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‘You have to work for it’: How one graduating student persevered at UTM with purpose and participation

Sharon Aschaiek

Vanessa Parise’s journey as a U of T Mississauga student is defined not by the hurdles that tripped her up, but by how she brilliantly picked herself back up to maximize her post-secondary experience.

Parise is graduating from UTM this spring with a HBSc in Psychology and Biology for Health Sciences. She began her degree in 2016 specializing in life sciences, with a goal to later attend medical school. In her first two years, she focused exclusively on schoolwork and friendships, and dated someone from her friend group. At that time, she viewed extracurricular campus activities as irrelevant distractions.

But by the start of her third year, her romantic relationship ended and she was unceremoniously dumped by her group of friends. Feeling overcome by isolation, she struggled to consistently attend classes and complete assignments. Her grades began to suffer, and she seriously considered dropping out. The death of her grandfather during second semester was another blow—but also a moment of clarity.

“My grandfather was a prideful man, and his outlook was … you clean up and keep going,” recalls Parise, 23, who lives off campus with her family in Mississauga. “When he passed away, I thought, ‘What am I doing? Am I going to drop out because no one talks to me?’”

Feeling a renewed sense of agency, Parise began searching for ways to get involved in campus. She signed up to be a peer support volunteer at the UTM Sexual Education Centre. She also volunteered in fundraising for the Mississauga Food Bank. She says being able to help others in need filled her with a sense of purpose. Then a peer suggested Parise join PAUSE, the association for undergraduate psychology students. Psychology had been a secondary academic interest to her, but being part of PAUSE opened her eyes to a different career path.

In fourth year, she volunteered as a lab assistant in the first-year introductory psychology course, and as a health psychology research assistant. Her interest in psychology further solidified after completing an independent research project under psychology professor Judith Andersen on evidence-based training to improve police performance.

She also became more involved in PAUSE by volunteering as event director and, this past year, as president. Her many contributions, which included introducing a peer mentorship program, helped significantly increase student engagement, and led to PAUSE receiving the Principal’s Award of Excellence for Student Groups.

“PAUSE was a main highlight of my UTM experience,” Parise says. “Being president—if I could take that experience and relive it, I would. I loved it so much. I’m naturally more of a leader than a follower, so I was comfortable in the role, and I had so much support from my team.”

Over this last academic year at UTM, life for Parise has continued flourishing in new directions. Her volunteering has included leading the UTM STEM Fellowship Group; providing peer health education to other students; and leading a peer-facilitated study group. Throughout, she worked two external jobs, as a full-time clinical research coordinator and a part-time receptionist.

Parise leaves UTM with a sense of pride and accomplishment, plus formal recognition via the U of T Student Leadership Award and the Ontario Youth Volunteer Award. This fall, she will pursue a one-year research analyst postgraduate program at college. After that, she hopes to enrol in graduate school for psychology and study how trauma affects brain function.

“You know how they always say it does get better? It does, but you have to work for it. If we wallow in self-pity, nothing happens,” she says, adding that by making a change, she was able to achieve “everything I thought I wasn’t or couldn’t be.”