At the outset, three or four years may seem like a long time. But by the end of a degree, students often feel anxious about what to do next. Unlike the shift from high school to university—which is, for many, a direct transition—the movement from an undergraduate degree into “whatever’s next” is marked by uncertainty. Whether at the start of undergraduate studies or at the end, it is typical for students to feel confused about their next step forward.
According to an article in the Atlantic published in April 2016, the current generation of students is more career-minded than its predecessors. The value of an undergraduate degree is increasingly based in its impact on a student’s starting salary; however, students often struggle to identify how their work outside the classroom complements their studies and formation as young adults. It is easy to feel defined by one’s GPA and academic accomplishments.
On McGill’s website, the homepage for undergraduate admissions states, “You’re bound for great things. The journey begins at McGill.” Yet many students struggle to find a path that suits them, and the pressure to succeed can feel more like a burden than an opportunity.
Mariam Hussain attended McGill for two years between 2009 and 2011 before transferring to the Alberta College of Art and Design (ACAD) and completing her B.A. at the University of Calgary in 2015. Her path has been neither typical nor linear, but it took her time to realize that discovering one’s path does not need to be straightforward.
For her, going from high school to university entailed a huge leap of self-recognition. The environment at McGill forced an immersion in an academic language that was unfamiliar to her, and led her to hold onto her idea of herself as a ‘science person’ more firmly.
“That’s one thing I found with McGill, because everything is so intense, and at a very high level, it’s difficult to kind of move around,” Hussain said. “Like when I was in science, I was like very in science, your friend group revolves around that, your schedule, your labs, you just kind of build your network.”
When she attended ACAD, she was apprehensive about changing her life so drastically, but has since opened her own studio in downtown Calgary. She recognizes that McGill engenders a space of high expectations, and in hindsight recognizes that it would have been beneficial to have slowed down between high school and university.
“I think I just had some unrealistic expectations, and it’s hard when you’re ambitious and driven, and you want to do everything, and you want to learn everything,” Hussain said. “[....] I really really loved university.”
Universities are based on the desire to learn and grow, yet doing so comes with various pressures. While feeling overwhelmed and uncertain is part of the process, it is also an essential experience that nurtures personal growth.
Christal Loewen, BComm ‘13, contends that while it is important to stay on top of academic work, a degree from McGill leads to many important lessons that are valuable later in life. She identified volunteerism as an essential aspect of her time at McGill, which has continued into her life to this day; Loewen works at a non-profit organization in Calgary and volunteers with various other organizations in the city.
“At the end of the day, what you take away from that experience has so little to do with the degree that you have, and everything to do with the kind of like osmosis of life and knowledge, cultural knowledge,” Loewen said. “Like, relationship-building, that comes out of that experience. Like, you can’t really trade one for the other. And, those are the things [...] that make you.”
"At the end of the day, what you take away from that experience has so little to do with the degree that you have, and everything to do with the kind of like osmosis of life and knowledge, cultural knowledge,"
According to the university’s report on Fall 2016 admissions, 40 per cent of its students are from Quebec, 26 per cent from elsewhere in Canada, 11 per cent from U.S.A, and 20 per cent from overseas. For most of its students, attending McGill is inseparable from the new experience of living in Montreal.
Loewen, who attended McGill during the student protests over tuition costs in 2012, recalls the passion and intensity of engagement and how it has shaped her perspective of Canada as a citizen from Calgary.
“I think for somebody coming from the West, to have that kind of an immersion experience with these student politics, understanding the importance of language, and salvaging that culture, I think as a Westerner, has been just really helpful, as in my own perspective coming back now, being surrounded with a lot of ideas, that maybe look negatively towards the east,” Loewen said. “Having that living experience, having faces that come to mind, and seeing also the passion inside of what is driving this [....] I think as a Canadian, to understand those issues at a different level, is important.”
Regardless of where students go for post-secondary education, it is undeniable that this choice will have an impact on them for the rest of their lives. What, then, are the unique qualities of attending McGill? Arguably, this question is fraught, as self-development is highly variable and cannot be reduced to a few basic aspects of a university’s culture. The plethora of opportunities and experiences at McGill is immense; however, for students who are seeking to get the most out of their time in university, there are a few common threads that can be pulled.
In the imagination of students and alumni, McGill is a hands-off institution; students must seek their own opportunities and become adept at independent learning. In an article published in the Tribune in 2016, one author argued that McGill’s campus is not immune to the ‘loneliness epidemic,’ as many students may feel that they have to choose between their academic performance and building deep bonds with their community. The feeling of ‘falling through the cracks,’ though not quite ubiquitous, is certainly pervasive.
In striving to accomplish a balance between personal time, academic achievement, and social engagement, students may choose to pursue extracurricular opportunities. For some, these activities provide a consistent responsibility that, when incorporated into their schedules, may combine personal development, achievement, and social opportunities.
According to Bernard Moulins, B.Eng ‘12 and president of the McGill Young Alumni Association, the experiences he gained participating in extracurriculars while studying have been key to his professional life.
