A Student’s Journey

University of Toronto

Author: Hargun Kaur

In my formal introduction to the study of literature, I learned of the Hero’s Journey—a cycle of archetypal events in stories and cinema that follow the protagonist’s arc. From what I recall, this structure is seen most frequently in fantastical worlds. Where enemies and allies exhibit extreme traits; warm, soft, and light hues grade our screens to characterize the good, and the opposite, cold, sharp, and dark hues signify the bad. This narrative framework is still applicable to the real world where the colours are often mixed, and the lines are sometimes blurred.

I answered my call to adventure when I enrolled as an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto (UofT). Unbeknownst to me at the time, I would meet many mentor figures and cross a myriad of thresholds. One such threshold was my work-study position at the Reach Alliance, and in alignment with the motif, this would make my supervisor the threshold guardian. As in any good relationship, professional or personal, I could only last if I communicated clearly and consistently. I had to ask myself what I wanted out of this experience.

Around the time I joined Reach, I was trying to find my place in a discipline of study, trying to bridge the gap between what I was learning and the causes I was passionate about. If I were to explicitly label the steps of the monomyth, the leadership team would be the allies here and time management would be the ultimate enemy that tried and tested me every week. 

While exploring that initial thought, I sought to first understand the work Reach does. The threshold guardian (now ally) and I discussed select case studies (The Implications of Self-Directed Home Care in OntarioDigital Upskilling in a Conflict Zone: Guadalajara, Mexico, and Cash Transfers in Palestine: Building Blocks of Social Protection) in preparation for the big battle. I chose this set of research because I had little knowledge about the interventions discussed in it.

In hindsight, the supreme ordeal and the enemy were closely tied. It was a battle all students eventually face, trying to balance several commitments, life, and the pressing challenges of adulthood. Fortunately for me, the approach to the innermost cave of self-reflection was not physically dangerous, it was simply confrontational.

Our discussion sessions emphasized the role of executive policies in inciting or inhibiting meaningful impact within communities. What might patient autonomy look like in a reimagined health care system? How do we create resilient social programs that can withstand the test of time and resource exhaustion? These were the critical questions. The essence of Reach: investigating what works where, why in that context, and how its insights can better inform policy and program development elsewhere.

In tandem with these sessions, I was preparing for and helping facilitate orientation and case study pitching sessions for the 2022-2023 cohort of researchers. On the surface, the events and Zoom calls we hosted or the emails we sent out did not seem complicated. Well into my position, however, I saw the team as it was, a geared system, a program with many moving parts that depended on mutual reliability. 

Reach is interdisciplinary in all aspects: hearing from and connecting with passionate researchers (past and present), staff, and mentors alike was a beautiful thing to witness. The exchange of ideas, suggestions, and constructive critiques between professionals of diverse backgrounds is too mundane for fiction, but it’s an important part of the real-world.

Recognizing that my roles as a student, assistant, researcher, and executive director were unintentionally theoretically oriented was my personal revelation. A few years ago, I wanted to distance myself from politics. I thought the trade-off for staying informed in the age of social media was mental and physical taxation—a stance I was privileged in even being able to take. 

What I’ve learned is that the hardest-to-reach are often affected by post-colonial legacies of political instability that imprint structural barriers within institutions and intergenerational trauma amongst its communities. As someone whose identity is at several intersections of political marginalization and one who works with other marginalized groups, I can only extend a hope in which I have found solace. 

The journey ends at the return with an elixir: 

A commitment as future global leaders to take a human-centric approach, regardless of the scale at which we work. To establish and promote equity and accountability within our institutions and to recognize first that on the receiving end of our legislation, policies, and decisions are real people whom we impact.