Actionable Student Voice From Canada

All who work in higher education are drawn to stories of growth and success. Be it a student navigating roadblocks or institutions changing lives, we seek narratives with positive academic arcs, triumphs overcome and dreams realized. Attention is given to critiques and criticisms, to be sure, but are they embraced and acted on by the academy with consistency? Far too often they are acknowledged and past over. Reform is difficult process. It is easier to retell stories that confirm we’re doing good work.

That awareness – who tells what stories and who captures the ear of the academy – enveloped my reading of Eternity Martis’s scorching memoir, They Said It Would Be Fun: Race, Campus Life, and Growing Up. Martis is an award-winning journalist who writes on issues of race, inclusivity, and oppression. Based in Toronto and well-known in Canada, her work is increasingly gaining traction in America. An editor and writer, she is also an educator, directly with students and as an anti-racist thinker influencing changes in curriculum and programs. Her book is informed student voice.

No bones about it, They Said It Would Be Fun can be a painful and difficult read for anyone who is working in higher education and seeking validation. Martis is honest and clear about a great deal, including her well-deserved rage at injustices. The book is compelling in its critiques of her education, culture and environment. It is informative, well-written, engaging and powerful.

Martis, a Black woman, grew up in Toronto, the first in her family to attend a Canadian university. She enrolled at Western University. Located in London, Ontario, Western is a primarily white institution in a white part of Canada. The book is a candid account of her experiences as a student and young adult, focusing most vividly on the racism and misogyny she encountered. Martis faced innumerable obstacles, things that might make most students drop out or give up. She persevered. Tellingly, though, Marts is able to keep the reader’s attention on broader issues. The book is as much about her environment as it is about her. That is a testament to her skills as a journalist.

In Martis’s words:

From the ages of eighteen to twenty-two, I learned more about what someone like me brought out in other people than about who I was. I didn’t even get a chance to know myself before I had to fight for myself.

The racism, the sexism, the oppression, the difficulties she faced – interspersed with learning, growth, friendship and support – paint a complicated picture of the barriers and opportunities that Martis and so many others face. It is powerful account from a student’s viewpoint. This is something that higher education needs to hear and the more often the better. Listening closely to students is essential.

Racism and sexism are not abstract problems for students like Martis. They are in her face everyday, from interactions with other students to a systemic lack of support, opportunities and understanding. Martis is very strong on the culture and practices that lead to sexual assault, the dynamics that exist in the broader environment and also locally, within her peer group. Speaking out often leads to repercussions. Women suffer, accordingly, in silence. Martis, herself a victim, found some security amid her fellow female student victims. She experienced strength through a sisterhood. The university, throughout, was ineffective.

Yes, Martis did complete her studies and is now a successful professional. She is grateful to all who helped her and yes, she met and learned from caring and skilled faculty and staff at Western. She made life-long friends. Martis is clear about the good in her college education.

On the other hand, if there were structures and supports to combat the racism and sexism she battled, if there were more people and systems who validated her voice and perspective as a Black woman, if there was larger institutional awareness and care, her education and experience would have been all the more positive. For many in higher education, Martis is a “success.” She completed and is employed in her chosen field – what more is needed? Study They Said It Would Be Fun and the answer is clear: a great deal more is essential. Creating inclusive, supportive and safe environments for all students requires investment and attention. Giving students agency and protection is needed.

Canada’s system is different from that in America. Martis does not claim that her education stands as universal. Still, acknowledging all of that, there are essential themes in her book that resonate across countries and systems. She elevates problems from a perspective that is extraordinarily valuable, especially if those of us who work in academia listen and act. I encourage you to give her book your consideration.

David Potash

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