Having recently graduated, I find myself reflecting on my university experience and looking forward to the future. To help in my quest, I reached out to others in the way I know best: writing. I wanted to know how successful U of T alumni feel now, decades after their university days.
Though I lead a very different life from Toronto Mayor John Tory; Toronto Star columnist and author Heather Mallick; and dentist and art collector and curator Dr. Kenneth Montague, I cannot help but relate to their experiences. Perhaps you can too.
The Varsity: Who was your favourite professor and why?
John Tory: Kenneth McNaught and Paul Fox are tied. Both were political science professors at U of T who were great storytellers and who engaged me and the other students.
Heather Mallick: My favourite professor, long retired, was Professor Jeffrey Heath at Victoria College. I was an arrogant kid and thought I was smart. Just by his lectures and assigned readings, I began to realize that I was not smart — in fact I was a young idiot — and that I needed to read and understand.
He introduced me to the works of Virginia Woolf, which has remained a great love for me for the rest of my life. I really think the kind of reading I learned to do was the basis of a happy life, no matter what happened to me. Books are the eternal friend. Woolf wrote, “It was very, very dangerous to live even one day.” And does that not describe us now?
Kenneth Montague: My favourite was Dr. John Mayhall, who was professor of oral anatomy in my first year at the Faculty of Dentistry at U of T.
TV: Please describe one of your most memorable moments with this, or another, professor.
JT: One of them, who shall remain nameless, was always going to get some “cold tea.” A break in the action gave us the chance to confirm that it wasn’t tea! But it made for great lectures.
HM: Heath taught one of my favourite novels, Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad, which had this indelible quote. “A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea… The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep sea keep you up.” Isn’t that a great description of work?
KM: As the then head of admissions, Mayhall was part of the team that interviewed me, so he represented my first contact with the institution. As someone who was applying without the typical ‘all sciences’ background, I was very nervous when arriving at my interview, but Mayhall had done his research: his first question was, “So, what is the leader of a reggae band expecting to do when he graduates as a dentist?”
We laughed — and ended up spending more time talking about music than dentistry. When I started dental school a few weeks later, he took me under his wing and made me feel like I belonged. We remained friends long after graduation.
TV: What do you miss least about your university experience?
JT: The library, where I would study for exams, which out of deference to overcrowding, I would do in a concentrated manner after November 15 and April 1 in each semester.
HM: University can be lonely, especially in the winter heading toward Fort Book. That said, I wish I had stayed in Sir Daniel Wilson Residence longer and made more friends. I wish I had joined in.
KM: With the Faculty of Dentistry being some distance away from the main downtown campus, I felt a bit disconnected from the traditional U of T student experience. That combined with four years of 8:00 am classes meant there wasn’t much of a social life.
But my wife recently returned to U of T as a mature student, completing her Master of Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, and our two sons now attend the Jackman Institute of Child Study, a U of T-affiliated laboratory school. So I’m finally getting to fully appreciate the St. George campus!
TV: What do you miss most about your university experience?
JT: Being able to decide what I wanted to do and when I wanted to do it, followed closely by the library — not.
HM: I miss the constant reading and the company of people who did not think it was strange to read everything. I felt I was immersed with my kind of people.
KM: The camaraderie that I experienced with my tight group of off-campus roommates — also part of my dental school cohort — established lifetime friendships. Enduring such a rigorous professional program forged deep bonds.
It is all too easy to compare yourself to others, especially when there will always be someone out there who is further along than you. Tory is our city’s mayor, yet his humour and story about cold tea brought me back to my formative years — though, in my case, it was fellow musicians who taught me about this beverage rather than a professor.
Mallick’s self-identification as a “young idiot” hit home as I, a mature student, often felt like the old idiot in the classroom. Also, her view that “books are the eternal friend” resonates strongly with me, as well as her admiration for Virginia Woolf.
Montague is a multi-passionate professional who makes seemingly impossible things happen, so it was reassuring to learn that he initially felt out of place when starting university.
Regardless of our backgrounds or our specific challenges going to university both before and during a pandemic, as students we share common experiences, such as inspiring professors and the ups and downs of academic life. These alumni all paved their own paths — and so shall we.
The interviews have been edited for length and clarity.