Thursday, October 12, 2017

My PhD Journey Begins: Living and Learning in Victoria, BC

Well here I am in Victoria and it's October. Thank goodness. September was the longest month of my life. Usually, September flies by in a flurry of first days of kindergarten, endless forms to complete for the office, and all the usual "back to routine" stuff. This September was dramatically different as I am currently on leave from Fort La Bosse School Division and my busy and fun kindergarten classroom at Oak Lake Community School. It was a September full of new experiences, first times, and a lot of being brave. And time seemed to crawl.

So what brings me to Victoria? After years of flirting with the idea, I've finally decided to pursue my PhD in Curriculum and Instruction with a focus on early childhood education. I researched PhD programs all over Canada, and the best fit for me (complete with a fabulous supervisor and entrance scholarship) was University of Victoria on the west coast of Canada. I've been here for nearly 6 weeks and a lot has happened. Here are some of my thoughts on this new and exciting stage of my life.
On Being a Student
UVic has the most beautiful campus ever, and now that I've figured out most things are contained within the ring road with a huge green space in the middle, I'm navigating my way around campus without Google Maps. There are totem poles everywhere, a lovely fountain in the centre of campus, a gorgeous library, and the amazing First Peoples' House. Finnerty Gardens and Mystic Vale are also part of UVic, and they are beautiful green spaces that I enjoy as often as I can.
It isn't just the campus that's nice--the people in my cohort (the PhD word for the people in your year/program) and my professors are great too. I've already made some new friends in my cohort and organized a study group. And I'm super impressed with the high quality of professors...I'm regularly moved to tears in my curriculum class with Dr. David Blades. I've never met someone who could make curriculum fascinating, engaging, and emotional, but this man certainly can. This week's assignment was to write a story about a time we felt we'd made a difference in education, then reflect on it. Everyone was invited to share their story for last night's class, and it resulted in 11 teachers and a professor tearing up over and over. And this was how he introduced us to the phenomenological approach, which postulates that curriculum is experiential, relationship-based, and transcends the human experience. Wow! My supervisor is amazing as well. Her name is Dr. Jodi Streelasky and she is such a lovely person, and everyone who asks me who my supervisor is assures me that I'm so lucky when I tell them. Take a look at her latest project here.

I'm thriving on immersing myself in being a learner again, but I'm still not confident that I can actually do this. I just keep telling myself to do the work, participate in class, and it will all come together. Fingers crossed! There are so many additional learning opportunities on campus that I'm soaking up too--special lectures with visiting scholars, concerts, and sessions for improving my knowledge base and academic skills. I'm going to as many as I can because it's basically free professional development.

On Being Brave
I've had to be brave a lot lately, and I think that's why the month of September has been so hard. My best friend Leah drove out here with me, so together we navigated the bus system, set up my apartment, and toured around Victoria. But when Leah left, reality hit with a vengeance. I've never lived on my own before, so it's been quite an adjustment. Fortunately my little apartment is working out really well and the people I rent from are very nice.
First meal in the new apartment with Leah
First day on campus at graduate student orientation 

My first day of school probably took the greatest amount of bravery. I was (and still am to some degree) really intimidated of classes at the PhD level. I'm still worried that I'm not smart enough and although I make an effort to participate in class, I never think my comments are as meaningful and intelligent as what other people say, but I can only offer what I know from my own experiences. Just like I'd tell my kindergarten students, I focus on trying my hardest, doing my absolute best, and being myself. And if that's not good enough, then this isn't the right path for me.

Although I've always been a confident driver (not necessarily a good driver, but a reasonably confident one), driving in Victoria is stressful. My built-in GPS in my Jeep loves to take me the most random routes ever, so I constantly have to check with Google Maps. I'm always getting messed up by lanes that turn into turning lanes (or don't) and all the new "no left turns on certain streets" that were added recently and maps haven't caught up. There is also never ANY parking downtown, so I take the bus a lot. Since I never know where I'm going, I have to allow myself lots of time, and as a result I show up everywhere super early (my dad would be proud).

