Friday, August 15, 2014

Don't worry if you don’t know what to study at university

The back-to-school sales are in full swing, and across North America hundreds of thousands of teenagers are getting ready to attend college or university for the first time. Some will already have a clear idea of what they want to pursue as a career, and have chosen their courses and programs accordingly. But the vast majority have at best only a vague idea of what they want out of a post secondary education besides – hopefully – the prospects of a decent job after graduation. And so, they select a mix of large-enrollment general courses like Biology 101, Economics 101, Psychology 101, etc along with a couple courses that continue subjects they enjoyed at high school, or courses with interesting-sounding titles.

This is perfectly understandable. Most 18 year olds do not have enough experience to know the breadth of career and life possibilities that are available. Many, like me, come from families where the parents did not attend college or university, and so could not truly warn them what to expect. When I was 18, I did not know for certain what I wanted to be when I grow up. I’m still not entirely sure, but my present university professor gig will do until I do finally grow up. In my first year at the University of Western Ontario, in 1986, I took courses in archaeology, anthropology, economics, French geography, geology, and 1 or 2 more I’ve since forgotten – a good example of a student who wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing, and was simply trying to keep his options open. I had a general idea I would aim for law school, an idea pressed upon me by my parents, who had observed a young neighbour move to a fancier, larger house a few years after finishing law school.

Once I finished my first year, I realized that geography, and particularly a specialization UWO offered called “Resources Conservation” was for me. So I started taking courses like sedimentology, hydrology and pedology – subjects I didn’t even know existed when I left high school.  In my 3rd year I wrote the law school admission test (LSAT) and, achieving my parents’ dream for me, was accepted into UWO law school. In my first year I made the Dean’s honors list, and my career as a budding legal beagle seemed set. But, something else had happened along the way that changed everything.

While in 3rd year undergrad I had seen a poster advertising that same day a speaker from Canada’s Department of External Affairs (as the foreign ministry was then called) who was on campus to talk about making a career as a diplomat. It fit into a break between classes, so I wandered over and took it in. It sounded pretty cool, but you had to take an entrance exam similar to the LSAT. Since it was being written about the same time as the LSAT, I decided to write them both, one being good practice for the other. To cut a long story short, I passed the test, got an interview, and at age 23 I was off to Ottawa to work in the foreign service. I took a year’s leave of absence from law school, but never went back.

Through all that, and all the years that followed, I never lost the enthusiasm for geography and environmental studies that I developed in undergrad. I completed my Master of Science degree in Environmental Management at the University of Hong Kong on evenings and weekends when I was stationed there in the early 1990s. At age 35, stationed in Vienna after twelve years in the foreign service, most of which were spent abroad, I realized I had reached a crossroads in life: was I going to be a ‘lifer’ in the foreign service or was I going to go back to Canada and pursue the PhD in geography that I had been thinking about for quite some time? Obviously I chose the latter, and here I am today. I have enjoyed every step of the way, and look forward to the next ones, whatever they may be. None of this could I have planned out in advance when I was 18.

So to all of you students who are getting ready to start college or university this September, I say this: congratulations. A post-secondary education is a wonderful opportunity that will enhance your life if you go to class, study hard, and pursue the courses that interest you most. Don’t worry if you’re not entirely sure what it’s all about, or if you’re not sure what career path you want to pursue. That will hopefully come. Whatever courses you choose, you must attend class faithfully and study hard. Showing up and working hard are the keys to success in anything you do in life, and if you learn to practice this at college or university, you will do fine later on.

Have fun this September and, if you’re a first year student coming to Laurier, give some thought to taking an intro course in geography or environmental studies – I think you’ll really like it. If you’re a returning student who has taken a course with me previously, be sure to say hello when you next see me on campus. And to all, have a good final few weeks of summer.