Hannah Shaw knew something wasn’t right when she first began her postsecondary education at a university in her home province of Ontario. Following the plan she had created for herself for after high school — to become a psychologist and get her PhD — she quickly learned that she was not passionate about psychology.
“I thought, because I wasn’t enjoying my classes and was consumed with stress, that I wasn’t meant for university,” she says.
The courses she was taking and the co-op she was placed with had her feeling miserable. Even during orientation week, a week that’s typically full of fun and excitement, she knew she had made the wrong choice.
“I feel like we often ‘click’ with our chosen universities. I never had that experience [there].”
Hannah’s first experience at university led her to believe she must just dislike university. As she had always identified as someone who loved school and learning, the stress, tension headaches, heart palpitations, panic attacks and other symptoms she suffered had her feeling heartbroken and lost. She knew she needed to change things.
Hearing about her stepsister’s positive experience at Dalhousie, along with Hannah’s interest in Halifax and the east coast, she decided to take a leap of faith and leave Ontario for Nova Scotia.
“I didn’t think too much about it, I just did it because it felt right. It was easily the best decision of my life!”
Ethnography, the gateway subject
Having switched her plans to be a psychologist to instead pursue a career in social work, Hannah decided to begin that path by getting an undergraduate degree in sociology at Dalhousie before moving on to pursue a master’s degree in social work.
Hannah says that she didn’t expect to enjoy sociology and social anthropology (SOSA) but when she took Martha Radice’s ethnography class in her second year, she discovered she absolutely loved the subjects.
“My passion for sociology grew when I took the required theory course. As my degree progressed, I found myself getting more and more proud of and interested in my major. I went into honours because I thought it would better my chances of getting into grad school but expected it to be really difficult and stressful. I couldn’t have been more wrong; it was easily the highlight of my degree. It made my time at Dal really special and gave me a close relationship to the faculty.”
She took her growing interest in sociology and applied it to her own life and surroundings when choosing her honours thesis topic. Hannah, who has ADHD, noticed a lot of stigma around her on campus and a lot of intolerance from her peers towards neurodivergence – for example, getting easily annoyed by people who talked too much, overshared, or had difficulty “reading the room”. She decided to focus her honours thesis research on ADHD, stigma, and academic life.
“As I worked on my research design, I realized my experiences of stigma were significant factors in how I shaped my honours project.”
Hannah looked into the idea of ‘masking’ — how someone may hide or conceal ADHD symptoms/behaviours. She found that fidgeting, talking too much, and “passive listening” were the most common ways people masked their behaviours. She describes "passive listening" as listening but not appearing like you are (looking away, playing with hands, etc.) as opposed to "active listening", which was described as looking at the speaker and “aggressively” nodding the head.
“Active listening was associated with demonstrating respect, so participants tried to do it all the time, but it took so much energy and focus that participants often had a harder time paying attention because they spent so much time trying to look like they were paying attention,” explains Hannah. “While stigma was prevalent, most participants had strong ideas about self acceptance and didn’t see ADHD as a negative trait. Rather, they often found it was something to celebrate as it made them unique. Sometimes it even felt like a superpower!”
Hannah, who graduated from Dal in spring 2021 and is now working as a mental health support worker, still has her sights set on a master’s in social work degree and plans to begin her graduate studies after a year or two of working. She adds that she would like to work with people with disabilities who have higher support needs, or in geriatric social work.
“I think getting my degree at Dal has given me such a unique education that has changed the way I look at social problems and how situations can define the way people operate.”
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