A Coming of Age Tale from an Upper-Middle Class White Girl | By Leah Cavanagh

The story I am about to tell you is not particularly harrowing. It doesn’t entail massive trauma or tragedy, and I doubt it will inspire you to pursue exceptional endeavours in your own life. However, when it was happening to me it was confusing, it inspired me to question my own potential, and it forced me to seriously reconsider the notion of ‘growing up’.

Let’s go back to January 2013 – it’s not very far but it gives us adequate temporal depth to properly set the scene. I am confident stating that winter semester 2013 was the most trying semester of university education I have ever endured. Most notably, I tackled my undergraduate honours thesis. When I say tackled I mean I pouted about it, I stressed about it, I started and re-started writing about a half dozen times, and finally wrestled the beast of authorship into submission…a little less-than-gracefully. I would recommend thesis writing to any undergrad – it’s a fabulous opportunity to really stretch your academic legs and confront an area of passion in a depth and breadth you’d never encounter in ordinary class work. That said, I would not recommend the area of child abuse as the subject area of your thesis. Unless you have a strong and unfailing faith in humanity, this subject is emotionally exhausting and reduced this wanna-be-academic to a miserable puddle, drowning in 72 pages of upset.

I should add that I was an anthropology specialist so I pursued my study of child abuse from the forensic side, considering some osteoarchaeological relevancies along the way. On the whole it was rewarding, but it left this kid looking for some affirmation that human kind wasn’t doomed entirely and that there was still love and goodness left in the world. And I got it in spades.

Early in April I was informed that I had been nominated for a YWCA Women of Distinction Award, in the volunteer category, honoring the work that I’ve done (and intend to continue doing) for the Canadian Red Cross – particularly in the realm of youth engagement. I am so proud of what I’ve accomplished at the Red Cross. As the Edmonton Youth Engagement Strategy project coordinator I, along with a dream-team of other super keen university students, increased and sustained Edmonton-based youth engagement in humanitarian issues and disaster preparedness. This work lead me to pursue a seat on the Western Zone Youth Engagement Committee, where I now sit as the Alberta Representative on Youth Engagement. Though I worked very hard for this nomination, it evoked in me a contradictory whirlwind of emotion unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.

On one hand, I was incredibly honored. My nominator, Matt, is a man whom I thoroughly respect and look up to; he has taught me everything I know about diplomacy and though my particular diplomatic style may leave something to be desired, relatively speaking he’s a miracle worker. To receive this nod from him was an incredible gesture and that Matt would go out of his way to do this for me continues to warm my heart.

On the other hand, however, this nomination was a perfect hell for yours truly. I’m a pretty sociable person but I’m a natural introvert and small-talk doesn’t always come easily to me. Small-talk with a bunch of people that want to honor me and tout my accomplishments is a horror previously unimagined. Leading up to the night of the awards gala I was an unhappy bundle of nerves and I constantly imagined ways I might be able to get myself out of this pickle.

The night of the awards (I was wholly unsuccessful at coming up with a plausible and satisfactory alibi to get me out of the gala) I got my anxious-self all dolled up and, with my parents leading the way, reluctantly presented myself at the event. As soon as I walked into the hall I felt foolish. The hall was packed with positive well-wishers, all gathered to honor myself and 58 other incredible women who were all contributing remarkable things to our community. I didn’t win my category, a reality my otherwise exceptionally competitive self was overjoyed to accept, but I did receive that restoring vote of confidence in humanity I was so desperately looking for. And the best part – I didn’t need to look to some far off land or extreme scenario to experience such reaffirming emotions. These women who gave me back my willingness to believe that people are inherently good, compassionate, and kindly beings are all living in Edmonton, and they’re all doing incredible good for Edmontonians.

I recently confided in a friend of mine that this event lead to one of the most difficult realizations of my young life: I have incredible potential. There’s not much I can’t do. I’ve been told this before but I was reluctant to believe it. Going to the YWCA Women of Distinction Awards left me no choice but to confront it, to stare it in the face, and accept it. But by accepting this potential I now believe myself to possess I also have to entertain the questions: what am I doing with it right now? how do I share this with my community?

I should add I don’t believe I’m unique in this struggle. I know many of my newly graduated friends have battled with the twin demons of the pressure to perform and the desire to form a genuine identity as an adult. But, luckily for us, it’s becoming easier to cultivate a strong, independent voice within the city. And best of all, people want to hear what we have to say.

It would be easy for me to wax poetic about all the wonderful opportunities that exist in the city for willing participants to get involved in, but that’s not my job and besides, you probably already know about them. The trick for me was not in discovering valuable opportunities – indeed, they abound – but it was more about choosing just one (or two…okay three, JUST three) that would really satisfy my need to be involved, to get connected, and to share what I have to offer with my community. Knowing that your time is valuable, that you have something very real to offer, and that you can’t possibly hope to do everything all at once? Well that feels an awful lot like being a grown-up.

CC Photograph Courtesy of br1dotcom on Flickr.

Leah Cavanagh (@leahcavs) is a recent graduate from the University of Alberta and is currently employed at HIV Edmonton.

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