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Decades for a degree: a reflection on my journey as a mature student at U of T

Take the first step — and keep moving forward
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My university experience began in 1995 when I chose to attend the University of Toronto. This decision was primarily based on athletic reasons: I was recruited by the Varsity Blues football team as I was a promising player from St. Michael’s College High School in Toronto. 

Being young and unfocused on my studies, I was unwilling to fully embrace the academic challenges that came with being a student athlete at U of T. While I became a key member of the 1996 football team, I was put on academic probation, which ultimately led to a one-year academic suspension from the university.

Coupled with injuries sustained from football, I was presented with adversity that I had not experienced before and was ill-equipped mentally to overcome the challenges that I had brought upon myself.

I left U of T, ashamed of failing myself and others to whom I had given my word to put forth my best effort. After I served my one year academic suspension, I re-enrolled in courses but never showed up. I was still burdened by feelings of shame and guilt, as well as a fear that I would not be able to dig myself out of the hole I had created. This resulted in a three-year academic suspension.

I then decided — or rather convinced myself — that I did not need a degree and that I would be okay without one. I joined the workforce, and my dream of a postsecondary education became a distant memory.

Over the years, I carried feelings of regret, fear, and self-doubt from not having completed my studies. I have had various careers of varying success but always thought I could have done and achieved more if I had just finished school. Decades later, in the summer of 2018, I walked into the St. Michael’s College Registrar’s Office to inquire about returning to school. I will never forget the experience.

The gentleman working behind the counter asked me, “What’s your student number?”

I politely replied that I did not remember. 

After some authentication questions, he said, “Okay, fill in this form, pay the admin fee, and tell me, do you want to start in September or January?” I was shocked. After all of these years of shame and regret, all it took was a small step to pursue my education once again. If there is anything that I have learned over the 20 years of being out of school, it is that I would not make the same mistakes I had made the first time around.

I booked an appointment with an academic counsellor, and together we worked on a plan to complete my degree. So, in the fall of 2018, I was once again a full-time student at the University of Toronto. I felt anxious about returning to school, thinking I would be the only older student and that I would not be able to ‘keep up’ with the much younger students at the St. George campus. 

All of these fears turned out to be irrational. There were many other students at different points in their learning journey. As for keeping up with the other students, I got some great advice from a friend who had also returned to school as a mature student. He told me to not focus on the other students and to just make the learning experience between you and the teacher. Sit in the front row of all of your classes, and just focus on doing your best. I listened and decided to commit to put forth my best effort.

As my studies progressed, there were times when I felt I needed help. In such instances, I discovered that U of T has an abundance of resources and services available to students. For example, not having written an essay since before Facebook was invented, I regularly leveraged the college writing centre. This allowed me to not only get great advice, but also helped me with my confidence and clarity as a writer.

If there is any suggestion I can make to others looking to return to school as a mature student — or any student for that matter — it is to leverage the services the university provides to you. They are there for your benefit and are designed to contribute to your success.

Today, I am proud of what I have accomplished. I have graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Arts degree: a double minor in education and society and human geography.

I am the first student to complete the education and society minor in the first two consecutive semesters after being accepted into the program and did so with a 4.0 GPA. I was also the recipient of the University of St. Michael’s College Francesca Annamaria Meneguzzi Award of Excellence in both 2019 and 2020. I went to every class and never missed a deadline or asked for an extension on any assignments.

The point I feel is the most important part of being successful: showing up. Sure, there were times when it would have been easier to skip class and not face the anxiety I was feeling, but that slowly dissipated the more I decided to show up instead. What was hard for me in the beginning became a pleasure for me in the end.

I am so grateful to the University of Toronto for allowing me to erase the feelings of doubt and regret I carried with me all these years and for giving me a second chance. A special thank you goes out to Miranda Cheng, an associate registrar at St. Michael’s College who helped me throughout this process.

And to anyone considering pursuing a postsecondary education at U of T: just start. Take the first step, but then take another one. Keep moving forward, regardless of the challenges or the fears you may have, because in the end, you may even surprise yourself. I know I did.