I Graduated From My University, Not My Program

This week, I graduated from my undergrad in Media Production. Like a lot of immigrant families with dreams for their children to be doctors, lawyers, and engineers, my parents still ask me what my major is because it falls in none of the above. And at this point, I can’t even answer.

Stepping into my first RTA (Radio and Television Arts, now known as Media Production) class, I instantly realized something was different. It was there like a wild elephant in the room but only I could see it. Turns out it wasn’t something, but rather it was someone.

It was me.

I was different.

I was the only brown girl in class.

I looked around at students already forming groups and bonding over frosh stories about getting wasted and I waited and waited for someone like me to walk in. Needless to say, I was kept waiting.

In a Media Aesthetics class taught by one of my favourite professors and later our convocation speaker, Laurie Petrou, we were asked: “who does not feel represented in the media?” I, along with maybe two other people in our little PoC corner of the theater, hesitantly put our hands up. A sea of blond looked back with complete wonder in their eyes. Then I later witnessed a white student remark “but Canada doesn’t have racism…it’s so multicultural” during mid-lecture.

As future media creators and storytellers, it astounded me that students were so uninterested in learning about the importance of media responsibility. Our professor spent time initiating conversations about topics like cultural and historical materialism, overt and systematic racism, racebending, and gender constructs in relation to media to which many students, how do I say this nicely, did not quite give a f*ck about. I overheard several conversations about how this period could be better used for production classes instead. It puzzles me how some expect to be in a field of representation without even knowing its core concepts and theories.

Fakiha Baig, the only other Pakistani girl in RTA (left), me (right).

This feeling of otherness followed me in every RTA space. I felt like my difference attracted so much attention when I walked into the room but still didn’t have a single friend in my program by the end of the semester.

I went to an advisor to switch programs after my first year and she promised me things would get better if I stuck it out a bit longer. They didn’t. I still dreaded RTA courses. I saw students misuse words like “Islamics” instead of “Muslims” in presentations. I witnessed class discussions defending Indigenous cultural appropriation with “I wouldn’t mind if people dressed Icelandic”, and let’s not start about girls wearing bindis. All the while the professor did not interrupt.

So I found a home in other parts of campus. I even substituted English courses with RTA ones when we had to pick a specialization. These were the best four years of my life but all my positive memories and professional skills accumulated in electives, extracurriculars, and the four different jobs I held across campus. I gave my university every ounce of my spirit. I graduated from Ryerson, not RTA.

My mother, me, and my father who flew across oceans to see me cross the stage.

This of course came at a sacrifice. As thesis rolled around, I had no idea how to direct or edit or even white balance the camera. I’d learned no hard skills in RTA. And when I was asked what I acquired in my time at the infamous School of Media in an internship interview, it took me so long to answer that he insisted on moving on to get it over with. I got the internship. Kidding, I was rejected, HARD.

For years I told myself that I wasn’t good at RTA, that’s why I didn’t take the courses or learn much. Only recently did I try to understand why. I’m an extremely hard worker and I love challenges so why was this different? It was different because I could not identify with a lot of content coming out of RTA. There were so many meaningless haha videos and radio shows about celebrities. Not only was there a lack of inclusive representation, but when stories about minorities were being told, there was a disconnect because everything used a white lens. Even our thesis panel of five advisors were all white men.

Some of the students who did manage to get word out came from rich and privileged backgrounds with connections in the industry. Numerous thesis groups were able to hire professional DOPs, videographers, and editors which became a means to create better quality content. Even privileges like not having to work long hours to support oneself or living close to campus with immediate access to university equipment and software added up.

But don’t get me wrong, you do learn a few things when you end up where you don’t feel like you belong:

“You learn to suck it up which is an important lesson because life is full of having to do things you don’t like. You are forced to work with people with different perspectives” (Fakiha Baig, RTA class of 2017).

Yeah, that’s all I really learned too.

Do I regret spending $40K in a program that never welcomed me? No, because I became so unapologetic and resilient that I started speaking out and correcting students in class (often playing the role of that angry brown girl) and approached professors about how they needed to be more vigilant and call out ignorance as it happened. I even went ahead and met with the department head* about it (from whom I never heard back).

I had a great four years during my undergrad, but that’s only because I know I at least tried to initiate change. I now see a bigger hand full of PoC in lower years and I only hope that it expands to the over 90% currently white faculty someday.

Note: This post strictly is my opinion and is in no way undermining the work of members of the Ryerson and RTA community to create a more diverse and inclusive environment.

