What I Learned in My Undergrad at Western

In all my years at Western (four) and all my years at Her Campus (three), I’ve learned a lot about women’s studies, lots more about media culture and a heaping pile of a lot about myself. When I was deciding what I wanted to write my last article for Her Campus Western on, nothing seemed to fit better than a journey through the most important and interesting things I’ve learned in my time here—both academically and in my personal life. If you’re curious about what we learn in one of the most obscure programs in Canada, MIT (Media, Information and Technoculture), would like to learn a bit more about me before I depart or just want to procrastinate a little longer on those finals, this article is for you. These are my favourite things I’ve learned at the University of Western Ontario!

Lesson 1: Dorm Life Is Only Fun For A Year

In my first year at Western, I was placed onto the 7-Middle floor of Saugeen-Maitland Hall—my third choice in the dorm ranking system. I really wanted to be in a traditional-style dorm with a roommate, in order to get that classic college experience; however, I had preferred residences like Delaware and Med-Syd, for their lack of a “party” reputation. I ended up lucking out, as the year I came in (2015) was the first year of reputation shift between Saugeen and Med-Syd! What I ended up with was an amazing first-year experience, constantly surrounded by friends, with access to drinking and “partying” only when I wanted it. This is not to say that we didn’t have our share of floor assholes, but generally we had a great group of people who were all friendly with one another. The cafeteria food wasn’t great and there were a few too many fire alarm pulls for our liking, but I didn’t mind because it was all part of the dorm experience. I had a wonderful first year, and I still look back on it with my roommates, (whom I met on my floor) and re-experience all the fun memories made within the prison-like walls of Saugeen.

However, something that early-year students fail to recognize is that this amazing residence experience can’t always cross over to your later years. A lot of the exhilaration and convenience of first-year dorm life comes from the newness of being at university, and the experiences ingrained in the first year of your undergrad. After first year, residences often become aligned with ideas of campus bubbles, lack of privacy in favour of forced socialization and standard-to-poor living conditions that might not work with your growing course load and developing self. Some choose to stay back to be RAs, Residence Sophs or Dons, and absolutely love it, and good for them! That’s certainly a job I couldn’t do. However, the majority of students move off-campus or to an upper-year dorm, which are very different than initial university residences. Moving off-campus is also a lot cheaper than staying in a residence. I now look back on Saugeen, which my roommates and I missed so much in second year, and think, “Thank God we didn’t stay.” To each their own, but don’t be afraid to leave the campus bubble for a different experience!

Lesson 2: We Don’t Care About Nunavut

When I say “we,” I’m referring to the Southern provinces of Canada, excluding territories—in other words, “we” are the geographical area of Canada that Western society generally thinks of when we say “Canada.” In my Reporting on the Margins in Canada course, MIT 3773 with Jeremy Copeland, we spent much of our time discussing perceived peripheries within our own country—namely, Nunavut. Everyone knows that Indigenous people are reported on through predominantly prejudiced and stereotyped lenses, such as the W4D model (warrior, drumming, dancing, drunk, or dead). However, I had never delved so deeply into the intricacies of reporting on the Northern Canadian periphery, and how discrimination against Northern Indigenous stories as news content is inculcated directly into the fabric of mainstream Canadian reporting. Elements of this study that most interested me were the abundance of parachute journalism when covering Nunavut, and limiting the authenticity of stories surrounding a geographical area and culture foreign to the reporters. I also developed interest in ethical questions around inculcated beliefs, especially that Indigenous people in the North are incapable of their own reporting, or undeserving of major news coverage. In terms of importance, these topics stem back to basic human rights issues; however, what is more interesting to me is the subtlety of Southern Canadian assumptions regarding these topics. Why isn’t it surprising to us that only a small fraction of mainstream news stories mention the newest, largest and most northern region of our country? Why do we not question the systemic lack of Indigenous people within news organizations, whether it be behind or in front of the camera, and why do the Northern Canadian people who do work in these occupations suddenly retain onus to reporting on all of the stories concerning their people? I look forward to continuing to explore this area of study in my personal time, post-undergrad.

