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University, graduation and what comes next: opinion column


Amusing musings of a recent graduate

by Rob Wulkan

Convocation is a significant milestone in anyone’s life, but the meaning behind graduation will vary greatly from student to student. For some, university is a stepping stone, a means to an end to get that high-paying job. This is seemingly the largest contingent in this day and age. (More on the job market later.) Others view it as a social experience, and others still graduate without knowing why they were in university in the first place, short of it just being that thing you're supposed to do after high school.

For myself, it was an academic pursuit -- an enjoyment of the learning experience that my studies in philosophy provided to me. It certainly wouldn't have been a stretch, though, to place me in the “not knowing” category when I first entered. Truth be told, I think it's the way to go. Looking back as an individual who recently graduated (especially as one who has served as an academic advisor), one notices that there are significant numbers of students who only think they know why they have come to university, but in truth, have simply never thought about it long enough to realize that they have no idea. Knowing that you lack knowledge is a valuable starting point without which you will never realize that there is a search to be done.

Regardless of motivation, however, we are, all of us, left with the realization that an era of our life is ending. For those of us leaving the academic setting, we relinquish the title of “student” that has been ours since the age of five when we first walked through the doors of our kindergarten classroom. For myself, someone who has been a “student leader” and “student activist” who has run a student club, lived on a student diet, crashed in student housing, worked a student job (and of course got by on student discounts), the title of “student” has become the very core of my self-identity, and the prospect of post-student life seems not so much scary as simply foreign and abstract. Like the diamond Shreddie, the parts are all the same but the light in which they are cast is very different. Time ceases to exist in the four-year intervals in which high school and university taught us to think. Instead it now exists as a continuum that endures until the age of retirement. No longer is work in the form of a job. Whereas the sole criterion was merely a steady paycheque over the summer to fund the next year of study, now there are careers to think about.

Or at least that was the idea. I would be remiss in this, of all years, to talk about graduation without making mention of the economic downturn that has left its mark on the job market (or what's left of it). Thus far, the reality for many students in my graduating class is a lot of unintended free time. Many wait months to find a job that suits them, while others end up taking whatever McJob comes their way as they bide their time waiting for a real opportunity to come by. As much as it would be nice to pretend that it doesn't happen, I know multiple U of T graduates who go on to work at grocery stores or at restaurants waiting tables because the jobs in their field just aren't available.

It isn't all bad news though. For every story like this, there is also a good news story. There are plenty who have made the successful move to the workforce and have started their working lives in earnest.

On the flip side there are also the droves of students who saw the signs of a poor job market during last fall’s application season and made a run for the proverbial fallout shelter that is graduate school, hoping and praying that the job market will be slightly less toxic when they reopen the hatch. I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't extremely tempting back in the fall to join the ranks of this group and do the same.

Instead I stuck to my guns and followed through on my planned route of taking some time off before continuing my schooling. I've been lucky enough to find employment, and yet given the intention to go back to school in a year or two I can justify my student image at least a little longer. (Think of it as a really long summer....with a chance of snowfall).

So with my 'long summer' now officially upon me and convocation now passed, I'll leave a few words of wisdom for those who will be graduating in the years to come.

1. Don't rush your way to the goal line. You'll spend enough of your life working and only a few short years in university. Make the most out of it and don't be afraid to spend an extra year or two in school if you're doing something worthwhile while you're there.

2. While you are there, experiment, try new things, and take risks. This applies both to your academic and non-academic lives. Regarding the former, pick courses outside of your comfort zone and take electives in disciplines that sound interesting. (I myself entered UTSC as a student in the department of life sciences, intending to specialize in cognitive science. My eclectic list of first-year courses helped direct me toward my true academic calling, in philosophy.) Many of these course offerings didn't exist in high school, so you never know what you'll find out you like. Regarding the latter, join some clubs, meet some people, or run in an election. I can guarantee you'll remember these things long after the details of your Intro Psych course have faded from your mind, and you will be all the richer for them.

3. When you do finally reach the end, enjoy it, savour it, and remember this final equation. Suit jacket + long black academic gown + blistering hot afternoon sun = really, really dumb. Learn from me: skip the jacket.

Congratulations to my colleagues in the class of 2009. I'll see you at the alumni meetings.

Rob Wulkan graduated with distinction in 2009 from U of T Scarborough. During his undergraduate career he held several executive positions on the Scarborough Campus Students’ Union, including president, and continues to be an active member of the UTSC community.

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