[Chapter 4] Walkin’ with Joaquin: Revisiting My Alma Mater wit Dr. Natalie Neill

Ah, to be back home.

I spent one Tuesday afternoon at my university alma mater, York University. Since graduating in 2013, I haven’t had a reason to return other than to watch the Roger’s Cup in the summer. I finally found a reason when an unexpected e-mail arrived in my inbox.

About a year ago, I sent a note to this week’s guest. I didn’t expect a reply since I wasn’t sure if she would remember me. I eventually forgot about that e-mail – until about a few months ago when she responded back. She saw my note and was delighted with my kind words. She is still teaching English Literature at my alma mater (although not the same course as what I took) and invited me to visit during her office hours. Thus, this is how this nostalgic article came to be!

I am beyond excited to introduce to you my guest for today’s post and my English professor, Dr. Natalie Neill! I touched base on our class 4 years ago, the process of getting the Ph.D. in English, on getting lost, and her advice for my next book to read!

Donning a costume (it was Halloween that day), she flashed a smile and invited me to her office. She offered me a bunch of mini candy bars while we chatted about memories of her course, “Masculinity in American Film and Fiction”. “I think you were the only male student in that course. I remember that you got a decent grade,” recounted Dr. Neill. I told her that I almost wanted to drop out of the course because I felt out of the place in the course. I stayed because I needed to get credit in order to graduate with a minor in English Literature.

Dr. Neill continues to teach English students (she is currently teaching a course on Edgar Allan Poe) but not the course I took previously since the English Department discontinued it. In the course, we were required to analyze the portrayal of masculinity in a book or movie provided by Dr. Neill’s course syllabus. I even asked her if she remembered my presentation. “It was a Western film!” recalled Dr. Neill. She was correct although she was not able to get the title (it was High Noon). Despite the course being offered twice a week during the summer in the evening, it was memorable because of the small class size and we get to watch films!

Dr. Neill did her undergraduate degree in English Literature at Carleton University in Ottawa. She finally acquired her Ph.D. in English at York University in 2008. “It’s also like studying to be a medical doctor. It took me about 15 years of studying,” recalled Dr. Neill. “I already knew that teaching would be my career path. My career was very linear as compared to now where you change plans at some point.” I even told her about my teaching experience in France last summer where I enjoyed interacting with my students and making a positive impact on a student’s learning and pedagogy. She completely agrees to this. “You don’t make a lot of money teaching but it’s a rewarding profession”.

She was delighted to hear my story after graduation. I confessed to her that it wasn’t always easy. I took odd jobs, didn’t know what to do and felt depressed after toiling for 5 years in university. She nodded and sympathized with my emotions. “It’s quite common to experience this feeling of getting lost,” advised Dr. Neill when I told her my failed attempt at becoming a lawyer and shifting gears to the food business. She recalled that times were much simpler when she was studying for her degree in the 90’s. She took this dilemma in a light tone and advised me, “You are young. You have a long way to go!” This is a great reminder at times when I feel like my efforts are being put to waste.

In our 30-minute conversation, I took the opportunity to ask her for some book recommendations. I shared to her my love for reading and in the habit of reading before going to bed. She paused for a bit to think of some titles. “Take a look at the winners of the Giller Prize. There are some great novels and short stories that are worth reading,” said Dr. Neill.

One of her current students knocked on her office for a consultation. She said the last piece of advice before we wrapped up our conversation. “Go to a bookstore or a library. Spend some time picking up books and read through its summaries. Most of all don’t be afraid to immerse and fall in love with a book. It’s the best feeling in the world.”

At a university of 50,000 students, the chances of a professor remembering you are quite slim. This was an exception. Thank you, Dr. Neill, for the memories!

On y va!

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