*Edit: I met with the program manager, not the department head.

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27 Comments Add yours

  1. kek says:

    LMAO the school is 95% brown

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Kek, Ryerson is a very diverse campus, I agree. This post is specific to RTA. Best, Zahra.

      Like

  2. Shabir says:

    you’re blaming other people for your own failures? lmao what?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. How am I blaming other people? I still went to all my classes and did well each time.

      Like

      1. vitalnovikov says:

        You said yourself you walked out without any practical skills. That’s a failure. You can blame others, or you can look at the things you’ve been doing and realize “I screwed up”.

        Like

        1. Hey there, I think you missed the point of this. Even if I did learn all the practical skills, I don’t think the experience would have been any different. There is more to uni than just that – it’s the entire social spectrum. The point of this post is that minorities are still felt unwelcomed in many RTA spaces.

          Like

    2. Dee says:

      Reading comprehension is hard…

      Like

      1. Truth says:

        Maybe you need to work on your social skills. I know plenty of people that have a tough time fitting in, and it’s not because or race. It’s because they are unapproachable. You clearly see your self as an oppressed victim, and with that mindset that will never change. Wait until you hit the real world outside of university where people won’t cater to your every need. I work with people of every race and religion and I can tell you that it doesn’t matter in the real world. We appreciate skilled workers over anything else. Skill will lead you to a happy and successful life. Being a victim will leave you with misery.

        Like

  3. autumn says:

    if you didn’t feel like you were learning anything, it was your responsibility to get out of the program the moment you felt that. profs don’t always educate well, but more often than not the school itself provides us with the tools we need to hone our skills (as ryerson does). if you couldn’t operate a camera by fourth year, that’s entirely on you, regardless of the racial environment you found yourself in. maybe if you had focused less on everyone’s outward appearances and more on learning you’d be in a different position.

    Like

    1. Hey Autumn. I tried. I was advised by a professional staff otherwise after the first year. When two years had passed, I did not have the luxury to pay extra tuition to switch programs and spend more time in school. I agree, Ryerson has the resources but they are not always accessible to everyone because not everyone can afford to stay on campus late or commute two hours to use them. As for “maybe if you had focused less on everyone’s outward appearances and more on learning you’d be in a different position”, you’ve clearly never experienced racism. I am constantly reminded I am brown every day by others, it is not a choice.

      Like

      1. autumn says:

        those advisors don’t have the incentive to tell you to leave the program because they WORK for the school, and the school wants your money. that simple. playing coulda shoulda woulda is useless now of course, but don’t trust anyone else to be making decisions you should be making yourself. i commuted three hours each day and still made it work because i wanted to learn. as someone with depression, if i could do it, i imagine anyone else could.
        shallow and untrue assumption, but thanks anyway. exactly, it’s NOT a choice. nobody’s race is their choice. but if you choose to fixate on the assholes who don’t understand that, you slowly but surely create a victim complex for yourself, as you clearly have, which then hampers your personal development. so what do you care about more? perpetuating a race vs. race narrative, thereby fuelling more needless animosity between groups, or honing your skills to become the best person you can be? if you continue on with the former, your life will most likely be more miserable for it. take care of yourself and don’t go through life thinking that race is a barrier.

        Like

        1. I’m not sure why we’re dancing around the topic of what I learned in RTA. This post is dealing with the treatment of POC in RTA. 18 year old me actually believed that the advisor was right and wanted the best, sue her. I’m perpetuating conversations about race because they are important. I gave SOO many examples of racism here. Would you like it better if we never spoke out about it and comforted white feelings? RACE IS A BARRIER: https://www.theguardian.com/careers/race-does-not-exist-square-peg-media

          Like

  4. vitalnovikov says:

    “I’m an extremely hard worker and I love challenges so why was this different?”
    – “As thesis rolled around, I had no idea how to direct or edit or even white balance the camera.”
    Yeah, hard worker clearly. Multicam and EFP were mandatory courses. I’m sorry, but if you took nothing away in terms of practical skills – that’s your problem and “could not identify with a lot of content coming out of RTA” has nothing to do with it. If you truly WANTED to learn a skill such as how to edit or direct, you could’ve taken an editing course or advanced multicam instead of English courses. Also Lynda.com is a thing and if you need extra resources such as laptops with Adobe Creative Suite, they are readily available (no, “there are none available” excuse won’t work, there are plenty of laptops at the cage, both PC and Mac.

