Excerpt from "Interviews with Alumni from the 1990s and 200s by Tim Smith", 2011 Department Newsletter.
Vani Jain (History, 2004) is the Director of Policy, Strategy and Community Relations at the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario. We spoke with her in Toronto. Prior to taking up this position, Vani worked as a Curriculum Coordinator in the School of Medicine at McMaster University, and as a Public Policy Coordinator at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health at the University of Toronto.
“The four years I spent at Queen's were some of the best of my life--I made lifelong friends and got to spend four years just expanding my mind. I started out in Commerce, and I knew soon enough that the program—despite its obvious strengths--wasn't for me. In second year, I took a history class with Mike Mason (this was my elective to go with all my Commerce classes) and I enjoyed it so much, I knew I had to make the change over to the Arts. It occurred to me that I had the next few years to learn about all the things that interested me and that I had to take advantage of it. My parents were far from thrilled when I dropped out of Commerce. They could not understand what a History degree could do for me. They are from India and, like many other parents of secondgeneration Canadians, they were very concerned about the economic situation of their children. Although I understood their concerns, I decided to do what I loved doing. (They have forgiven me!) Things worked out. I had felt a lot of pressure to get myself into some sort of professional program—something with an obvious and immediate connection to a specific type of job. Commerce would obviously have done that. But I was still able to climb the ladder I needed to climb, even without a professional degree. It was very important to me to have these three remaining years to do what I was passionate about.”
Vani recalls: “I lived with my five closest friends and had just 15 hours of class” and she wishes that she had “appreciated it more at the time! I would recommend wholeheartedly to any current students reading this that they simply study what they love. Spend these four years thinking about the things that are important to you and discovering more of who you are. My educational background doesn't directly relate to anything I do now, but I do still feel like it prepared me. A degree is important, but people ultimately want to hire someone who can think. An arts education is also a good platform for any graduate work, which can provide you with the credentials you need for a specific job.”
“My favourite memories are of sitting in Jacalyn Duffin's history of medicine classes (I liked them so much I took two). Her office, where we had our classes, was the furthest possible location from my house and I would trudge over to every class through the snow and the rain. We would all sit in a circle and drink tea and just talk and it was fantastic. I had great, knowledgeable professors that I respected and intelligent classmates that I could have great dialogue with. I feel lucky to have gone to Queen's. My liberal arts education gave me the preparation I needed to go into any job and learn the content quickly and do good critical analysis. Studying history, I feel like I recognize the importance of looking at each issue in its broadest context rather than at a point in time - often, the problems of today have important historical context, and knowing how they have developed over time and what events have led up to the issues of today can help to develop solutions.”
We asked Vani: “What are some of today’s problems in the field in which you work? What does your job entail?” “I have spent the past five or so years working in mental health. I started out doing public policy advocacy but my role now involves that along with research, communications, government relations and organizational strategy. I love the solutions-focused aspect of my work-- looking at what is wrong with the current system, analyzing it, and developing solutions and recommendations that will improve people's lives. The government relations part is about actually convincing those in power to make those changes, which can be the most difficult thing. Change is often really slow, but when you see the results of your work--actual changes in the way our system works, or specific policy changes--it feels great.”
“Can you give us an example or two,” we asked? “Sure. One project involved the deportation of individuals with mental illness on the basis of criminality. We had several situations where people who had lived here for perhaps 30 or 40 years, and had been in contact with the law as a result of their mental illness, were being deported to countries they had not seen in decades, since they were small children. If deported, they wouldn’t have access to the services and circles of support they needed to survive. My organization explored this issue, looking at whether the current immigration system sufficiently accommodated individuals with serious mental illness, and whether it took into account factors related to mental illness when making decisions. A colleague and I spent months at the University of Toronto Law Library doing research. I would get back into student mode. I pictured myself back in Stauffer, immersed in the books. We interviewed and worked collaboratively with immigration lawyers and mental health workers. And then we wrote our report and submitted it to the federal government. We argued that the government ought to reconsider the ‘designated representative’ protocol and we actually did manage to influence some change. Another example: in March 2010 the government cut the ‘special diet allowance’ that some mentally ill people, who have physical health problems such as diabetes, are eligible for. This is an extra income benefit available to people on social assistance – which 80% of people with schizophrenia rely on. We analyzed the issue and advocated for those who had seen their monthly support reduced. The allowance was reinstated in November 2010. Another initiative that I’m proud of is the development of our Justice and Mental Health Program. This is a program, unique in Canada as far as I’m aware, which helps the family members of mentally ill people who have had run-ins with the law. These people are often left without any support, advice, or guidance of any sort. We saw a need for a program and so we studied it and implemented it.” “Who funds your organization,” we asked? “We get about 25% of our funds from government sources, the rest, from individual donations and corporate or foundation grants.”
“So, your history degree has helped you directly?” Vani did not hesitate: “Yes, for sure. My job is a bit like being a university student. I am always learning, always ‘studying.’ This is the hardest part—taking a great deal of information and squeezing the most important parts into a 25 page report that is at once empirically sound, that is written in language accessible to the public, and that is also presented in a useful way to those politicians and policy makers who must make sense of it and act upon it. It’s a bit like writing a term paper!”