By Esra Rakab, Contributor

“University is a learning experience, it’s okay to fail.”

These words that are intended to comfort me echo through my mind at every instance of academic hardship. University is often advertised as a place for learning and self-discovery, but this narrative often only applies to privileged, higher-income students. As an immigrant student from a low-income background and challenges with mental health, I’ve always been perplexed as to how this wasn’t just a privileged oversimplification of the emotional, physical, and financial burdens that often accompany enrollment in university for students of lower income. After all, when students who are well-off fail courses or decide to pursue additional years of education, their families can often support that decision financially. On the contrary, a student struggling similarly with their education would not have that support to fall back on. With little support, low-income students must navigate an education system designed for students without such pressures and financial difficulties, and are thrown into a cycle where there is seemingly no escape.

Even with the Ontario Student Assistance Plan, numerous low-income families struggle to meet the yearly cost of university to invest in their future. OSAP is unforgiving of students who, often for valid reason, fall below their academic standing requirements. OSAP-assisted students often face familial, personal or financial challenges, which can manifest as academic hardship, since students lose the capacity or time to devote to their studies. Rather than supporting students in such extenuating circumstances, the institution punishes them through academic probation and OSAP reductions or cuts. What implication does this have on the well-being of low-income students, who are pressured to excel in university and graduate as soon as possible, only to be thrown into an increasingly competitive job market? While their debt accumulates and while finding employment post-undergraduate becomes increasingly difficult, the pressure to graduate quickly heightens.

As much as I desperately want to advocate that it’s okay to fail and learn from our mistakes, I have experienced whirlwinds of anxiety in thinking that my mental health might set me back a year to prolong my education or increase my loans and costs.

As a result, any effort to keep my grades sufficiently “competitive” came at the cost of my well-being. Despite this, I could not succumb to the exhaustion and anxiety because the consequences of performing poorly in school would be too great to bear. Institutionally, we are thrown into a cycle where we fall thousands of dollars in debt in hopes of finding a job, yet our education may become jeopardized while we try to stay afloat. Low-income students often also work part-time to help pay fees, but the time commitment comes at the cost of their education; students are locked into positions where their ability to meet standards of academic performance is hindered. Paradoxically, we may come out of university even more financially burdened than when we started, and must find a way out. This is a challenge that higher income students usually do not have to consider seriously, often allowing many of them to enjoy and excel in their education with little financial burden.

I cannot advocate that our grades don’t define us without acknowledging my hypocrisy when I criticize myself for falling short. We’re given little guidance on what to do with failure and how to succeed despite it; The only students who share their marks are “straight A” students; the only students who share their work experience share what positions accepted them, rather than what rejected them. The perspective skews towards one of communal success, while students who are struggling are left on the sidelines.

While individuals can seek support services, like by taking loans or seeking therapy (which is also paradoxically expensive), the solution needs to target the system. Changes in the university structure, financial aid, student support and a greater focus on permitting work-life balance may provide us with stepping stones, but these inherent inequities that lead to disparities in students’ well-being and success need to be addressed by institutions, the Ontario Student Assistance Plan and students benefiting from this systemic privilege.

I’m sick of falling prey to this system. For once, I want to be able to say, “It’s okay if we fail, we can learn from this,” and truly, genuinely mean it.

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