“Extracurriculars pushed me to explore [... to] go and discover what's out there. [It] starts as a CV building thing, but it quickly becomes a personality-building thing,” he said.
“That was a really formative experience for me, both in terms of having me realize my love of radio, which I would later go into as a news person, and also learning to trust my creativity and my ability to work with other people,” he said.
Though she was majoring in sciences, Hussain was involved with UNICEF during her two years at McGill. She believes that the soft skills that she developed through her involvement, both at McGill and in her subsequent studies, have been beneficial in her professional life.
“Student clubs really expose you to a lot of things, like building networks, fundraising, organization, and I also think working with people,” she said. “Because I think it’s really easy to go through your undergrad without actually working with people, and [in student clubs] you all like the project that you are doing, and you’re not just being assigned to it.”
That said, extracurricular involvement is by no means essential to a student’s time at McGill. Students should feel that they are able to take the opportunities that are available if they want to, but that they do not need to sacrifice their own well-being in order to meet external expectations of ‘success’ and ‘accomplishment.’ Students are their own agents of what they get out of their degree—both in and out of the classroom.
“There’s really no formula, there’s no stuff you have to do. I think probably what’s most important is to enjoy what you’re doing because, realistically, the amount that you’ll be able to directly translate from your degree is not that much,” said Rachel Meland, BSc ‘15 and current student in the Faculty of Law. “So enjoy what you’re learning, and if you aren’t enjoying what you’re learning you have to question why you’re in that program.”
A challenge that comes with forging one’s own path and finding happiness through it, is the constant compulsion to compare one’s own progress and decisions to those of others. Hussain believes that it is important for students to set their own goals, instead of basing it on arbitrary standards set by those around them.
“Don’t take on too much, and I think it’s very easy for it to look like everyone else has their act together except you,” said Hussain. “And not that everyone is, [there’s] the myth of doing it all, as well as the myth that everyone is doing it all, and doing it all perfectly [....] So I think just do things at your own pace.”
"You have to see McGill as the bond that automatically connects you to someone else. So if you have a question about something, if you have something that you want to pursue, and there's a door that you want to knock on [...] and if the person on the other side of the door is from McGill, you have permission to knock on that door"
Most people are familiar with the cliches about the ‘university experience’: It is the time for self-discovery; you will find yourself; you will evolve as a person. Following graduation, however, how does one continue to grow and avoid a sense of self-atrophy? For many McGill alumni, participating in alumni associations around the world is a way to continue to meet new people with diverse backgrounds.
“You have to see McGill as the bond that automatically connects you to someone else. So if you have a question about something, if you have something that you want to pursue, and there's a door that you want to knock on [...] and if the person on the other side of the door is from McGill, you have permission to knock on that door,” Babinski said. “You won't always get the same answer when you knock on that door, but you're able to knock on that door.”
Moulins believes that becoming involved in alumni associations after graduation is key to continual self-development. He discussed how when one works in a certain industry, it is easy to be surrounded by like-minded individuals, so finding opportunities to be exposed to new ideas is crucial.
"What's nice about young alumni events is that they really do bring a huge amount of diversity,” he said. “[....] It's about realizing what's out there and expanding your thought process on things you've never thought about.”
In addition to becoming involved with McGill’s vast alumni network, Moulins contends that students should be proactive in searching for new opportunities for exposure to different career paths. After all, it is likely that students will change careers multiple times. In 2014, Workopolis predicted that if the current trend of increasing job-hopping continues, Canadians can expect to hold around 15 different jobs in their lifetime.
“[The most important thing is] informational interviews [.... Basically], you cold call or you message someone, someone whose industry you find cool or interesting, and you invite them and you buy them coffee or lunch,” he said. “And you just have a series of questions [... which is] key to figuring out what you want to do and to meeting people and getting a job offer. Applying online is a waste of time.”
Moulins emphasized that having the confidence to contact people who you find interesting is essential to understand the realities of working outside of academia.
“Frankly, it’s the only way to get a job you like,” he added. “[....] Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Students and recent graduates alike may benefit from such advice. But cold calling or emailing someone are not the only options available to start informational interviews. In Spring 2016, the McGill Alumni Association launched McGill Connect, an online platform that aims to promote connections between current and former students with similar interests.
“McGill has an outward-looking point of view, [...] it's to see where we stand vis-à--vis the rest of the world,” Babinski added. “There are a number of things McGill does for that, and it's connected to the kind of impact that a university educated person and the university itself can have on a community at large.”
According to Babinski, for students who are still trying to figure out what to do with their time at McGill, the most important thing to keep in mind is striking a balance between meeting academic demands and finding activities that they enjoy.
“Ask yourself what it is that is giving you energy,” he said. “What is it that makes you excited, and from there look around and see where the opportunities are to find that sense of anticipation [...] and make sure that you find the time to do that. And that time is often going to be as important as the time that you're giving to your studies.”