Mental health and self-care are interconnected parts of our individual lives. In our world today, many people only associate the term “self-care” with nurturing and pampering our physical bodies. For me, I infuse habits that help maintain my mental health into my daily self-care methods. As an international student, one of the major challenges I had upon my arrival in BC was overcoming my homesickness. It is indeed tough to transition to a new environment, educational system, and phase of life without having your family and friends present with you. It took a toll on my mental health and I longed to go back to my home country, Nigeria every day. However, having spent over a year in Canada, I have grown to adapt and appreciate this new environment. Here are some steps that I took that have been immensely helpful:

  1. Building and nurturing new friendships and relationships: Meeting new people and spending quality time with close friends has been fundamental in maintaining my mental health. Having a community of people who I can be trust and be vulnerable with has helped me to overcome anxiety, loneliness, and terrible days.
  2. Being intentional about communicating with friends and family at home: I make it a priority to call or send texts to those I care about deeply back home. In those conversations, I can be transparent about my mental state and receive encouragement and support when school got tough or I had some other life challenges. They act as a backbone that keep me standing and mentally stable, constantly reminding me of my roots and true heritage.
  3. Journaling: Writing has been a channel of expression for me for as long as I can remember. With journaling, I become open about how I feel and avoid denial of any mental health challenges I face. From acknowledging these feelings, I can take active steps to change or manage the challenging situation.
  4. Music: I simply cannot imagine my life without music. Over time, I created different playlists with different themes, and I can play my favorite songs depending on my mood. Listening to music is a great way to unwind and keeps me motivated when carrying out some tasks.
  5. Getting at least eight hours of sleep: Getting enough sleep is essential for me to perform well the following day. Even when I have busy days, I try as much as possible not to deprive myself of good sleep. I also take short naps during the day when I can.
  6. Reading books and listening to podcasts: I am an avid reader and a listener of podcasts. I take pleasure in reading novels and listening to podcast episodes, especially on the weekends. With books, I try to read more books in print to reduce my screen time. These activities help me de-stress and keep me entertained yet gaining new knowledge.
  7. Staying off social media: I delete my social media apps often to protect my mental health especially when there are unpleasant happenings. With the unending feed of posts and information, it is overwhelming to process some information. Therefore, I have learned to step back when I feel the need to.
  8. Physical Activities/Exercise: In a time when most of us live a sedentary lifestyle, staring at our computer screens and smartphones, I have become more intentional about setting some time aside to engage in physical activities. I take long walks, do simple aerobic exercises, and dance. Dancing is also very therapeutic for me and just the little ray of sunshine I need on some days. With a good playlist, doing physical activities can become much more fun.

These tips and actions have helped me maintain my mental health. Nonetheless, I am constantly seeking new methods and activities that can keep me grounded and maintain a healthy balance in all areas of my life.

While I was already interested in the University of Northern British Columbia, part of what sealed the deal for me was the project that was presented to me should I decide to attend UNBC – conservation planning work in collaboration with the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation. This opportunity was a chance to marry several of my interests in a single project: conservation, planning, mapping, and Indigenous studies. The goal of my work is to identify areas of the Nation’s territory with the highest ecological value, which in turn will help the Nation make decisions on where to conserve land for its natural value and where to allow industry.

As Tsay Keh Dene Nation is the foundation of this project, I am collaborating with both them and their wholly owned environmental research and consulting firm, Chu Cho Environmental. Together we are working to interweave the Nation’s values and knowledge into the otherwise Western science-based approach I am using, known as systematic conservation planning. We first set out to articulate conservation goals for the territory, then sought to identify which features on the landscape represented those goals. For example, we included caribou and grizzly bear habitat because they each represent large, intact landscapes while also being culturally valuable species to the Tsay Keh Dene.

Another example is refugia areas, or areas that are predicted to be relatively unaffected by climate change and continue to serve as key habitat for wildlife. Using special conservation prioritization tools, we can identify where the greatest concentrations of our conservation features occur, as well as determine which portions of the landscape hold the greatest conservation value today, in the future, and most importantly – where they overlap. This project is unique in that it not only includes data sourced from Indigenous knowledge, but was initiated by Tsay Keh Dene Nation and seeks to further their goals.

Interweaving traditional ecological knowledge on the location of things like medicinal plants, fishing holes, and wildlife habitat paired with Nation influence on each stage of the process make this a truly collaborative project. This inclusive approach should provide meaningful results for Tsay Keh Dene Nation as they make land use decisions in their territory – whether that be where to allow timber harvest, or how to proceed in establishing a massive conservation area in the Ingenika River valley. You can watch a stunning video on the Ingenika Indigenous conservation and management area here.

In the 2020-21 school year, I took on a couple of roles outside of being a student to enrich my educational experiences. Prior to that, despite being actively involved in various extracurricular activities, I was never in a professional setting. Since fall 2020, I have been taking a reduced course load while working part-time for personal and professional development.

