The completion of university is a milestone graduating students look forward to early on in the year. It signifies the end of late-night assignments and early-morning commutes and the last thought-provoking classes and weekly club activities. The milestone often involves a convocation ceremony, celebration dinners, photos with friends and family, fond memories of hard work (or of wild parties), and bold plans for the future.

However, due to the increasing spread of COVID-19 throughout the country, this year’s graduating class faces an abrupt end to their university experience. With the cancellation of in-person classes and exams, and most recently, the cancellation of Convocation, graduating students are now forced to complete their final semester online, forget their post-Convocation celebratory plans, and adjust to social isolation.

Last week, five of these students joined The Medium for a virtual interview. They opened up about memorable moments on campus, their feelings towards the recent unprecedented virus outbreak, the lessons they’ve learned, and their hopes for the future.

Shawn Suresh, fifth year, psychology & criminology double major, sociology minor

Suresh describes himself as an outdoor enthusiast, an optimist, and a people-person. He moved from Sri Lanka to Canada when he was 11 years old and will be the first in his family to graduate from a Canadian university. This year, Suresh volunteered as a Facilitated Study Group (FSG) leader for PSY270: Introduction to Cognitive Psychology and as a research assistant in the Fukuda Lab. He is currently a work-study student at the Gerlai Lab where he is also completing his thesis.

Suresh chose UTM for its reputation as a high-ranking university and because it was close to home, and would therefore, save him money. When asked about an experience that shaped him, Suresh recalls almost failing his first year and the discovery of “momentum.” Following the initial setback, Suresh succeeded at anything he set his mind to.

“[In my first year,] I got a GPA of 1.67. I remember it because it was all 60 and 59 per cents,” Suresh recalls. He recommends creating a sense of momentum before the beginning of classes, as once that’s in place, it results in “a sense of peace and confidence.” He also advises conducting “research [on] the professor, talk[ing] to other students who have taken the course before, [and] pick[ing] up past exams so you know what type of questions will be asked [in the finals].” He attributes academic success more to “being prepared and having momentum” rather than intelligence.

Regarding the abrupt cancellation of in-person classes and the June Convocation, Suresh describes it as “anti-climactic.”

“I had the whole thing planned. I really did my fifth year so that I could have a June Convocation, as I will be the first to graduate out of my family, from Canada at least. I do intend to go to grad school and will have other convocations, but doing the undergrad just meant a lot to me,” he says.

For now, Shawn continues to focus on his studies, especially with upcoming finals. “Every bit of motivation I have will be going into making sure my grades stay up during this stressful time.”

Suresh has applied to clinical psychology graduate programs and plans to become a clinical psychologist across borders. “But if that doesn’t work out, I plan to go to Thailand and teach English.” When asked why Thailand, he responds that the country “is tropical [and] beautiful, and there are beaches. And [he] love[s] scuba diving.”

Suresh’s advice to his first-year self would be to “give it time. Everything takes time. If you’re not feeling ready, it’s okay. Everything happens for a reason. Keep on moving forward.” He also advises future students to know what they want and to be confident in it. And lastly, that “it’s going to be okay in the end.”

Tomi Akinsete, fourth year, psychology & biology double major

Akinsete describes herself as determined, patient, and supportive. She went to high school in Saskatchewan but after feeling like she was missing out on diverse opportunities, applied to schools in Ontario and ended up choosing UTM. Akinsete was previously involved with ECSPERT, the PSY100: Introduction to Psychology lab, and the Erindale College African Student Association (ECASA). She now invests her time volunteering in churches, hospitals, and clinics.

One of Akinsete’s most “intense” and “traumatizing” moments on campus was in her first year of school when she accidentally missed her first CHM110: Chemical Principles 1 lab, and later in the semester, when she missed her midterm. “It was an absolute mess,” Akinsete laughs.

