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27 years ago, I turned down my dream college. Today, my child is studying there

This First Person article is the experience of Jen Watt who lives in Guelph, Ont. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I hold the crisp white paper with the tri-colour letterhead that includes an offer of admission to my dream school and program. This beautiful letter has been sitting on my desk for weeks now. Within reach is the fulfillment of a fantasy: my next four formative years as an engineering student at Queen’s University. 

With pen in hand, my hand hovers over the box for “I decline.” 

There is no better offer, there is no bigger dream. And yet, I have to reject this offer and convince myself this is a preordained path. 

Jolted by a new reality: my mom just decided she will leave Canada and reunite with my dad in Asia. I face being without a home base.

I consider student loans and other practical options, but the sense of aloneness in this transition is unbearable. I ask myself: Where will I go for the long periods of time university students leave campus? Yes, I can get a job or travel, but my anxious mind has no room for these options. I agonize over a potential solution, but I cannot find it. 

My friends ask, “Why aren’t your parents helping you?” I have no satisfactory answer. I simply am on my own. 

A home base is important to me. Because when I was little, I had been “bounced around” — living with extended family members. But after years of living as a long-term house guest, I have pledged to avoid being “mafan” (Chinese for “burdensome/ nuisance”). A weekend here or there would be acceptable but not for four years.

A portrait of a smiling woman in graduation robes and cap holds a bouquet.
Jen Watt’s high school graduation portrait taken in 1994. (Submitted by Jen Watt)

My 18-year-old body feels this bind, this is a no-win situation. Fulfill the dream vs. fulfill basic needs. What 18-year-old chooses basic needs? This one. I know I can simply let the deadline pass without a response to the school, and that would suffice. However, I must memorialize this moment for myself. 

I take a deep breath, blue pen in hand, and check the box next to “I decline” with care. I have a suspicion this moment will haunt me in the future. I put my head down and dive into a degree that feels unnatural for me — a bachelor of arts at the University of Toronto. 

Twenty-seven years pass. I’m on a campus tour at Queen’s University with my 17-year-old daughter. She is similarly enchanted by the character and charm of this campus. And I find myself time travelling in my mind, wondering what could have been. 

On our drive back home, I share with my daughter that I had once longed to attend the same university. Wary of burdening her future with my past, I absolve her from any responsibility she might reflexively undertake for my sake. I maintain that while her journey has prompted many painful memories, it is my responsibility to engage it. We concurred that her path to Queen’s is not a vicarious path for me to relive something I lost. 

Over the next six months, I restrained myself from pestering her for “any news.” One school after another offered her a place, except for Queen’s. Then, she received an odd congratulatory email from Queen’s student experiences; this was followed up with an apology, noting the administrative error. It felt like a cruel joke. As this mama’s heart longed for my girl to realize her dreams, I came to a harrowing realization that I had not evaded regret!

It’s been tempting to wash over the anguish with a swig of optimism. That I live a good life with good people who have supported me along the way. 

The path I chose when I ticked that “I decline” box led me eventually to meet my now life partner  of 22 years. We have a good life and our three children are our delight. However, I see that young me, standing next to my daughter of similar stature. She was at the cusp of reckoning with her adverse early life experiences. 

When my daughter finally received her offer of admission to Queen’s, there was no hint of hesitation in her “yes!” Relief washed over me as I witnessed my daughter’s choice. 

Now, as my daughter embarks on her journey to the school of her desire, I also see that university-bound girl, 27 years ago. She was languishing, bewildered and cautious.

A woman in a baseball cap smiles as she stands with teammates watching a game.
Jen Watt as high school student at a softball game in 1994. (Submitted by Jen Watt)

Her sober sensibility of “I have to take care of myself because no one else will” was born from adversity.

I imagine myself giving her a hug.

I imagine approaching my younger self. I see her sensibility and her earnestness. She bumbles along, spawning both injury and charm. I see her exhaustion, fatigue and exasperation. I tell her that we get to experience agency. I tell her she’s allowed to dream big. I see her shoulders relax as she accepts my presence and nurture. I allow the tears to stream down my face as I tenderly wipe away hers. 

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