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Student Experience Awards celebrate the path to success

Failure is an essential companion of success, says Errol Aspevig Award recipient
By: Will Sloan
April 04, 2017
Tara Upshaw

Photo: Tara Upshaw received the Errol Aspevig Award at the Student Experience Awards on March 29. Photo by Clifton Li. 

Failure and success are two sides of the same coin. At the 2017 Student Experience Awards presentation on March 29, Tara Upshaw, recipient of the Errol Aspevig Award, told the audience how her lowest moments have contributed to her greatest successes.

“Those of us receiving accolades tonight are leaders, innovators, critics—roles that are particularly vulnerable to failure because they require an exceptional amount of risk,” said Upshaw to the audience at Arcadian Loft. “And while we do not typically acknowledge it at celebrations of achievement, failure is an essential companion to the experience that culminates in success.”

The Errol Aspevig Award honours outstanding student leaders who contribute to the enhancement of academic life. Upshaw, a graduating biology student, is part of the student-led movement towards equity, diversity and inclusion in STEM. She has helped develop an undergrad program to increase the use of traditional medicinal plants to treat high blood pressure in rural Tanzania. But in her speech, she focused on her recent experience with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a psychological response to recurrent trauma or sustained stress.

“Imagine that, instead of going to sleep tonight and waking up tomorrow, you wake up in July,” said Upshaw. “You initially expect the world to have carried on without you—and it has—but after speaking to your close friends, you find that the worst version of yourself was acting in your place.”

Using a term popularized by author Brené Brown, Upshaw described failure as “a face-down-in-the-arena moment.… When we fail in leadership, we do so before an audience. We hear from, as Brown said, those in the cheap seats first. And what they can see can eviscerate you. But there are also season ticket holders who are invested in our performances because they too once stepped in the arena and have felt the hot sand on their faces.”

Upshaw credits her personal resurgence to inward scrutiny, an embrace of vulnerability, and connecting with loved ones. “We shake out the skeletons we stuffed in the closet in hopes they would go unnoticed if we worked hard enough and achieved enough.… We are honest about our perceived place in the world and where we truly stand. We deconstruct the ancestry of our worst selves. We take responsibility. We own our truths. And we find the strength in this that makes us changemakers.”

Upshaw closed by imploring students to use their failures as building-blocks for success. “Our successes have brought us to this room tonight. But it is our game-stopping, audience-silencing facedown moments that prepare us to be leaders of tomorrow. So engage with the vulnerability needed to arrive from the arena floor, and be honest with yourself always. Bring the lessons you find to work that you believe in, that creates meaning and purpose where there is conflict and scarcity.”

The Student Experience Awards is a joint event between the Office of the Vice-Provost, Students (OVPS) and the Student Awards and Scholarship Office, recognizing student leaders for their contributions to advancing the university’s mission. To learn more, visit the Student Experience Awards website.

The March 29 event also featured the presentation of the Dennis Mock Student Leadership Awards. Named for the former Vice-President, Academic of Ryerson, the awards recognize graduating students for their contributions to Ryerson through leadership and extracurricular involvement. This year, 41 students were awarded.