“It was my first week of school and I got an email from the professor [saying] that she was cancelling the tutorials. For whatever reason, I automatically assumed she was cancelling the lab as well, which was not the case. I ended up missing the lab, and [when] I went to her office hours and [asked] ‘hey, I missed the lab, what can I do?’ [the professor] was like, ‘refer to the syllabus.’”

“And bear in mind, it was my first week, and I was like, ‘what the heck is a syllabus?’ Even though I went to the lecture, I was still trying to wrap my head around everything.”

“Then came the first midterm, and I missed that too! My brain was wired to think that midterm was during the regular lecture hours, but it wasn’t. So, I came to school with my textbook, you know, lookin’ all cute, [and] ready to study. I came to campus, saw people leaving the lecture hall, and was like, ‘wait, I know these people. These are my classmates.’ Found out that they just [finished] writing the midterm. I was freaking out.”

“I emailed the prof, and she [replied], ‘aren’t you the same girl who came and told me that you missed the first lab?’ Then she sent me another email that said ‘I advise that you either take this course seriously, or reconsider taking it in the summer.’”

“I ended up doing really well in the course,” Akinsete concludes. “But the moral of the story is to make sure you have good time management skills [and] a lot of friends in your classes so you can keep up with things going on in class that you’re not aware of. Also, your professors aren’t always right. If I had dropped the course and taken it in the summer, I may have been behind in my courses, and I may not have been able to graduate this year.”

Regarding the abrupt end to her final semester, Akinsete admits that she was not mentally prepared for the change. “I personally loved going to class, being involved, and asking questions. I loved studying, going to the library, and getting work done. Then, I realized that this was it. That I was never going to come to a lecture again. It took me a solid week to get over it.”

Akinsete says that she isn’t currently sure about what she wants to do in the future. “I’m thinking of getting my Masters degree and then seeing what the future has for me.” For now, Akinsete wants to experience a variety of jobs before going back to school. She’s interested in working as a bank teller or as a personal trainer along with volunteering at an animal shelter, but with the current situation, she might not be able to.

“I came up with a few solutions so that I’m occupied [while in social isolation]. I want to learn French this summer and I want to learn [how to play the] piano…I used to sew back in high school so I might get back to that too.”

As for what she’ll miss about UTM, “there are so many things! I’ll miss the environment, the campus itself, the people I’ve met, the random people I talked to, my friends, my profs, [and] the learning environment. I’ll miss studying at the library, I’ll miss the deer and commuting to school. I don’t know why [but] I enjoyed my early morning ride for my 9:00 a.m. lectures. The [commute] gave me a peace of mind [because] that’s when everything is calm before the day gets hectic.”

Akinsete recalls keeping to herself in her first and second year of school but growing in confidence after getting more involved on campus. If there was one thing she would say to her first-year self, it is to “stop being so shy. Go talk to people. No one is judging you. And put a lot more effort in your outfits.”

To incoming first-year students, she says, “be more outgoing. Go to those events. Join that club. Put yourself out there. It’s your life, and you can decide what kind of life you’re going to have.”

Belicia Chevolleau, fourth year, CCIT & professional writing and communication double major

Chevolleau describes herself as introverted, calm, and creative. She loves reading, writing, graphic design, and photography. At UTM, she has volunteered as an associate marketing coordinator for UTM Scribes, as a writer for The Medium, a sponsorship coordinator for the UTM art club (no longer running), and as a Tax Clinic volunteer for the UTMSU. This year, Chevolleau is the vice-president of the UTM Scribes and a regular volunteer for the Free Breakfast Wednesdays with the UTMSU. She will be the first in her family to graduate from post-secondary school.

Chevolleau reveals that she never intended to study at UTM, but ended up there because she thought that her early acceptance into York University was an accident. “I had every intention to go to York, but someone told me that they accepted students early by accident [and] I thought that was me, so I chose UTM.”

Once at UTM, Chevolleau describes how she attended classes but would leave as soon as a class ended. “Especially with a two-hour commute from Mississauga to Brampton, I wasn’t interested in staying after class to make friends.” Chevolleau’s university experience changed after she joined UTM Scribes in her third year: “As cliché as that sounds, it opened so many opportunities and doors to experience university life and [I met] a community of people that like the same things I do.”

