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Book by alumnus gives insight into university experience

Alumnus Jeff Rybak has written a book on the university experience. (Photo by Geoff George.)

by Aurora Herrera

Students should think carefully about their motives, goals and expectations of university before enrolling.

That’s the advice of U of T Scarborough alumnus Jeff Rybak, who has written a book about the university experience. His book, What’s Wrong With University and How to Make it Work For You Anyway, is generating a lot of attention and cultivating discussion among students, parents and faculty, and in the national media.

Rybak, a Mississauga native, describes himself as a misfit during his high school years. As a teenager he skipped classes and was not concerned about postsecondary education. At the age of 18 he decided to experiment with the university system and applied to various colleges and universities. To his surprise, he was accepted to several, but decided not to attend at that time. Instead, Rybak moved to downtown Toronto, “worked, traveled and essentially grew up”. At 27, he enrolled at U of T Scarborough, where he specialized in English. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 2006.

“I was ready to learn, and U of T Scarborough gave me a place to do that,” he said. “I was very fortunate to find many people there – faculty, staff, and students – who have had an enduring influence on my life and direction. I’ll always be grateful for that, and looking back, I can’t imagine making a different choice, if I had to do it again.”

As an undergraduate, Rybak got involved with student politics. He served as vice-president of academics for the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU). “In the course of working for the student union, I kept encountering the same problems and heard of students running into the same issues,” he said. “In order to be proactive and to advise students on how to avoid these problems, I started writing a document called the Advanced Academic Primer, which can still be found on the SCSU website.” To view the primer, visit http://scsu.ca/?id=aresources

By the time he was in his final undergraduate year, Rybak’s document had expanded into a 15,000-word essay of practical advice and insights into university life. A professor, Russell Brown, suggested that the essay could be made into a book, and Rybak successfully pitched it to a publisher. The book is based on issues he dealt with as an undergraduate, and Rybak says it is aimed at “anyone who is genuinely concerned about the student experience in university today”.

The book hit store shelves in 2007 and can be found at Chapters and Indigo nationwide, a few independent bookstores and in a number of libraries. It can also be ordered on-line at http://www.chapters.ca. Since its publication, Rybak has been interviewed by media outlets nationwide and his book has been described as a helpful guidebook and primer for university students across Canada.

Rybak is now attending law school at U of T. He described the book’s objective: to get students to think more fully about their motives and goals and to take an active role in getting what they need from the university experience. The years he took off before starting university were crucial to his success today, Rybak said.

“There are good reasons to be in university, but they need to be one's own reasons and not some prepackaged idea of what it's supposed to be,” Rybak said. “And in some cases, students do realize that their reasons aren't fully formed yet, and maybe that's a good reason to wait.”

The response to the new author’s book has been positive, and Rybak said he is pleased by the support from friends, family, university administrators and policy types. Although he has never claimed to be a formal researcher, he said he has received surprising support in academic circles for his conclusions and insights.

"At any campus, there's going to be a distance and difference between students, faculty and administration,” said Drew Dudley, coordinator of leadership development at U of T Scarborough. “Jeff narrowed this imaginary divide -- showing healthy respect, not deferential reverence, to faculty and administrators, and engaging them as equals on meaningful projects.”

“He demanded that faculty, staff and administration respect students as equal stakeholders in the university experience, and in turn demanded that his fellow students earn that respect,” Dudley added. “That's what always made Jeff such an impressive leader to me -- he did not demand anything he was not prepared to earn. That approach led people to respect and listen to him -- whether they agreed with him or not."

The book is selling well for a publication explicitly Canadian in content and focus, according to Rybak. However, he says that he is just as happy if people borrow it from the library. “When I hear from people who’ve picked up the book and benefited from it, that means a lot more to me than sales.”

Rybak said that his experience with the student union was his favorite aspect of his time U of T Scarborough. During that time, he advocated for many changes that benefited students. Perhaps the most significant among those changes, he was instrumental in creating and institutionalizing departmental student associations (DSAs) in each academic department. Rybak said this is a lasting change that will affect many generations of students and contribute to stronger academic advocacy for all. “Of course I did not, and could not, create DSAs alone,” he added. “Like most important changes, it was a collaboration among many active parties, and many people deserve a share of the credit.”

Tom Nowers, dean of student services, describes Rybak as a dynamic individual who served as a role model for students. “As the VP of Academics, Jeff brought about reform and order and set new standards for governance at U of T Scarborough,” Nowers said. “This was really extraordinary for an undergrad student.

“The students who knew him coined the phrase ‘You’re pulling a Rybak’,” added Nowers. “This meant that the person had locked onto an issue that they cared about and was pursuing it with tremendous tenacity and drive.”

Rybak still keeps in touch with many students at U of T Scarborough and maintains his role as an advisor. His main message to other students is to find a reason to be at school, whatever it may be.

“No campus is perfect,” he said. “Any problem is really an opportunity to do something worthwhile on the campus. Through that, you gain a sense of place and a real reason to be there. That’s the hardest thing to find. Don’t just do it because it’s good for the people around you -- do it because it gives you a reason to get up in the morning.”

For more on Rybak’s views, visit http://www.jeffrybak.ca/home.html.

Aurora Herrera is a fourth-year student in the joint journalism program offered by U of T Scarborough and Centennial College. She is currently working as an intern in the office of marketing and communications.




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