Teaching on-call requires quite a bit of bravery too. Just driving to the school in morning traffic is enough to get my heart pounding. Then the assignment is just like a box of chocolates--you never know what you're going to get. Most of my experiences have been pretty decent, but I had a rough go last week. I've discovered a new love for high school low incidence classrooms (what we'd call a life skills unit in Manitoba) and those are my absolute favourite call outs. Since I have a Master of Education in Special Education, nearly all my call-outs are for learning assistance and special education. Not one kindergarten classroom yet :( Fortunately, the pay is really good (2-3 times what substitute teachers make in Manitoba) and it's nice to be with kids a couple of times a week. I've instituted a new rule: if I teach on call I can go to Starbucks. It's working pretty well.

Victoria and the People
I'd heard from a few people that Victoria was quite a "closed" city that didn't welcome outsiders well, but my experience has been the exact opposite. Everyone is so friendly and welcoming, and I chat with people everywhere I go. Yoga has been wonderful, as I meet lots of people in yoga studios and I made some new friends at my yoga teacher training at the end of September. The thing I like best is that when riding the bus, everyone thanks the busdriver when they get off. How charming is that?

Victoria's Yoga Scene
Sometimes I have to remind myself that I'm here to go to school, not attend yoga classes. It's hard. There are so many amazing yoga studios and events, and I'm less than 2 km from a therapeutic yoga teacher training program. Their restorative training was fantastic in September, and they offer weekend trainings twice a month. But finances and academic commitments dictate that this is something I can only take advantage of once in awhile. I'm also very guilty of wanting to plan my teaching on-call schedule around my favourite yoga classes. I've discovered a new passion--barre classes (especially the ones that blend yoga and/or pilates). I'm spoiled for choice here!
Taking relaxation to a new level at Ajna Yoga restorative training

New Things I've Learned
Anytime you step out of your comfort zone it's a great opportunity to learn new things about yourself. Not that it's always easy or fun, and I know these realizations are really simple. But sometimes you need experiences like these to drive home the most basic lessons.
1) It's a huge privilege to be part of a community. I miss Kenton, my family, my friends, my yoga community, and my school community. I miss people knowing me and caring about me, and I miss knowing and caring about other people too. Although I am making new friends and a place for myself here, I don't really think it's possible to replicate the level of connection and interdependence in Victoria that I've experienced as a lifelong resident of a small town.
2) Having a pet is an amazing gift. I miss my dog and cat SO much. It's not that I miss them more than my family, it's just that I can't text and call them. In six weeks of being away from them, I've learned that having a pet to love and care for is really imperative to my happiness. I ask to pat random dogs and engage in conversation with dog owners at Starbucks, the beach, and on trails just to get a dog fix. I have all these beautiful places to walk and hike and no dog to take with me, and it's so hard.
3) Keeping busy is key. I've always maintained a very busy schedule, and although sometimes I've longed to have fewer commitments, I've found that I don't do well with downtime. Especially when I'm lonely. My PhD workload is demanding, and I try to teach on-call 1.5-2 days per week. Any remaining time I fill with yoga. The busier I am the better I seem to do! Every week I try to do something new and "touristy". So far I've visited Witty's Lagoon, Hatley Castle, Ogden Point, Butchart Gardens, a couple of wineries, Beacon Hill Park, walked the Songhees Walkway, checked out Mile 0, and enjoyed a few beaches. I also went to the symphony in the beautiful Royal Theatre to hear James Ehnes with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra. I'm so grateful that my temporary home has so many beautiful sites and new and different things to do.
The stunning legislature buildings and grounds in downtown Victoria
4) Everything is temporary. I tell myself this when I'm feeling homesick or overwhelmed. These feelings are temporary and will pass. This opportunity to live, learn, and practice yoga in Victoria, BC, is temporary too. I try and stay mindful, push myself to try new things and meet new people, and soak up every drop of this amazing, challenging new experience. 


  1. Wow, what an adventure. Victoria, although I have only been once about a year ago, is a beautiful place. I'd love to go back. Your feelings of not being able to do it and thinking you don't belong seem to be normal doing a Ph.D. I think everyone in my cohort experienced that, and some of those people are about the smartest people I have known! If I did it, you certainly can, Devon, you are very awesome! Having those cohort friends are important to lean on! I look forward to hearing more of your year, hang in there, you will do it, of that I am confident! All the best!

    1. Thanks you so much for the pep talk and kind words! It is an incredible experience and self-doubt just seems to be part of the journey! I'll keep you posted ;)

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