When looking back on her university experience, Chevolleau admits that going into university, she didn’t expect to struggle with independence and didn’t realize how important community was. “High school was really easy compared to university,” she says.

“[In university], you have to be more self-regulated [and] take more initiative. Knowing what you want is important in order to be successful.” Chevolleau continues, “Education is only a part of your university experience. Being involved in community, socializing and networking, [that’s] the other part that enriches your experience.”

Regarding the current situation, Chevolleau admits that she “freaked out” after hearing that Convocation was cancelled. “I was really anticipating and hoping for a graduation. It’s one of the reasons why you continue on. Not just for getting the paper, but afterwards, when you get to take pictures, go with your friends, and all the [other activities which] surround graduation. To have it ripped from us is really unfortunate.”

“You don’t expect for this to happen. If anything, the situation has taught me how unexpected life can be. And how we should cherish the things we have while we have them.”

“It’s really unfortunate and sad. I’ll probably get over it, but for now, it just really sucks. I hope they come up with a good resolution that isn’t Skype Convocation, because otherwise I won’t go,” she jokes.

When asked about her plans for the future, Chevolleau says that she doesn’t like “making concrete plans, but the gist of what [she] want[s] to be is happy, successful, and doing something that [she] love[s].” Chevolleau shares a quote she’s been living by, originally shared by her friend Bianca Delgada who is the president of UTM Scribes. “Later is now. The things that can be done later should be done now. Because if you don’t do them now, there might not be a later. So, start that business, write that book. Do it all now.”

To her first-year self, Chevolleau would say, “think about what you want to be. That will help you plan for your final year.” In terms of social advice: “Make friends. Don’t be like me, running away after class. Even if you’re a commuter, take the opportunity to get to know your classmates. It’s not just about if they’ll be your boss in the future. They could be your friend in the future.”

Kevin Deveraux Cohen, fifth year, CCIT major, professional writing and communication and political science minor

Cohen describes himself as honest, humble, and funny. He’s completing his degree in Communication, Culture, Information, and Technology (CCIT) and feels grateful for the opportunities he’s had to network with people from different industries. Cohen says that his university experience started off rough, but that involvement with clubs transformed his experience into a positive one. This year, Cohen was the vice president external relations of the Institute of Communication, Culture, and Information Technology (ICCIT) Council.

“The first two years were the most difficult,” Cohen confesses. He initially felt bitter for having to attend the school that was his last choice out of the five schools he’d applied to. Cohen had to choose UTM out of obedience to his parents who wanted him to follow his sister’s decision to attend U of T. He also began his degree in management, an area of study he wasn’t particularly passionate about.

After learning about the CCIT program and enrolling in CCT109: Contemporary Communication Technologies, Cohen knew that he had found what he loved to do. “I had a really cool TA [who] worked in information security and privacy and that was in line with what I wanted to do. I was genuinely invested in the class content.” Cohen then switched out of management into CCIT.

In his third year, Cohen decided to get involved with ICCIT Council and volunteered as an associate to the CSR director, resulting in many opportunities to meet new people. “It’s only gone uphill from there. Going to school wasn’t a chore anymore, it was something I enjoyed doing,” he says. Cohen encourages students to realize that “university isn’t just about getting your degree. It’s about networking and about the people you meet.”

Regarding the abrupt end to his final semester, Cohen feels that it’s “bittersweet.” He reports experiencing “senoritis” and appreciates the extra time to stay home and focus on his assignments, but regrets not being able to attend classes for the learning environment and to see his friends. He found out about the cancellation of Convocation through the ICCIT Council executive team group chat. “It’s not that we can’t do anything at all, we just don’t know when this is going to all blow over. But maybe when it is all over, we can still plan a little party. Everyone wants to have their moment to appreciate all the things they went through to get their degree.”