Lesson 3: Tinder Is Fun, But Don’t Put So Much Pressure On Dating

Tinder is essentially designed for the university biome; besides its obvious contributions to hookup culture, it allows you to access the oversaturated pool of similar-aged young adults, without having to commit to a relationship or an awkward in-person interaction, when you ask out your class crush and he says he has a girlfriend. Tinder is also innately superficial, with such a focus on visual attraction rather than true connection. Many upper-years students, including myself, will tell you that over the years they’ve experimented with many dating apps—Tinder, Bumble and Hinge being the main three for (at least heterosexual) connections. I will be the first to say that Tinder is my least favourite, and remind you that I met my current boyfriend on Hinge, (with the bio line “Something you don’t know about me is: I am secretly Shrek”); however, I have found a few boyfriends off of Tinder as well, and they have been predominantly lovely and wonderful too. The nice thing about Tinder, I used to find, was that there was a built-in lack of expectations. You could start talking with someone and find you don’t connect, ending it there without causing too much of an upset, (NO GHOSTING ALLOWED) or say that you didn’t know what you were looking for and not be judged too harshly, at least by those who are decent people.

Despite how fun Tinder was, especially when I first got it and was swiping right on all my friends, I felt at times that its popularity was driven by a university culture around dating which emphasizes the need for a partner, or a FWB, or at least constant access to hookups, at all times. The lesson I learned after dating several people in my time at Western, whether from a dating app or not, was that apps like Tinder perpetuate young adulthood pressure to find love or sex, and don’t encourage students to spend time on their friends and themselves instead. In a university bubble with increasing pressure to not be alone, especially because we’re saturated in potential partners at all times, it can start to become taboo to NOT be looking for someone, and that’s counterproductive to your university experience. Life is longer than just your university career—try to resist the innate pressure cooker of Tinder, and recognize that there are more things to life than a partner. It’s wonderful to be with someone, but being with yourself and your platonic loved ones is just as important.

Lesson 4: NEVER TAKE A POLYGRAPH

I have been obsessed with true crime forever, and in my final semester of undergrad I finally had time to take Psychology of Crime and Corrections (Psych 2032). I could write a whole article on this class, because there were so many lessons that I loved, but I’m going to delineate what I believe to be the most important—on the whole, never agree to taking a polygraph exam.

Polygraphs are widely seen as “lie detectors”—machines that can easily separate suspects into guilty or not guilty. Media depictions of polygraph exams often depict dark-lit rooms with sturdy, honourable detectives or police officers pulling the truth out of sweaty suspects, the polygraph reader sitting in the back giving the notorious “thumbs down.” The suspect is then led out of the room, often kicking and screaming that he would’ve gotten away with it, as dramatic music plays out a fade-to-black. This is not how polygraphs work. There are two kinds of polygraph tests: the Comparison Question Test (CQT) and the Concealed Information Test (CIT). The CQT is the traditional polygraph test: a pre-test interview to establish a baseline, a series of questions which touch on irrelevant, relevant and comparison topics, in order to measure physiological changes in the suspect, and a score given by a polygraph technician as to which answers were true and which were false. This polygraph measures only four indicators on the suspect, which are used to determine the lie. The indicators are respiration rate, heart rate, galvanic skin response (sweating) and blood pressure. In other words the polygraph measures emotional reactivity, not “lying.” How you react to questions asked produces physiological changes within these measures, which are assumed to relate to deception, but you can have emotional reactions to many different topics which do not indicate a lie. For example, if you were raised in an anti-drug household upon threat of abuse, and the officer asks if you have ever done drugs, your spike of anxiety or adrenaline may appear as a deceptive response. This has happened many times before, and leads to many exonerations on false imprisonment despite the polygraph being, technically, inadmissible in Canadian court.

Long story short: yes, denying a polygraph and asking for a lawyer may appear guilty, and yes, polygraphs are not admissible in Canadian court, but the false-positive rate of the polygraph exam is not worth the risk of poisoning anyone’s mind and giving the legal system an easy out in pronouncing you a suspect, or even a guilty perpetrator, when you had nothing to do with the crime.

Lesson 5: There Are Right and Wrong Spoke Bagel Orders

Hear me out: no one but O-Week frosh are sidling up to the bagel counter and ordering “plain cream cheese on Canadian Harvest.” Spoke Bagels are an absolute treasure, and you need to treat yourself to combos that uphold their standards! You can add modifications to your order, (make sure to smile at your cashier and give a tip for their efforts) and experimentation is key in finding the bagel that makes your Monday morning. I was known for Spoke bageling it up several times a week for years, so get in there and see what the hype is for yourself! Here are my favourite bagel orders, refined after four years of experimenting:

  • Egg, cheese & bacon breakfast combo on Asiago Sourdough (put the hashbrowns in each half of the bagel, and save one for extra munching)

  • BLT bagelwich, add an egg (for those wanting something to fill them up)

  • Cranberry cream cheese on Canadian Harvest (only in December!!)

I always recommend heading out to the kitchen as well, but know your bagel options well!

