Reflections on Receiving a Looking Glass Foundation Scholarship
Interview with Sherene Balanji
We sat down with a long-time Looking Glass volunteer, Sherene Balanji, who will be graduating next year from Simon Fraser University with an Honours degree in Psychology. She is currently working on completing her Honours Thesis exploring the relationship between social media behaviours and disordered eating in undergraduate students. She has been volunteering with Looking Glass in the Hand in Hand program for 3 years, and as a Forum Support volunteer since 2018. Today, she reflects back on the experience of receiving a 2017 Scholarship award from the Looking Glass Foundation.
LGF: Thank you for sitting down with us today! So, let’s take things back to 2017: Where were you at in your university studies, and what motivated you to apply for a Looking Glass Pursue Your Passion scholarship?
Sherene (SB): In 2017 I was about half way through my undergraduate degree and had been volunteering as a Research Assistant in Dr Shannon Zaitsoff’s Weight and Eating Lab at SFU for over a year. By this point I had been in recovery from my eating disorder for over 4 years, and was quite proud of the strides I had made both in my recovery and education, thus the Looking Glass Foundation’s Pursue Your Passion scholarship seemed like a great fit! This was also the year that I solidified my decision to pursue graduate studies in Clinical Psychology, in the hopes of being able to turn my passion for helping others who are struggling with their mental health into a career. However, this pursuit meant that I would need to add a year to my degree in order to complete my Honours Thesis, not to mention the years I would (hopefully) be spending in graduate school. So I sought out financial support, found the Pursue Your Passion scholarship, and quite frankly, pursuing my passion is exactly what this education funding enabled me to do.
LGF: It definitely sounds like it! Tell us about the application process for you. It can be so challenging to write an essay about yourself, especially about something so personal and vulnerable. What was that experience like, and how did you push through that challenge?
SB: By this point, I had actually become quite comfortable telling my story as I had found that every time I was put in a situation in which I discussed my eating disorder or recovery, I felt less and less vulnerable. I had already been in [academic and volunteer] positions for quite some time in which I would be exposed to a lot of eating disorder/recovery related topic, which made me really comfortable discussing (and writing about) my personal experience with recovery. Also, the passion I was (and still am) pursuing has to do with taking my own experience with an eating disorder, learning from it, and using that lesson to help others. I’d spent a lot of time looking back at my experience as something that made me stronger and inspired the path my life had ended up taking, rather than a triggering point in my life.
LGF: You’re so right about that - there’s a lot of power in releasing your own story, and it is often a transformative, resilience-building experience. And, in this case, you were literally rewarded for it! Do you remember where you were or what you were doing when you found out that you had been selected for a scholarship award?
SB: Yes! I was on break at work and, of course, I was super excited! It was probably one of my best days at work. I could not wait to go home and tell my family and friends.
LGF: What did it mean for you in terms of your own recovery, to receive this award?
SB: It helped solidify all the strides I had made in the last 4 years and really highlighted to me how much recovering from my eating disorder had changed my life. It made my recovery feel like it had come around full-circle, which brought me an immense sense of pride.
LGF: Which brings us right up to this moment, today! What are you planning to explore as you near the end of your degree, and what do think might come next for your career?
SB: I will be completing my Honours Thesis next year under the supervision of Dr Shannon Zaitsoff, which will be focusing on undergraduate social media use and body image concerns/disordered eating behaviours. I am particularly interested in image-based platforms like Instagram and how photo manipulation (editing one’s photo to enhance appearance) and photo investment (a person’s concerns about how they are portrayed in a photo, the quality of the photo, the social feedback they receive as a result of sharing the photo, and the effort put into choosing the photo) relate to one’s body image and disordered eating behaviours. This is a budding area of research, leaving many topics left unexplored. I particularly want to ensure that my study includes a mixed-gender sample, as the vast majority of previous studies have only included participants who identify as female, although there is no reason to believe that these behaviours are exclusive to this gender identity.
A side goal of this project is to also hopefully shed some light on positive ways people can use social media, which do not trigger body image concerns or disordered eating behaviours. I personally think that in this day and age, it can be a little unrealistic to expect those in recovery to refrain from social media use, thus I think uncovering ways in which these platforms could be used that do not impede recovery are very important for the field. As far as my career goes, I hope to take about a year off from my studies to work in the field and prepare my graduate school application. I’m planning on applying to a Masters/PhD program in Clinical Psychology in 2021.
LGF: Wow! All of this is incredibly exciting, and the gender-inclusivity you mentioned in your study design is so important. We look forward to reading your research when it’s ready! In the meantime, what message would you like to offer to those who are applying for a Looking Glass Scholarship this year?
I would like to encourage anyone who is eligible to apply for this award – whether your passion has to do with your eating disorder or it’s completely unrelated, this award is beyond worth taking the time to apply for. Personally, I found that the process of applying was one of the most rewarding parts. I was able to get in contact with my old doctor from when I was struggling, and she was thrilled to see how far I had come and how healthy I was; without applying for this award I don’t think I ever would have gotten to thank her in person for everything she did to facilitate my recovery. Also, asking my professors for reference letters, although minorly intimidating, was actually a great experience – they were thrilled to write them, and it felt great to read their kind words and to know that they were willing to take time out of their busy schedules to assist me with my application. Also, if you’re like me, taking the time to write an essay and reflect on your past, passion(s), and future goals can be a very rewarding experience in itself. Although it may be scary to think about strangers reading about such a vulnerable time, if you’re able to face that fear, you may just inspire someone else to do the same and I think talking about eating disorders and recovery is one of the best things we can do to reduce the stigma and encourage others to seek help.
LGF: Well said, Sherene. Any other final words of wisdom or reflections you’d like to share with our community?
I just want to say thank you so much to the Looking Glass Foundation; I have had nothing but positive experiences with this organization and it has provided me with the most rewarding moments of my life, particularly through my role in the Hand in Hand program. And of course, the organization would not be able to do all that it does without the supportive and open-minded community that it fosters, which I am extremely proud to be a member of, so thank you.
Thank you, Sherene! It is always a pleasure to connect with you, and we are extremely grateful to have you in our community. We wish you all the best in everything you do – and we look forward to hearing more from you in your exciting ongoing career path!
Sherene Balanji will be graduating next year from Simon Fraser University with an Honours degree in Psychology. She is currently working on completing her Honours Thesis exploring the relationship between social media behaviours and disordered eating in undergraduate students. She has been volunteering with Looking Glass in the Hand in Hand program for 3 years, and as a Forum Support volunteer since 2018.