From my forest dark to rebeholding the stars: a self-discovery journey in the Laidlaw Programme
An unfiltered reflection on what my Laidlaw journey has meant to me so far. I comment on my own fears, expectations and challenges. My thoughts are an incitement to react against disheartening, being resilient and take every opportunity.
I was midway upon the journey of our [academic] life, when I dived into the opportunity the Laidlaw Programme offered. I could spend many words on how much I yearned to develop my own research project, or how the leadership component is an additional benefit, both making the programme unique and prompting me to apply. Instead, I have decided to state the truth: I applied because I was looking for a chance of success, for something that could make me feel worthwhile.
When I came to university, I quickly dropped from top of the class with merit prizes to average student, which was clearly not appeasing my over-achiever personality. I advocate that marks don’t measure individual value; however, in my case I was experiencing an overall personal crisis based on my choices and aspirations. Laidlaw was the opportunity to prove I had made the right choice in trusting myself and my ability to study for the first time ever in a foreign language. I was trying to demonstrate something to that seventeen year-old who was mocked by schoolmates for having chosen Art History instead of Medicine, Scotland instead of Milan. I had to demonstrate that my choices were right, and my aspirations achievable.
Honestly, I am not good at dealing with failure, nor do I like the politically correct idea that failing is a fundamental feature of an individual’s development. Failure is a bad feeling, and thinking you are “not worth it” is not necessarily a pivotal step in everyone’s journey. Certainly I never wanted it to be part of my life. Nonetheless, I was feeling like I failed – not only because of my average grades in first year, but especially because I realised I had not left a mark. Nothing had really spoken to me: I was unexcited about my module choices, unsatisfied with the assessment formats, and maybe simply tired of not feeling able to best express myself in a foreign language where a sentence cannot be longer than two lines. I started fearing my university dream was just a massive mistake, where I found myself in someone else’s shoes, being in the wrong place.
Well, I am certainly an overly-dramatic individual, yet my aspiration for university was finding my voice and individuality among the most excellent minds, not feeling average and attending some lavish parties, as much as I personally enjoyed each and every one of them. Laidlaw was that chance to transform my whole journey, getting back on my ideal track and pursuing that bildungsroman I had been building on in my mind since the age of thirteen when I decided to study abroad. I will not say that applying to Laidlaw changed my whole perspective on failure. Rather the opposite, I almost felt the same anxiety as when I was waiting for my UCAS responses. Yet it surely showed my willingness to succeed was higher than the fear of rejection, meaning that I learned how to prioritise opportunities at least.
Clearly writing this blog, I have been successful, however even in the success I have to admit many things are almost the complete opposite of my initial idea, which is a big issue for someone who was used to follow quinquennial plans like a religious obligation. Leaving aside Covid-19, whose unexpected consequences have virtually affected the whole academic environment (and not only), the changes I experienced are on a completely personal level unrelated to any current affairs.
When I applied, the core idea was making my voice heard through my personal project on the “Artistic translations of Dante’s Inferno”. I was calling into cause perhaps the best-known Italian poet, analysing his work through modern art, my deepest passion. What could have shouted out my name louder than this project? Well, I soon realised that maybe researching is not my cup of tea. Although I loved discussing with my supervisor, Dr. Rider, and constructing together the basis for my research, I realised that I cared little about the whole academic procedure. My interest is deep and passionate and talking art to my supervisor is surely one of the highlights of the project so far; nonetheless, I feel I am too much of a free spirit to fit well within an academic environment. I love the discussion and confrontation while I avoid the most rigid practices which distinguish an excellent academic. I am driven by passion and aspiration, a chair and a desk annoy me.
Before this Laidlaw experience, I would have considered this as a failure: not feeling rewarded by something that is generally highly regarded and commended like academia. Now, I realise it is simply my way of being – I might not be cut for research, despite being a knowledge-seeker always willing to learn new things. Indeed Laidlaw is not only research but also Leadership: not conforming with academic research standards does not imply I cannot be a good leader.
I admit I am very sceptical about the idea of “being a good leader”; I prefer the concept of being the “right leader”. A leader is transformative, basing actions on various experiences, so there is a right leader for every situation. I think I have been my own right leader when I chose to link my national heritage to the field of study which interests me. Linking Dante to contemporary art made possible I would not get bored during my research: I would find it fascinating despite disliking some of the methodology involved. I succeeded in leading myself towards choosing my supervisor and finally looking for a deeper connection with the academic staff than that found in a lecture theatre.
My “right leadership” made me resilient. Despite feeling disheartened at the beginning of the academic year, I still decided to play and work hard for my achievements. Laidlaw has been a turning point, less because of a particular aspect of the programme itself than because it gave me the confidence I needed to improve my performance as a whole.
I am extremely thankful for being a Laidlaw scholar since this great opportunity has given me that hint of a spark I was missing, and made me understand that my aspirations and choices are still valuable and worth sharing. Of course, I am still the same individual, with the same aversion to failure, and I still strive for success. But I am different in my approach to things. I no longer question my niche Art History faculty or my unconventional behaviour, on the opposite I see how this could be turn into an original vantage point.
I conclude on a poetic and definitely daring note, highlighting how maybe I am fascinated by Dante because we are both politically incorrect and present high topics (religion for him and academia for me) with an inevitably human and unfiltered grasp. As Dante evolved along his journey, so I am during mine, but I am happy to proudly state “this is real, this is me, I am exactly where I am supposed to be now”.