Lesson 6: Beware of Exclusive Rentals

Exclusive Rentals is the most popular rental company for off-campus housing, especially for students who can benefit from their easy drive-around tours and quick showings. I have lived in two different Exclusive houses in my time in London, and most of my friends have had a similar experience—with very different results. My experience has generally positive—we have had Exclusive send people to fix our boiler, furnace, dishwasher, and other features of our houses within the day. However, I have also had big disappointments with the company, from not realizing that our landlord was renting his family-style house as two separate apartments, (hello, bylaw violations!) to allowing repairmen to enter our house without sending all of us a warning email, resulting in us awakening to the sounds of strange men in our house at 9AM on a weekend. Others’ experiences have been similar, from timely service and communicative admins to unscheduled house tours and week-long furnace-fixing delays in the dead of winter. Because student houses are typically quite old and in need of repair, going with Exclusive is a risk; one that many students are willing to take, but not without caution. Exclusive is generally okay, as long as you are aware of a few things, so here are my pieces of sage advice:

  1. Be aware that Exclusive tour guides will generally try to over-sell you on houses, because they want to meet their quota. They may give you overly-positive or even false information, (purposefully or not) so make sure to ask lots of questions and do your research!

  2. If you have a problem with your house, don’t wait to call. Get Exclusive or a private repairman on the phone, and be clear with what you need. There might be delays in service if you go through Exclusive, but they’ll generally get done whatever you need as long as you’re clear and persistent.

  3. If you get an email saying there will be a tour coming through your house at a certain time, don’t plan your day around it. Half the time, the tours won’t come, and the other half they’ll only be there for five minutes. It’s not worth your time to worry about, besides making sure your house isn’t a COMPLETE mess.

  4. Don’t be scared of Exclusive! The people who work there are just people, and they may make mistakes sometimes, but there are also lovely people who work there that will ensure you get any help you need in a timely, professional manner. Keep an open mind, and try to stay on top of anything you need from them.

Lesson 7: Consumers Love Eggs

My favourite piece of information I have learned in my entire undergraduate career, which I learned in Selma Purac’s Consumer Society class (MIT 2151), has to do with Betty Crocker, participatory consumerism and eggs. Before I tell you this story, keep in mind—I have told this story on every single first date I have been on since I learned it. It’s that interesting to me.

Back in 1946, Ernest Dichter—a marketing expert using Freudian psychoanalytic theory—pioneered the idea of “free association.” Essentially, using focus groups to say whatever comes to mind, instead of focusing on structured questions and specific answers. His first client, the Betty Crocker company, hired him because their sales of instant cake mix, which had performed so well in focus groups before its launch, had been barely making any sales. Dichter came in and essentially put together the first psychologically-examined focus groups, using free association to elucidate the issue: women of the time, whose role was to embody domestic, patriarchal femininity for their husbands and families, felt subconsciously guilty for presenting their loved ones with boxes of cake mix that was so easy to make. They felt they were deceiving their families and guests, because they were “cheating” at their inherent role. As a response to this realization, Dichter suggested that Betty Crocker formulate a new instant cake mix—one guaranteed to remove this guilt from housewives—containing a new formula that required the cake-maker to add an egg. In adding this egg, an unconscious symbol of emotional investment, housewives could give their blessing and love to their cakes, feeling a greater sense of accomplishment and fulfilling their caregiver roles in the home. Sales skyrocketed. That one egg was enough to change the entire trajectory of Betty Crocker, and contributed to them remaining a household brand in boxed cake mix today.

Lesson 8: Explore London

This seems like obvious, clichéd advice, but it’s truly astonishing how little of London most students see in their four or five years here. It’s assumed that you will see The Ceeps and The Barking Frog, and there’s no doubt you’ll make your way up to Masonville Mall for shopping at some point, but there is so much of this city to discover, and you can’t do that if you stick to the same routines! Some of my favourite London places were accidental discoveries or purposeful exploration past the convenient Oxford-Richmond-Fanshawe Park stomping grounds. I love restaurants like Plant Matter Bistro, The Bag Lady and The Root Cellar—places that are all outside of the “comfort zone” of campus areas but have wonderful food and service. Some of my favourite pubs, like Molly Bloom’s and Chaucer’s can be easily overlooked if you stick to the classic student bars and restaurants as well. Even external student events, like UWO choir concerts at St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church and the annual Caisa fashion show at Centennial Hall, provide new areas to explore and new ways to broaden your horizons while you’re here. I especially recommend looking up parks and trails to walk, like Sifton Bog, Kains Woods, Gibbons Park and Thames Valley Trail, because London, despite being the “Forest City,” can get a little grey and industrial at times. A million people will tell you to get out there and explore, but it takes one moment to decide to explore London for yourself, and you won’t be disappointed.

