Home degrees Lessons from 10 years of undergrad

Ammar Karam reflects on a long journey to graduation

a boy wearing a cap and gown stands on a cliff looking out at the city
This is just the beginning (Joseph Chan/Unsplash)

I’ve been in undergrad for 10 years. I started mechanical engineering at one of the best universities in South Africa in January 2010. I was a fresh-faced 17-year-old, excited to be at the starting line and hoping to design and write about cars at the finish. My plan was to complete the four year degree, do a journalism masters and become one of the hosts of Top Gear. 

After failing three crucial subjects in my first year, I got a bit of a rude awakening. I came to the conclusion that this degree was going to take me five years. Then I failed my third year. Badly. Alright, this degree was going to take me six years. Then, in 2014, I came to Canada. I was supposed to have already graduated. I tried to convince Ryerson engineering to accept my courses from South Africa. Since there was also the possibility of me returning, I was simultaneously trying to convince South Africa to accept my courses here in Ryerson. After that didn’t work out, I got stuck between the two programs, forcing me to drop the whole thing — five years down the drain. 

Lots of people have asked me over the years about whether I should have continued here in Toronto or in South Africa; sucked up the time I spent here and taken all my courses again and finished. In my eyes, I had already finished. I had done fourth year courses and aced them (except statistics — fuck statistics). All I needed to do was some final thermodynamics and design courses and a project and then the iron ring was mine. But since that wasn’t going to be a possibility, I had to just move on and try to do the thing I originally wanted to do: write. 

Now I say it lightly, but moving on from five years in an academically demanding program was not easy. I fell pretty hard and there were some very dark moments. The only thing that kept me going was some sort of stubbornness to finish. I wanted to finish in spite of losing one of my main life aspirations.

So I applied to journalism school at Ryerson. Too late. Got told that I missed the deadline and that the applications would be too difficult to get in. Try again next year. So I found out what day applications open and set an alarm for the week before to sort out my portfolio.  I wrote my entry essay the morning of the deadline, because what’s life without a bit of spice? But I handed it all in and was, thankfully, accepted. Mama, we made it.

My cohort were all fresh-faced 18 year olds. Yes, I did have a superiority complex. I thought I was hot shit. But I was quickly shown that I wasn’t. Journalism presented some new challenges that I still can’t quite get over — I’m talking about streeters, asking people on the street for their opinions.

Finishing school is an interesting feeling: the excitement of being done, the camaraderie amongst everyone who has finished with you and the regret of those who weren’t able to join you. There’s the feeling of standing on the edge of a cliff with the realization that from here on out, it’s work. You have to sustain yourself and you don’t have four month long summer breaks. 

School is a big privilege and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. However, I think that there is beginning to be a shift in how the world works, as tertiary education gets more expensive and harder for people to get into. Let me be the first to say that university degrees are not necessary for a successful life. You do not have to go to university to be successful. I’ve met and worked with many people who are successful without once having done “higher education.” 

Having spent a decade in university has left me with some insights, taught me some lessons and I’d like to just share them:

Don’t rush yourself 

I’ve seen so many people rush through programs and then end up with a degree they might not have necessarily wasted time on, but afterwards regret it and wish they did something else or found out that this wasn’t exactly the stream that they wanted to go into. I support the idea of doing a victory lap or two after school and living in the real world a bit, and finding something that you’re passionate about to study further. If you don’t want to study anything further that’s fine, but make sure you’re developing skills that will help you be employed in a job that you can grow into over the course of your years.

Don’t fret over wasted time

I thought I spent six years doing a degree that I ultimately had (almost) nothing to show for. But as I moved onto journalism, I found that there were some transferable skills that I had learned in my engineering. The ability to understand mechanical designs, thermodynamics and physics have all helped me work with stories within those fields. The ability to approach things from an engineering perspective helped me with some academic difficulties. For example, I wrote stories like I would write a report, with every section carefully planned out. My point is that no matter what you’ve done in the past, if you focus on always learning from an experience you will never have wasted your time.

Be kind to yourself

University brings together many people from different backgrounds and of many different abilities. Some people are going to be top of the class. I’m not an A student— I’m barely a C student. It’s good to have the drive to want to be the best but it’s just as important to recognise if you are not and focus on what you’re good at instead. If you’re good at school (I’m very much not), that’s great. If you’re good at other things (writing, networking, drawing) focus on developing those skills further while you’re in school!

Put school first

One of the major reasons why I failed my first and third year is because I didn’t put school first. The ability to prioritize different areas in your life will be an extremely important skill for your future. The years in which I was working part-time or full-time and I was more interested in partying with my coworkers, my academic performance suffered. But the years where I put school first and actually gave it the proper time and attention, it was easy and I did well. It doesn’t mean becoming a 24/7 student. It just means that if you have an assignment due on Friday don’t go partying from Monday to Thursday. Finish the assignment first, then go partying. 

This also applies if you’re not a student too. If you prioritize your job, focusing on furthering connections in your field or working on a big project, you will do better at it. If you prioritize playing drums and drawing, you will become better at them too. Pick the areas in your life that you want to prioritize and live accordingly. 

Don’t be scared of the future 

We are entering a post-pandemic workforce in an increasingly divided political and socio-economic environment. Be brave, take lots of chances and keep a sharp eye out for opportunities. Use every little piece of networking and any tools at your disposal to create better opportunities for yourself and for others too. If you meet someone who is in a position to offer you a job, keep their email and try to follow up and even just ask them questions about their work and career. That bit of interest could mean a job offer in the future. Don’t brown nose and don’t be obsessive but keep your options open and always make sure to expand your network at a pace you feel comfortable with.

Balance work and school

If you’re working while in school, make sure that you’re clear about what this job means to you. If you need the job to make ends meet and keep a roof over your head, that’s great, but don’t let it take over your life. If it does become a toxic environment, leave that job and try to find something else. Talk to your professors and reach out as soon as you can. The longer your instructors are unaware, the harder it can be for them to help you. 

If your job is career-related and is something that you are planning on pursuing outside of school, make sure that you are using it to its fullest potential. Your life after school is going to be more important than school itself so make sure you’re performing well in your job and well enough at school. Controversial advice, I know, but at the same time, it’s something I think is important. 

You’re still very young 

School may make you feel old and mature but in the grand scheme of things, your life is only beginning. Think about the last 20 years. They’ve felt like an eternity, right? Now imagine doing that same stretch of time now into the future and you’ll be 40! I say this as someone who is on the cusp of 30; I’ve still got another 30 years before I’m 60. And I’ll still be kicking then too. So when you fall into the ‘I’m so old, my life is essentially over’ spiral, this is an uplifting thought process that has helped me. 

Be compassionate 

We’re all different and we all have different life stories, backgrounds and struggles. It goes without saying but be kind to one another, don’t invalidate each other’s experiences, actually listen when others speak and think and decide for yourself. Unfortunately, life isn’t fair and sometimes you’ll be in a position where someone else might get the opportunity you were hoping for. Pick yourself up and find another because you’ll probably get one that someone else was hoping for too. 

This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

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