Balancing Higher Education: An Interview with Farha Shariff

by Samia Rahman

Farha Shariff manages to do in one life what most people struggle to accomplish in four. Shariff balances academics (University Professor with research specializing in anti-racist pedagogy and cultural identity), community (working with pre-service teachers’ understanding of culture and curriculum), and mothering three girls, all while maintaining an incredible six-pack. She is also a founding trainer at Champs Boxing studio. It begs the question: how do you do it?! We met to discuss what has inspired her to define, achieve, and continue to work for success.

“My family is what inspires me – they are the foundation for my success today. I get a lot of my drive and motivation from my parents.” Shariff’s parents emigrated from Pakistan and Uganda to pursue higher education at the University of Alberta in the 1960’s. Whilst managing their intense academic demands both her parents supported their families in relocating to Canada. Escaping intense political violence and supporting a multi-generational family’s pursuits of education and a better life – on only the dual-income of educators. It is clear that as “the skinny brown girl in school in monochromatic St. Albert with hairy arms and connected eyebrows” her parents were a massive source of both inspiration and drive. They also continue to encourage her to be “stronger, bigger, faster, [and] smarter”.

When asked how she had overcome adversity, Shariff replied “I focused on surviving my greatest adversities; I recognized there was a lot of responsibility on my shoulders, put my head down, and did the work”. Shariff’s father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when she was in grade five. She watched her mother take care of his health and go back to graduate school to pursue advanced education as a South-Asian and Muslim woman in a conservative academic society. Thus teaching her early not to shy away from responsibility, to value family, and to develop grit. At the point where others quit is where Shariff thrives.

As she has aged, Shariff says the way that she has defined success has shifted. For her today, success is defined less by economic standards and more by a reflection of her hybrid identity as mother and educator. Having all three of her daughters while completing both her graduate degrees, she climbed the “publish or perish” academic ladder while also being a mother. It was this combination of identities, though difficult and exhausting at times, that ultimately made her a stronger woman, mother, and educator. And what are her three greatest successes? Her three daughters. Shariff’s parenting methods have been molded by the simultaneous expectations of motherhood and academia — her daughters are the greatest reflection of her life’s work.

When asked what advice she has for young adults, Shariff said that learning to trust her intuition and accepting the associated possibility of failure was essential for success in both personal and professional endeavours. “This generation, in the age of instant gratification, is constantly looking for quick answers. And constantly bombarding ourselves with I should be this, I want to be that, often based on what someone else was or did. In [your] twenties and thirties [people are] so focused on checking the next box. We often forget that this is all temporary and there [will] always be something to chase – and [we] keep running 200 miles per hour into a brick wall. But not taking care of yourself leads to burnout, stress, and anxiety – and at that point you’re kind of no good to anyone.” Shariff says that instead it is crucial that you learn to trust [your] intuition and decisions. “ I learned not to constantly compare [myself] to other people, in efforts to make the right decision, when forging my path. Because I am always learning from my actions, decisions, and mistakes.”

“Your decisions will result in mistakes and failure at some point – and that is okay.” Shariff remarks that, growing up, she was taught to see failure as a direct personal reflection of a lack of ability. However, over the years as she moved between the roles of student, educator, daughter, wife, and mother, she learned to instead fail forward. This belief in failing forward is an integral part of trusting your intuition and crafting a life that is meaningful to you and your definition of success. Shariff explained that it is more effective to see failure as the best opportunity to learn and grow and not as a personal reflection of lacking ability. Instead it is imperative that we take the time to understand the actions that lead to the failure, and the steps you take in repairing the failure is the most significant of all. It was not so much the aversion of failure that spurred her achievement, but its acceptance and incorporation into her life.

Also, her favorite healthy food is chocolate protein waffles with crunchy peanut butter (recipe below!). Perhaps these as the secret to her success!

Chocolate Protein Waffles


1 cup non-fat cottage cheese

1 1/2 cups rolled oats

4 whole egg

4 egg whites

2 tbsp cocoa powder

1 tbsp cinnamon

4 Tbsp mini dark chocolate chips (or carob chips)


Pre-heat waffle iron.

Combine all ingredients except the chocolate chips in a blender and blend until smooth.

Spray the iron with cooking spray or lightly coat with oil.

Pour 1/2 of the mixture on to the hot waffle iron and sprinkle with chocolate chips.

Close lid and cook until golden brown on both sides.

Photography by Des Iles.