When asked about what factors came into play when choosing a university, first-year student Ana Golja responded similarly to most other U of T applicants: “I wanted to prove that I could actually go to the top university in Canada.”

But in other ways, Golja is not quite like every other student. What separates Golja from most of her peers on campus is the hands-on experience she brings to her degree. Rather than enrolling in school to land a job after graduation, the aspiring cinema studies major is already a successful actress, singer, and producer.

The Varsity talked to Golja about adapting to COVID-19 lockdowns, her music career, and advocating for mental health.

COVID-19 lockdowns and music career

She’s well-known from her role on the television show Degrassi: Next Class — coincidentally partially filmed on the U of T campus — and the film The Cuban, which she co-produced. Golja explained that she made the decision to take on a university course load after she was unable to work safely during COVID-19 lockdowns. “My industry was completely shut down… I figured now would be a really good time to go to university and at least start that process,” she said.

University isn’t the only passion project Golja took on during the pandemic; the self-described “overachiever” explained that, while in isolation, she taught herself to produce music online — a process she admitted she “[won’t] be doing again.”

“The process was brutal,” Golja recalled. “I am not tech savvy… I had to rely on the help of [my] go-to music engineer… [Now] I know how to do it, and I have a greater appreciation for the people that do that for a living.”

The result of Golja’s labour is Strive, the artist’s debut EP. Consisting of six songs and released on July 30, Golja described the project as the “building blocks [and] foundation” which allowed her to get through the pandemic. 

“Each letter [in the EP’s title] stands for a belief or practice,” Golja explained. “ ’S’ is for ‘self love’… ‘T’ for ‘transcend’… ‘R’ for ‘reflect’… ‘I’ for instincts, to follow them… [‘V’ for] ‘vulnerable’… and ‘E’ for ‘emerge’, you know, to show up for yourself and essentially transform into the new, better version of yourself.”

Though finding the EP’s core message came naturally to Golja, the artist recalled that creating its upbeat style wasn’t as effortless. She said, “I feel like I naturally focus on the negative feelings. My [first release] Epilogue was all really depressing sappy ballads.” Epilogue is an album that Golja released in 2018.

Golja mentioned that her goal was to make an upbeat song to make listeners dance, and added, “The pandemic brought on so many challenges for so many people, and we were all dealing with it in such different ways… maybe in unhealthy ways. And so I just wanted to make something that would make them feel like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Highlighting mental health

Another way Strive highlights mental health is through the music video for its single “All Night,” in which Golja collaborated with Kids Help Phone, a public service that provides free online counselling, information, and text-based support to users throughout Canada.

“It just felt like such a natural partnership,” Golja described. “ ‘All Night’ [is] about how we deal with anxiety… perhaps substance use and depression, how all those things kind of manifest in different ways.”

“I really wanted to shine a light on that and raise awareness for all the amazing work that Kids Help Phone does,” Golja added. She mentioned that all information shared with the service is confidential. “You get a sounding board, which a lot of people don’t have where they’re uncomfortable sharing with people that they know.”

As someone who’s already an established actress, musician and producer, Golja admitted that she’s unsure what lies ahead for her at U of T because of her busy schedule. Her main aspiration is to go on tour when public health officials deem it safe to do so. 

In the meantime, the triple threat’s smaller post-pandemic plans reveal inarguable similarities to the average university student. “I’m very excited to be travelling, and seeing all my friends and reconnecting with everyone.”