Lesson 9: PR Can Overthrow Governments

Ever heard of the CIA-orchestrated plot to overthrow the Guatemalan government? Well, you’re about to. I learned this story in my Consumer Society course, just like the Betty Crocker case study, and this remains the key example I give when someone asks me why studying “Media, Information and Technoculture” is so important.

In 1954, an emerging pioneer in propaganda and, coincidentally, Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, was hired by the United Fruit Company, (now called Chiquita) to promote fruit sales in the US. Bernays helped reposition the brand’s association with happiness and education, and became an instrumental player when the people of Guatemala—a country in which they grew much of their produce—elected Jacobo Árbenz, an anti-American-business candidate. Because the UFC controlled Guatemalan land that Árbenz was promising to regulate and liberate from American ownership, Bernays wanted to orchestrate a coup d’état to prevent his presidency. Bernays told the UFC to campaign to universities, lawyers, news media and the US government to lobby Americans to support governmental intervention in Guatemala. Bernays then became close friends with high-up journalists, and fed them fear-mongering information on the new president. As a result of Bernays’ actions, and his choice to play off the Red Scare of the time, the American public were convinced that the incoming president of Guatemala was a dangerous communist, and supported what would eventually become “Operation PBSUCCESS,” a CIA-run coup d’état meant to “liberate” the Guatemalan people, which deposed the democratically-elected Árbenz and resulted in his fleeing from the country. Bernays himself acted as the primary information source for news sources covering this event at the time.

After ousting Árbenz, Bernays built up the image of the new incoming president, Carlos Castillo Armas, who was in cahoots with President Nixon at the time. This resulting in favourable public opinion of Armas in the US, while he went on to develop an authoritarian government that persecuted the Guatemalan people that Bernays claimed Armas would help. Armas, of course, supported the United Fruit Company continuing to grow on Guatemalan land. This series of events explains why Edward Bernays is now known as the “Father of Public Relations”—he was a marketing manipulation genius, and effectively organized a coup d’état to control the entire population of his country, and doom the people of another. Since learning about this case study, I have never once been impacted negatively again when people insinuate that a media and ideology-based degree is useless.

Lesson 10: It’s Okay To Be Scared About the Future, But Don’t Waste the Time You Have

For two years, I’ve spoken to friends, family and counselors about my fears of leaving university and having to give up the academic structure I love. It’s really scary to me to leave this environment I have become so comfortable in, surrounded by wonderful friends, being able to explore my independence, learning about topics I am passionate about, and growing so much as a person across the country from my home. As we’ve gotten closer to the end of the semester, there have been many half-joking panics amongst my roommates and I, and many sad goodbyes to people and experiences that I won’t have anymore. Key examples of this for me have been choir, where I met some of my best friends whom I know I’ll have for life, and classes, where I’ve met incredible people who share my interests, and had amazing professors who have inspired me to pursue a Master’s degree in the future. It has been hard for me to stay positive with all these goodbyes and change, even though I haven’t even graduated yet and am still in London for another few weeks. I’ve found myself struggling with my mental health more than I ever have in my life, experiencing panic attacks and depressive episodes on a daily or weekly basis, while still trying to keep it together under the pressure of final essays and exams. I won’t lie and say it’s been easy for me at all. However, with help from my supportive family, attentive friends, wonderful boyfriend and regular visits to my counselor, I’m at a place where I know that it is more important to relish my time than to spend my last month fearing what is to come.

It’s not possible to control your emotions all of the time, especially in a high-pressure and transient time like the end of an undergraduate degree, but there are things to focus on that I’ve found help me focus on the positives. I’ve realized that, with all the pressure I put on myself to emotionally prepare to leave Western, Ontario and most of my close friends, it becomes more and more likely that I could forget to live in the moment and lose out on some amazing final moments here in London. My final lesson is this: it’s okay to be scared about graduating, and it’s important to let yourself experience those natural emotions and process them at your own speed. However, if you feel yourself forgetting the good things about growing past graduation, or can’t enjoy the happy memories you’re making right now, (whether you are in your first year or last), it’s a good idea to ask for help. No one has to go through hard times alone, and you have communities who are more than happy to help you in your times of need. Graduation is still scary for me, and my patterns of depression, anxiety and panic haven’t gone away. In fact, I still predict an increase in the next few weeks as my time in London comes to a close. However, this doesn’t mean I’m weak, or that I can’t still make progress in my own way, towards seeing a bright future for myself after my undergrad. In fact, I’m kind’ve looking forward to it.

Thanks so much for a wonderful three years, Her Campus Western. <3

Lauren

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