Cohen plans to kickstart his career by working in an entry level position in digital marketing or public relations. “It has a lot to do with being able to have my own voice. Anywhere I can use my creative expression to help businesses.” He would like to run his own business, but doesn’t mind working his way up from an entry-level job. Ultimately, Cohen knows that he wants to give back to his community. “My community raised me. Without my community, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”

“Who knows what it will be like in the future,” Cohen comments. He expresses bittersweet feelings towards leaving, but anticipates his return one day in the future, whether as a Master’s student, a teaching assistant, or as an alumni speaker. His advice to first-year students: “It gets better in the end. No matter how hard things may seem now, fight through now. Keep pushing. It’ll all be worth it. And you’re not alone.”

Quianna Lim, fourth year, political science and criminology double major

Lim describes herself as creative, introspective, and curious. She’s an international student who grew up in Singapore and is completing a double major in political science and criminology. This year, Lim volunteered as the Evangelism coordinator for the Chinese Christian Fellowship, the VP Internal for Baptist Student Ministries, and the Chinese Christian Fellowship representative for the Christian Unity Association.

Lim was born in Singapore but temporarily moved to Alberta when she was six years old. When her family moved back to Singapore four years later, Lim knew she would one day return to Canada. “[In Alberta,] random strangers would smile at me walking down the street. I loved the communal spirit and how everyone was so nice and selfless,” she recalls. Commenting on Canadian education, Lim shares that “we were encouraged to think for ourselves and discover. [We] had a lot of free time to do things at our own pace. That left a good impression on me.” When it came time to choose a university, Lim searched for options within Canada, and ended up choosing UTM for its “chill, suburban vibes.”

Lim shares that one of her most impactful experiences at UTM was the POL309: The State, Planning and Markets class she took. The class was taught by Professor Richard Day, whose passion and dedication towards his work inspired Lim to complete her own work passionately. “Going in, I [thought the class was] going to be so boring and dry [and that] I [would] just slog my way through this and get it over with. But I found myself really engaged with his lectures. He didn’t need to refer to his slides or notes, he would talk off the top of his head and every lecture was like a flawless performance.”

“I find [that] I often do things for the sake of doing things and getting it over with. But [Professor Day] showed me that it’s so much more fulfilling and satisfying when you take pride in what you do. It makes a difference when you do something with passion and dedication.”

Regarding the abrupt end to her final semester, Lim describes the experience as “surreal.” She recalls sitting in her POL310: Managing International Military Conflict class on the Friday the cancellation of in-person classes was announced and then suddenly realizing that she was sitting in the last lecture she’ll ever attend. “I couldn’t focus for the rest of the class,” she says.

Lim and her friends had planned a celebratory photoshoot on campus because they’re “all kind [of] camera shy [and] don’t have a lot of pictures together.” She was especially looking forward to her parents flying over from Singapore to attend the convocation, since “after all, it was through their hard work that [she] was able to get this degree.” Lim describes her parents as “resilient” and says that they have accepted the situation. “They tell me [that] it’s okay, we just have to go with the flow, safety [comes] first, and [everything is fine] as long as we’re all healthy and happy.”

Being an international student, Lim feels the strain of having two countries close to her heart. She hopes to be able to fly back and forth between the two countries, but plans to settle in Singapore to work in the public sector and use her skills to benefit the population. She would like to work towards promoting “racial harmony [and] narrowing social inequality – stuff that benefits everyone’s welfare and promotes national values.” Lastly, she hopes to eventually start a family of her own and, as the years go by, to grow in wisdom and be able to impart it to future generations.

Her advice to her first-year self would be: “You think you have a lot of time, you think four years is eternity, but it’s going to go by in a flash, so stop wasting time. Put yourself out there more, and try new things.” To international students, she advises “break[ing] out of your comfort zone. Don’t just find people from your country and stick to them like your clique. Make the most of the diverse experience that UTM has to offer.” Her personal biggest takeaway from her university experience came from the friendships she forged and from learning the value of human connection. “That is what’s going to stay with you for the rest of your life.”

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