By Beatrice Chang
During the annual My Halifax Experience gala, student bursary winners were announced. Bursary applicants were asked to write an essay about their experiences when they first arrived in the city. My Halifax Experience is publishing bursary winners’ essays over the course of several issues, to highlight their unique perspectives on the city we know so well. Beatrice Chang is a Bachelor of Science student at Dalhousie University.
The intoxicating scent of pinecones and a cool sea breeze was my first glimpse of Halifax as I walked out of the airport after an exhausting 30-hour journey from my hometown of Singapore. I remember thinking to myself: this is the start of the rest of my life. I was excited and overwhelmed all at the same time. At this point I had not slept for close to three days and felt like a walking wreck. I did not know a single person in the city. But Halifax felt like a natural choice when I decided to uproot myself from an increasingly stagnated existence in my hometown. It is one of the furthest cities from Singapore, separated by 15,000 kilometres spanning the distance of two oceans.
I felt like the novel experience of living and learning in a foreign country would do some good for my personal growth. It is worth noting that I consider myself rather introverted and social anxiety is something I struggle with.
This is my story of how I managed to overcome my social anxiety to adapt and thrive in a new city.
I left home at 18 for the first time. The last few days before leaving were a blur of tearful goodbyes, frantic packing, and also a massive sense of liberation. After a journey fraught with complications, I arrived at the university residence hall at about 6:00am. I recall being bewildered upon hearing that the elevator only travels to the third floor and I had two massive suitcases to haul up the remaining flight of stairs. Thankfully, I was met with hospitality by the kind security guard who helped me out. I reached my spacious double room just in time to watch my first sunrise on Canadian soil. I remember being silently in awe but also paralyzed by the uncertainty of everything from this moment on.
One of my main worries was that it would be challenging for me to find community and likeminded people to hang out with. After living in Halifax for slightly over a year, I can confidently say that my worries were unfounded. I have received an incredible amount of kindness and love from many people in this city. The warmness of people here has touched me deeply. And I hope to contribute to this spirit of generosity by volunteering in several areas to give back to the community that has helped me so much.
People scare me. Not so much now, but when I first arrived in Halifax I was withdrawn and felt shy whenever I had to talk to unfamiliar people. The first few months were rough as I struggled to comprehend why I was feeling so unnerved by people, while knowing on an intellectual level that there was nothing to fear. I did not know this was social anxiety then, so I dismissed my fears as inconsequential.
Throughout my first year of university, there were messages everywhere about staying connected and getting involved. I decided to try getting involved in Let’s Talk Science (an outreach organization where we bring interactive science workshops to the schools), since I love talking about science. I signed up for an educator partnership with a Grade 4-5 class at a nearby elementary school, where I went in bi-weekly to conduct workshops based on topics they were currently learning. The first few sessions were terrifying for me, as I struggled to speak in front of the class. I was also extremely worried that my Singaporean English accent would be difficult for the students to understand. But with the encouragement of the other student who volunteered together with me, I continued to present these workshops and felt it to be a tremendously fulfilling experience in the end.
Interacting with people is extremely exhausting for me. But I tried to keep at it when I met new people in the hopes of making new friends and good connections. By the time the winter term rolled around I was feeling slightly more at home in Halifax. I had the opportunity to work on a research project in a biomedical engineering lab, but I was filled with trepidation as I knew it would involve a lot of talking with my project team members, supervisor, and all the graduate students who worked in the lab. In the end, I tried hard to endure my inner discomfort and strived to collaboratively work hard with the other students to get some useful raw data. The research we did over the term culminated in an oral presentation and poster session. My anxiety was at an all-time high when I heard I had to do these public presentations. Both sessions had grading elements attached so I could not avoid them. I felt that these two speaking sessions helped me to overcome my fear of public speaking. It showed me that my anticipation of the public speaking was way worse than the actual event.
Getting to know more people is a goal for me in this new school year. I also want to give back to the community that has helped me so much throughout my first year in Halifax. Most recently I participated in the election for the Dalhousie International Student Association (DISA), where I competed for the position of Vice President Events. It involved speaking in front a large crowd about why I would be the most suitable person for this position, and it was an extremely nerve-wracking process. In the end, I was elected and now I am very excited to organize a bunch of events to help international students, especially those who are new to Halifax, feel welcomed and a part of a community. This is also a new and exhilarating challenge for me as I want to try to build a more close-knit and supportive community by organizing events where we have fun together.
Getting involved with societies I care about over the past year has been an amazing journey for me. My fear and discomfort of being around people is something I struggled with for years and it was only recently that I learnt the name for it—social anxiety. I used to think of it as a part of me I disliked and had to endure. Ever since I learnt some useful coping skills, I have become more aware of the social situations that are anxiety-inducing and I feel more confident in my ability to be sociable around people I do not know so well. Despite the many challenges I faced during the first few months, being an international student at Dalhousie University has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. This has opened up so many incredible opportunities for me in terms of undergraduate research experience and leadership opportunities. I have also met many fantastic people, many who I now consider close friends, and am no longer that version of myself who was standing paralyzed in fear, watching the sunrise and feeling truly alone for the first time in my life.
To anyone out there who may have felt socially anxious, know that there is no shame in feeling the way you do and it helps if you try hard to put yourself out there and talk to people even when you really do not feel like you can do it. It gets better.
By sharing my story, I hope it will be relatable and help people who may have felt the same way.