My first employment opportunity was through my school – UBC’s Work Learn Program. This program allows current students a chance to apply their knowledge in more practical settings across campus. I work as an Online Project Assistant along with other 11 peers at one of UBC’s Learning Commons, where we solve logistic questions, facilitate workshops, make referrals, and create graphic contents to support UBC student’s academic performance and mental wellbeing. I also work as an undergraduate teaching assistant within my faculty. I support the instructors in course delivery and perform teaching assistant duties including grading and communicating with students.

For me, working part-time has been immensely rewarding. Through these experiences, I’ve been able to expand my comfort zone to become more self aware and reflective. I’m fortunate enough to work with extremely resourceful and kind-hearted supervisors and colleagues, many of whom have become mentors. While taking ownership and responsibility over my work, I’ve expanded my network which has served me well. In fact, networking is the reason why I secured my current positions in the first place. Through cultivating professional skills, I gained confidence and have become more comfortable applying to other jobs.

On average, I work 16-20 hours a week apart from taking courses, volunteering, participating in clubs, and competitions. It can be tiring occasionally, but I do not feel overwhelmed because I truly like what I am doing. Another great thing about working on campus is that your supervisors recognize your responsibility as a student and therefore, your work schedule is very flexible, especially in exam seasons. As for my studies, I still try my very best to achieve excellence by managing my time effectively and being goal oriented. In fact, working while attending school gives me a new sense of purpose, which enhances my school performance.

If I was asked at the beginning of the year: what do you envision 2020 to be like? A global pandemic would certainly be the last thing to come to mind. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted many plans and goals that I set for the year. When the first lockdown in March 2020 was announced, I became very anxious and faced many uncertainties about accommodation, food, and my overall safety in BC.

As an international student, I am still learning the ropes and getting acquainted with the whole system which was different from that of Nigeria. Summer 2020 was my first summer in BC and I had planned to explore different parts of the province and build memorable experiences with friends.

Instead, I had to stay indoors and constantly think of ways to stay entertained. In a bid to avoid boredom, I started baking and cooking more while trying out new recipes. But a pitfall with staying indoors was that I was unable to connect with my friends and community in BC. On my birthday, which was in June, I was unable to celebrate how I wanted to and with those dear to me.

The pandemic made me realize that having a community around you makes a difference in the quality of your life. So, I became more intentional about calling and reaching out to my friends and family in BC and back home in Nigeria. Those conversations, laughter, smiles shared, and sighs heaved, acted as a reminder that I was not alone, and physical distance did not separate me from my support system.

The transition from in-person classes to remote learning was also a challenging adjustment for me. I consider myself a motivated person when it comes to studying and being a high achiever in my academics. However, I found myself unmotivated on most days and with low enthusiasm to show up for my virtual classes. I miss learning with people and engaging in discussions with other course mates. I also miss studying and preparing for tests and exams with my study buddies in person. Having done two semesters online now, I have devised schedules that help me stay productive, found accountability partners and organized Zoom study sessions with my friends. With all these changes, I am still learning and growing every day. On the bright side, the pandemic has taught me the importance of being open minded, learning to adapt, and doing so creatively. Even though I felt anxious and burdened with uncertainties, I was able to remain proactive and stay connected to others.

Navigating COVID-19 has been challenging for us all, and being an international student has come with its own set of challenges. While many Canadian students are far from home during this pandemic, they don’t have to deal with the uncertainty of an international border crossing when deciding whether to return home. I fretted for months about venturing back to the United States to see my loved ones, not only over safety concerns, but also whether I’d eventually be allowed back into Canada.

Additionally, domestic students tend to have more of a support network by virtue of being in their home country. Thankfully, UNBC’s International Student Office has proven responsive and helpful in assisting me with a multitude of matters since the pandemic started. My studies have certainly been impacted by COVID, but fortunately I have been able to stay largely on track. As a graduate student, I only had two classes in spring 2020 that needed to be completed remotely when things shut down in mid-March. With my coursework now complete, my work these days revolves around my thesis research with the Tsay Keh Dene First Nation on conservation planning in their territory.

I can occasionally meet in person with employees of Chu Cho Environmental, the Nation’s consulting firm, which has undoubtedly enhanced my work. However, I had hoped to visit the Tsay Keh community over the summer but have yet to do so out of caution. On a more personal level, I was fortunate to form friendships pre-COVID that have helped see me through a dismal 2020. Rachelle, my first friend in Prince George, was my lone social contact through those first couple months of uncertainty. We would meet up for late afternoon walks around the neighbourhood, tea in hand, to cap off our solitary days with some fresh air and exercise.

As restrictions eased a bit and tourism within the province was encouraged, I explored various corners of northern BC with members of my “safe six”: the Berg Lake Trail at Mount Robson with Ella; Stuart Lake, Mount Pope, and the Fort St. James National Historic Site with Cale; and the Great Northern Circle Route with Megan and Rachelle. While I sometimes feel that COVID-19 has cheated me out of the full grad school experience, I’m able to take pride in trying to make the most out of a terrible situation.