    “I waited and waited for someone like me to walk in.”
    So you waited for someone of your race to walk in and join them instead of engaging in a conversation with one of us pesky white people (who, considering it is RTA are mostly very open and friendly)? Tell me that’s not even a little bit racist. Oh right, you can’t be racist to white people, I forgot, I’m sorry.

    “in our little PoC corner of the theater”
    Graduates aren’t put in rows according to their race, they are placed by last name and in the middle rows. Dramatization is a must of course, otherwise we won’t feel sorry for you.

    —-

    Not blaming other people for your own misfortunes and screaming “white people!” instead of taking charge and using what they did teach us – storytelling, to tell compelling stories would be the true way of “sucking it up” and “initiating change”. You did fuck all and rightfully got rejected at an internship interview, what a surprise.

    RTA certainly has its flaws, but just like anything else, it is what you take out of it. If you want to blame other people – fine. If you want to take away marketable skills (which you actually can) – you can do that too.

    Que the “you are racist” and “you don’t understand” remarks in 3…2…1…

    Like

    1. Yes, I took EFP and multi-cam and did well in both. That was the first year. You remember every detail of that? And since when does the definition of “hard worker” mean success every time? As for Lynda and the Cage, I did not pay money to be othered in class and then learn from the internet (which I did, anyways thanks to RTA and the education system). But when you feel marginalized, you’re motivation is stolen. Why would anyone want to be where they are not welcomed – it cripples your learning. Again, this post is not about me not learning, it is about RTA’s lack of representations, misrepresentation, and discrimination against people of colour and other minorities.

      Me wanting to be represented in the student body other than myself is racist? What makes you think I didn’t try talking to others? If you know me irl, I literally never shut up. And talking to people in class and having friends is completely separate. You seem to be making a lot of assumptions. Who told you RTA people are mostly open and friendly? What manual is this in??? People say that about Canadians too but it doesn’t mean racism is non-existent in Canada. For the record you called yourself pesky, not me. Since we’re on the topic of open and friendly, your anon comment doesn’t fit the mold. Afraid if you show face you’re actually going to be called a racist???

      I was talking about the AMC theater used for class lectures, not graduation. Sorry if you didn’t pick that up. White students barely ever sat next to POC, that is what I meant.

      DID YOU JUST SAY WHITE PEOPLE TAUGHT US STORYTELLING? You are kidding me…

      As for blaming white people, I never did, I blame the system for not teaching inclusivity. I am a writer, telling stories is legit what I do, you’re reading it now.

      Yes, I deserved to not get that internship, I wouldn’t have hired myself either for that role.

      And I don’t need to que the you are a racist music, you did it for yourself.

      Like

  5. Maryan Haye says:

    I came across your article on facebook, and it resonated with me so much. I’m going into second year of RTA, but I had to take a semester off due to some mental health issues. A big reason why I felt like I had to leave was because of all of the reasons you list in this article. Being one of the only black and Muslim students, I just felt so out of place, both socially and in terms of the connections and resources other students had. In my classes when teachers would briefly touch upon issues surrounding representation, I could see students rolling their eyes and like you said, calling those lessons pointless and wishing they could take something more “useful” such as more production classes instead. It was just so discouraging, and made me not want to participate in more hands on stuff, because I felt so left behind, especially coming from a low-income school where there weren’t arts opportunities. The whole reason I entered the program was to create positive stories for people like myself, but when you feel vastly outnumbered by a whole group of students who are okay with maintaining the status quo, it just becomes draining. Seeing your article made me feel relieved, because I felt so crazy about feeling this way, but also a bit sad because I don’t want to feel this way for the next few years, and might reconsider staying in RTA. I’m so glad you were able to find opportunities outside of the program, and still make your university experience feel worthwhile, I’m hoping I can do the same. Thank you so much for this, I wish you the best. ❤

    Like

    1. Maryan! I’m really happy for your support but I feel so sad that so many students have reached out to me like this. I hope you’re doing better now though girl. Yes, I deff recommend making your own place. Our campus is AMAZING and filled with opportunities. This made me stronger and more confident to go back to RTA and stand up for myself. Your response is extremely valid and I’m sending you all the positive vibes to conquer.

      Like

  6. Michaela says:

    Very glad that you wrote this piece. Wish we could have met during your time at Ryerson but I wish you the best of luck in your future as an unapologetic awesome Muslim who speaks out against this bullshit in our university. Thanks!!

