Reflecting on my Social Justice Journey Through University

Building solidarity, cultivating social change and recovering from activist burnout.


Before starting at the U of A, I didn’t think I would follow the traditional academic route. While I was passionate about social justice (and voted most likely to become a Social Justice Activist in high school), I wasn’t sure academia could give me the tools for social justice. With most of my assumptions revolving around horror stories of burnout and stress, I expected a soul-crushing experience- and was pleasantly surprised to find that university is what you make of it. My own one of self-discovery, finding community and networks to advocate for greater institutional accountability. Although “the master's tools” (Audre Lorde reference) might not dismantle the master's house, they can provide a path toward altering, and potentially, remaking the foundation it is built on.

I didn’t know anyone in Edmonton before my degree. I was nervous I wouldn’t make friends, find a group or do well in my studies. Thankfully, I overcompensate when nervous, and decided to attend every event and community building hang out. In hindsight, I must have been the most engaged student because when my former Resident Assistant was promoted to Senior Resident Assistant, they encouraged me to apply for their position. I jumped at the opportunity and by the end of October of my first year, I was a Resident Assistant. The role came naturally to me, and as the eldest sibling of four, I was used to taking care of the people around me. My world started opening up to new possibilities, and I essentially did a crash course in community organising without realising it. I joined six different student groups, with one of these collaborations resulting in the founding of the first Black Students’ Association at the U of A (UABSA). Beginning with a classroom conversation on the disappointing lack of a Black Students’ Association at the university, the collaboration grew to include students in Business and Film Studies who shared a similar sentiment. With seven of us on board, we resolved to meet in Tory Lecture throughout Winter 2018 to cultivate our visions for the constitution and meet Student Group Services requirements. You can learn more about UABSA on Instagram @uabsa.

At the same time, I was deeply engaged in most of my course content. Recognizing my passion for Political Science and Womens’ and Gender Studies in my first week of classes, I decided on a double major focusing on topics of power relations in society, international relations and political/queer theory. Classroom conversations provided the perfect environment to pitch ideas relating to social justice theory, constructively engaging in dialogue to find the best path forward to sustainable social justice change. 

By the end of my first year, I realised that while I was engaged in many circles, my time and energy was split too much. Instead, I consolidated my focus into becoming a Senior Resident Assistant in my second year, taking on more responsibility for the UABSA and truly investing my energy into my academics. It’s incredible to think about how much you can accomplish by applying yourself.

But it should not go without saying that there were dark times along my journey. As I came to terms with my past, social justice became a form of release for me. Although I couldn’t change what happened, I could support people who were struggling the same way I was supported. My understanding of social justice expanded to include mental health support, access to resources and advocacy to voice the needs of underrepresented communities I was already within. While at times it felt like I was taking on the world’s issues on my shoulders, I saw many other activists in various positions doing the same. Our shared struggle to create a better world for the communities around us fueled my healing journey, leading to the decision to come out as queer online (you can read more about my experience as a Black, queer, non-binary person here)!

Growing in my capacity as an activist, I took on a second job as The Landing coordinator. I won’t lie in saying that this wasn’t a heavy burden to balance, but working with The Landing remains one of the highlights of my university experience. It sounds cheesy, but it was more than just work for me. I genuinely grew; especially from mentors and peers demonstrating what it meant to truly show up for the community, make safer spaces and stand in solidarity with other social movements. These spaces offered a path to acknowledging the pain and suffering caused by the failure of our institutions while providing a world of possibility that could learn from the past and to cultivate a brighter future.

Simultaneously, I need to acknowledge the toll of burnout I suffered from taking on too much. I was passionate, but I was depleted, to the extent that I had little time to sleep, eat or think. I noticed this pattern with the activists around me, all giving to everyone but themselves. The pandemic forced me to stop and rest—something that I’m still learning to embrace. I have also committed to therapy, re-balancing priorities and intentionally practising self-care. Now, I believe burnout and apathy are the greatest hurdles for social justice activists—and that to support the movement, you must support yourself. 

As I’m preparing to graduate and begin my next chapter, I am grateful for all that I learned from my mentors, professors and the communities I was a part of, they have shaped my story more than I can say. Moving forward, I plan to incorporate my activism into my career work, supporting other activist movements along the way. I hope this story inspires you to get involved with something you are passionate about as you actively prioritise yourself. Even though life is never simply sunshine and rainbows, instead of dreading the rain, you can use it to grow something new.


About Rain

Rain is in their fifth and final year of a double major in Political Science and Womens’ and Gender studies. When they aren't writing papers, Rain is trying to keep their plants alive, watching anime or philosophizing why the world is the way it is. Beyond that, Rain is passionate about creating sustainable social justice through their degree and working with their surrounding communities.