Err on the Side of Kindness and Support - The Road Not Taken

Mar 27, 2015 • Kathy Chung

This was a long time ago but the memory stays with me. I had finished my civil engineering degree. I had worked for a year but was not happy and was thinking of changing directions. I had always been interested in fine arts and in literature. I took fine arts studio courses in the summer. I wasn’t very confident but, at the end of the summer, I decided to apply to the fine arts studio programme at UBC. This required a portfolio of art work as part of the application and, since I lived in Vancouver, I was to bring my portfolio in person for evaluation.

I felt totally out of place and scared, but I made it there with my work. Most of my art work samples were from the night art classes I had taken. To my surprise, when I arrived, the instructor with whom I had just taken my last night class was one of the adjudicators. She knew me and had already seen most of my art samples. She said nothing to me nor I to her. I was scared and embarrassed. Finally, at the end of the session, the instructor came up to me and, in a dismissive tone, said to me, “I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt. You’re in.” That was all she said, or all that I remembered.

A different person might have been elated and thought: I have a chance; I’ll show them I was worth the benefit of the doubt they gave me. Unfortunately, I was demotivated. I interpreted being “given the benefit of the doubt” as there being doubt and that they were grudgingly giving me a chance. I was young, insecure, and felt like an outsider. It was demotivating to be told that my abilities were doubted, by my own instructor. I went home and thought about it and ended up declining the admission offer. My parents were not interested in the arts and my decision did not cause any concern. Neither my instructor nor anyone else in the fine arts department contacted me to ask why I declined the offer. In the end, I went into English literature and then theatre, but I’ve always wondered about the road not taken.

It’s like the example in Ambrose about telling students a third of them are going to fail. Even if there was initial doubt, they had decided to admit me so why emphasize the doubt?
It didn’t motivate me to work hard; it demotivated me. Maybe the instructor was trying to be neutral but imagine how different my response might have been if she had said: “We were unsure but we ultimately believe you have potential and we want to give you an opportunity to explore, learn, and grow in our department. You’re accepted to the programme. Congratulations!”

###What could be done afterward to fix it### Not sure I gave people a chance to fix it… I declined the offer and never saw that instructor again. I supposed the department could have contacted me to inquire why I had declined the offer and given me an opportunity to express myself and, ideally, give them an opportunity for feedback and perhaps to support and encourage my participation if they were really interested in giving me a chance.