    Like

    1. Hey Michaela, this is very kind of you, thank you so much for reading ❤

      Like

  7. AC says:

    I don’t understand why you didn’t change programs if you hated it so much? I’m not surprised that other RTA students wanted to learn production, that’s literally the largest selling point of the program? As a current media production student, we spend a lot of time in many different classes going over diversity and representation in media and ya, while there are many assholes out there who make dumb comments like the ones you mentioned, the reason they’re there is to LEARN the other side of what they think they know. Which is why those courses are mandatory. If RTA faculty didn’t think it was important to learn, they wouldn’t make it mandatory, but they can’t automatically make people care because some students just aren’t interested which sucks but that’s life. Personally, I think those classes have been effective in creating some change or awareness, but again there are many across the board of students in many faculties who don’t consider representation important and that’s really horrible. I’m sorry that you felt you didn’t have a place in RTA and I hope in the future people can be more tolerant, I’m just confused as to why you stayed in the program if you felt so badly about the people and classes you encountered, and didn’t even learn any production skills in the end?

    Like

    1. Hey! Thanks for this. I did try. I mentioned that. A professional course advisor recommended otherwise after the first year. And when I knew after the second year I wanted to change, I talked to my family and we did not have the resources to pay extra tuition or spend two more years in school. Yea, its the selling point, but is that over learning about media representation? And it’s not like there aren’t production courses. They out weight everything – as they should. But for that one course, students could have averted their attention. It’s like cooking. You need to also learn about food safety. Yea, we’re there to learn, but so many profs don’t say ANYTHING when students use offensive and discriminatory language. I think they are effective and important too, I agree. As for not learning production, it was extremely draining to be in a space I did not feel welcomed. By welcomed, I mean not being chosen for groups or not having anyone sit beside me in class. Also, read MARYAN HAYE’s comment. Hope this gives you a better perspective. Best, Zahra

      Like

  8. Chinua Ofulue says:

    Thank you for telling your story. Nice to know other people out there understand this particular academic issue

    Like

    1. It’s so humbling to know there are people reading this on the other side. Thank you so much for your time. Wishing you the very best, Zahra.

      Like

  9. In response to everything here and on FB/Twitter/insta:

    I am absolutely enchanted over the love and support I have received. But likewise shocked and disappointed over how many other students have privately reached out because they are afraid public support could result in hate, like how it has routed for me. I talked about the systematic racism in the post but overt racism showed itself in comments (some of which I couldn’t even post). It literally proved my point about how a lot of RTA is so ill equipped to be a media leader.

    Just so we’re clear: The goal of my blog was not about me not learning, it was about the lack of representation, misrepresentation, and discrimination minority students face. So telling me “race is not a barrier” or to “suck it up” or “I was blaming others” is pointless against facts.

    Lastly, to all the white RTA 2017 readers, both students, staff, and faculty, I know you read it even though you made almost no effort to get involved. I hope it disrupted your narrative. I will not stop calling out BS.

    Also, stop telling me to “leave RTA if it was that bad”. That’s like telling me to leave Canada because there are racists here. I am a media enthusiast like anyone in RTA and I paid my tuition and got accepted on my merit. Instead, try asking how RTA staff and students can help create a more inclusive environment for current and future minorities.

    Like

  10. Andrew says:

    R u single?

    Like

  11. Anonymous says:

    I am an Asian student who graduated from RTA, and I’ve felt the same way all throughout as well. This was a hot topic of discussion amongst the minorities (the non-whites) of RTA, but the whites did an excellent job ignoring it. RTA is incredibly tribal… The blacks always hung out with the blacks and the Asians always hung out with the other Asians UNLESS they were assimilated enough to the “white culture”. Even the faculty is comprised of whites, mostly male. They conveniently brush this issue closest to their everyday lives under the carpet, and yet they have the audacity to say that Trump is racist, that Canada is multicultural and accepting of all cultures… More people need to address this issue, especially from the leadership. These problems trickle down from poor choice of faculty and program management.

    Like

  12. L Dacks says:

    Thank you for speaking out. The racism I experience during my time in RTA was mostly in the form of casting practices, which I’m still dealing with in my post-RTA life in my job. Casting people of color in stereotypical roles is a societal issue and not limited to RTA. Perhaps the ethics classes should have dealt with these types of practical issues instead of the generic.

    In defence of RTA students, I believe many of the issues covered in the ethics classes were obvious. I found them of little merit, at least those covered during my time at RTA.

    Like

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