling at students and saying such things as, “here girl!” to get their attention, (AKA treating students like dogs – which *newsflash* we are not).
See, these things… they became the norm. It was almost as if no matter what I did, and no matter what my peers did (especially my other disabled peers), we were not shown even an ounce of respect from the professors or administration at the Mount.
None of these things speak to the mission or values that the Mount claims to uphold.
None of these things made me feel like I was being treated as a person instead of just a number.
None of these things made me proud to call myself a Mystic.
In fact, ALL of these things make me elated to say goodbye to the Mount. I am relieved to have made it through the past four years, and I am thankful to be moving on to bigger and better things at Dalhousie (BSW what’s up) next year.
I know this post has been a long one, and I know it may seem like a bit of a tangent… but I guess what I’m getting at here is this: The Mount is not the place it claims to be. It is not built on accessibility and respect, it does not foster academic freedom, and it is not the best place for disabled students. So please, be mindful of this, and be sure to critically evaluate the way in which institutions like the Mount present themselves. Even though there may be some great things about the Mount and schools like it, the image they portray – that is, one that suggests that the Mount is a beacon of hope for minority students – may not be all it’s cracked up to be.
Let’s face it, things are not always as they appear to be, so be careful, be mindful, and be unafraid to seek justice wherever you go in life. If we don’t speak up, who will?
– Stephanie, ECC
P.S. – To Dr. Alan Brown, someone who did exemplify all of the things the Mount claims to stand for – thank you. You are an incredible person, a gifted teacher, and a shining light in what was otherwise a very dark four years for me. You have always gone above and beyond for all of us as students, and I want you to know that everything you’ve done for me in my time at the Mount is so, so appreciated. I’m sad to see you go, but I wish you nothing but the best. Keep being deviant xo.