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Student Voices

Lorelei Lester: A Function and Meaning

September 17, 2014
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Guest post by Lorelei Lester, a new graduate student in History. She'll be writing these posts on a biweekly basis.

College taught me many things about myself that I may not have learned otherwise. When I made the choice to return to school despite a less than encouraging educational experience in high school I knew I would have to face some difficulties but the nature of those difficulties surprised me.

My high school experience did not encourage me to consider studying beyond each semester so I did not acquire a preference for any field of study in particular. But naturopathic medicine — the career choice that brought me back to school — required an in-depth biological science concentration. Science was not something that I was encouraged to pursue in high school. In fact, the student counselor actively discouraged me from taking academic classes, saying, “academic classes are for students who had a chance of going to college and you will never need them.” Yes, it was very encouraging, indeed. So, although I had been exposed to biology, chemistry, and calculus in high school, they were new territory for me in college.

I quickly learned to love my biology and chemistry classes, especially the labs, but calculus was another story. I had not really paid attention to my math classes in high school as I considered them boring and pointless. The teacher’s attitude didn’t encourage me to consider it anything else. So that’s the way I approached math again. Lectures were endured and homework was an exercise in forbearance. I didn’t expect it to make sense since it never had before. However, calculus is required for second year science courses needed for acceptance into a naturopathic college. This made a difference I was invested in the outcome and determined to succeed.

My science-heavy six course load did not make math any easier for me. I was overworked, sleep deprived and adjusting to a completely new culture. Because everything was overwhelming, my difficulties in math did not stand out as exceptional. I found the lectures confusing as we had to follow the professor using notes she handed out before each lecture, keep up in the textbook and keep track of the overhead where the professor’s scientific calculator was projected for the class to see.

I was far more confused after each lecture than I had been before. Additional tutoring didn’t clear anything up for me except my meager budget. I spent more time studying for my math class than for any other course I was taking. None of it helped. I failed the course.

This did not change my mind about naturopathic medicine. Math was simply something that I had to get through, no matter how distasteful, so I took that class again. This time I would really try. I reduced my course load to five and emphasized non-science electives. I devoted even more effort to studying math. A few times I even devoted entire days carefully studying each part of an equation or function that I found particularly confusing. At the end of the day I could do them and felt that I really had it.

Then the next day when I went back to those problems they were as senseless to me as they had been before. My achievements of the day before disappeared overnight and I would have to start all over again. By the second mid-term I knew I was in trouble. It couldn’t be that difficult! What was wrong?

Literally in tears of despair and frustration I went to the campus counseling office. I needed help. I was exhausted and broken but I knew I had to go on. Over three weeks meeting with the learning specialist and discussing my experiences with my math class she came up with an answer. I had an undiagnosed form of dyslexia called dyscalcula. It’s a form of dyslexia that is specifically to do with numbers and sequencing, exactly what calculus is all about.

This explains why I have specific ways that I remember things in the past and why numbers just never made any sense to me at all. I memorized them without truly grasping their symbolic meaning. Basically, I had learned to adjust just enough to pass high school math. This was not good news for a future naturopathic doctor. The learning specialist taught me some techniques that would help me to focus and enhance my ability to grasp the meaning of numbers. I felt that this would give me a chance.

With the stubbornness and determination of a mountain goat I faced math again. This time I started with ninth grade math in the adult basic education program. Using the techniques that the learning specialist taught me I retrained my brain how to read and interpret numbers. I went through high school math, and then, for the third time, college calculus. To get an official diagnosis would require official testing that cost about $1800. That was out of the question. Although, my final grade percentage had improved from previous attempts, I still did not pass. The course required that I pass the final exam which I could not do. Without an official diagnosis of a learning disability I did not qualify for accommodation in writing the exams.

I had mercilessly battered myself against this obstacle for two years. Sheer stubbornness and determination did not help, relearning how to do math did not help, and repetition did not help. My brain just did not process numbers in a way conducive to passing calculus exams. I could not avoid the problem with sequencing or time. I did not have the money for official diagnosis.

As an adult I had to deal with a difference in learning that none of my grade school or high school teachers had noticed. Now what would I do? I had already accumulated three years of college trying to force my way through a calculus class that I needed and had really started to hate. I was not going to give up half way through a degree. One thing I did get out of this ordeal was a sense of my inner strength. Failure did not mean an end: I would just do something else. I had a decision to make …

Photo: James Wheeler

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