Many years ago I hiked the West Coast Trail. It's a 75 km stretch of rugged terrain on the west side of Vancouver Island. After 7 days of traversing grueling (but beautiful) trails and coastlines, not showering, living off freeze-dried food, falling into a surge channel, suffering through blistered feet and feeling sleep deprived, I saw the sign that said I had ONE more kilometre left to go!
I feel the same way now with just over a week left before I hand in my final research project, bringing a two year academic journey to a close.
There are other corollaries between these experiences. Here are some things that my academic journey had in common with hiking the West Coast Trail.
Taking on challenges in times of change
A few months before I decided to hike the West Coast Trail, I quit my job. I had no idea what I was going to do next, but I knew I needed a change. I joined a group of friends and acquaintances who were planning to hike the trail. I probably would not have signed up if I knew how demanding it would be and how out of shape I really was, despite what I thought was a lot of preparation and training.
Similarly, not too long before I started my master's degree, I quit my job. I had no idea what I was going to do next, but I knew I needed a change. (There is a theme here!). For years I thought I would go back and further my education and this seemed like a perfect opportunity. I was also out of shape, academically speaking.
Prepare to get uncomfortable
Every day on the trail was full of surprises. On day two, I ruined my super expensive ($80!) water-proof socks when I fell into a surge channel. Wet feet are a hiker's nightmare as they lead to blisters. I wasn't even 48 hours into this journey and already I was at a disadvantage.
When I got my reading package for the first two courses in my program it was kind of overwhelming. It took some time to become accustomed to reading textbooks and academic papers. Having cool gear (in the form of a shiny new laptop) was great, but it didn't save me from having to rebuild my rusty skills while learning new ones.
Don't forget to look up
It's easy on the trail to just stay focused on putting one foot after the other, to log your kilometres for the day, setup camp, sleep and do it all over again the next day. At a certain level, you need to maintain that focus to keep going. However, if you stay too focused on only getting through the day to day, you miss the spectacular beauty of one of the most incredible places on earth.
The same is true of academia. Yes, you need to "get through" your courses, do your readings, write your papers and hand in your assignments. But, if you want to have a richer experience, you need to look up to see other opportunities. Being a student gives you access to a lot of resources. I was able to connect with other academics, join reading groups, go to conferences and in doing all of that, I got so much more out of the experience.
A supportive community makes a world of difference
There is no way I would have completed the West Coast Trail without the support of a group of other hikers. I was easily the least experienced and least fit person in my group. Every night, I was the last person to make it into camp. There were moments when I seriously considered paying to be airlifted off the trail or take a boat out (there is one point where you can make that exit). But, I kept going because I was surrounded by amazing people who wouldn't let me quit.
I have an incredible academic community. The people in my immediate program have been there for me to be a sympathetic ear in times of frustration and to celebrate accomplishments. Professors both in my official program and in other programs have taken time to share insights, resources and to open doors. My reading groups have inspired new perspectives on mutual topics of interest. Alumni from my program have given me pointers from their experiences. Guests of my podcast have inspired me with their stories. I've cultivated a wide range of relationships and I am so thankful for everyone who has played a part in this journey.
A final thought before I wrap this post...
I hunted all over my basement, digging through boxes of photos to find this picture. I knew it existed but it took me awhile to find it. I also came across a lot of other pics that I'm glad remain locked in my basement. In a world of digital everything, I love that I have a library of photos that is undigitized.