There’s only one week left in the semester, and for some, there’s only one week left in their undergraduate career. With UTM’s convocation scheduled for June 5th and June 6th, graduating students are busy submitting their last assignments, studying for their final exams, gathering references letters, applying for jobs, or accepting offers of admission to continue on with their academic journey.

After a simultaneously exhausting and educating four, five, or six years, graduating students often wonder what’s next for them once they cross the stage at Convocation Hall. Will they find a job in their field? Should they pursue more school? Maybe, it’s time to start travelling the world? But, with what money? Last week, The Medium caught up with some graduating students to discuss their experiences at UTM, their future plans, and their advice for first-years.

Matthew Dworak, fourth-year, psychology, biology, and sociology

For Matthew Dworak, a fourth-year student majoring in psychology and minoring in biology and sociology describes the feeling of graduating this year as “surreal.” Although he is excited and proud to have completed this chapter in his life and to be moving forward into the future, Dworak admits that “it’s kind of weird how quickly four years of struggling goes by right in front of your eyes when in the moment it seems never-ending.”

Due to UTM’s close proximity to his home, Dworak believed that attending UTM would help him save money while allowing him to obtain the prestigious recognition of a University of Toronto degree. The combination of these two reasons helped steer Dworak towards choosing UTM after high school. “Despite constantly feeling like I was in a can of sardines (hello, overpopulation), the experience [at UTM] was very homey and comfortable. I enjoyed the years here being close to home, while still getting the intensive U of T experience,” Dworak says.

Immediately after graduation, Dworak plans “to take some time to [himself],” explaining that he hopes to work while also taking the time to digest his experiences before jumping into the next journey. In the long term, Dworak isn’t too concerned with finding a job in his field, rather he hopes to “end up with a job that makes [him] happy.”

“Life happens and plans change so often that things just aren’t guaranteed and I respect the idea of letting things happen as they do,” he says. 

Reflecting on his experience at UTM, Dworak claims that if he had the opportunity to go back to first year, he wouldn’t change anything. “Making the mistakes I did and doing things the way I did shaped so much of what I became today. I’m happy with the place I’ve come to and I wouldn’t alter anything for fear of the butterfly effect; small changes leading to huge consequences,” he says. “Although, if I was back in my first-year self, I would take the success package for PSY100 a little more seriously.”

When asked about the advice Dworak would give to current and incoming first years, he wants to remind them that it’s okay to make mistakes because university is meant to be a learning process. “Keep your head up, do what you need to do, and make sure your mind has officially exited the mindset of high school.”

Erica Rzepecki, fourth-year, CCIT and Professional Writing

After spending the past three years working on residence, Erica Rzepecki, a fourth-year student double majoring in CCIT and Professional Writing, claims that, for her, there have been many memorable moments at UTM. “I’d say move-in days are some of the best ones—watching the new first years come in, scared and excited is a great moment because you know how much they’ll change and grow over the year, even though they have no idea yet,” she says.

Picking UTM “completely based off vibes” in grade 12, Rzepecki knew that the programs UTM offered would be a perfect match for her interests. She explains that participating in campus tours and seeing “the beautiful buildings, the nature, and the deer” sold her on her decision.

When asked how her overall experience was at UTM, Rzepecki remarks that she always finds this question “funny for some reason.”

“To quote Dickens, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ Honestly, the past four years have been such a transformational time for me. I’ve been challenged a lot, and faced so many issues (personal, academic, mental health) that have been so difficult in the moment, but overcoming all of these challenges has been the most rewarding feeling. At the end of each year, I look back on who I was at the beginning, and it’s always a completely different person. In a good way, I hope.”

Graduating in June has Rzepecki feeling “kind of surreal.” She’ll have to face big changes, such as moving out of residence after spending her entire undergrad journey living away from home. “It always felt like there would always be more assignments or tests or portfolios to do, so being at the end doesn’t quite feel real yet,” Rzepecki admits. “It’ll probably sink in once I move out of residence, and into wherever I’m going next. I’m definitely excited to move onto the next stage of my life, but nervous because I don’t completely know what to expect.”

In the long term, Rzepecki hopes to find a career where she can use her writing and editing skills to make a difference. “The ‘problem’ with media and creative fields is that they’re always changing and evolving, so my future career may not even exist yet. But my goal is to do something that I can feel good about—use my skills in writing or design to make a difference, maybe working with a non-profit. It sounds kind of cheesy, but I think that’s how I’ll find fulfillment,” she says.

Remembering her experience as a first-year, Rzepecki claims that if she could go back to that time she wouldn’t change anything. “First-year me worried too much about insignificant things, but I think that’s a normal part of the process as you gain maturity and perspective. All the mistakes I’ve made throughout these four years have taught me lessons I’ll carry with me throughout my life, so I’d never want to take away that learning experience from myself.”

For those nervous first-years, Rzepecki wants to share a few concise words of wisdom: “Don’t be afraid to pursue big goals—but also make sure you strive for balance. Burnout is real.”

Jessica Valadao, fourth-year, psychology, biology and sociology

When she was making her post-secondary decisions in grade 12, Jessica Valadao, a fourth-year student majoring in psychology and minoring in biology and sociology, fell in love with UTM’s size, its “gorgeous campus,” and the surrounding nature. “It’s just something I wouldn’t be able to get downtown. I’ve had such a great experience as a student here at UTM and I honestly could not have picked a better school for myself. I’ve met so many interesting people and I also learned a lot about myself throughout my time here,” she says.

With graduation approximately three months away, Valadao admits that she will miss seeing the friends she made around campus every day, but she’s looking forward to starting a new chapter in her life. “It’s unbelievable; I am so excited to be graduating this year.”

After spending four years on the campus, Valadao has met many people and created many life-long memories. But when asked about her most memorable moment, one aspect sticks out clearly in her mind: UTM’s nature.

“My most memorable moments were going for walks through the UTM trails with my friends,” Valadao recalls. “It’s something we would do as a stress reliever during our breaks between classes. We definitely never got used to seeing the adorable deer everywhere, and even after four years, you can still catch me taking pictures of them when they are wandering through campus.

Although many students choose to skip out on their readings in order to make time for other assignments and course work, Valadao recommends that students “try their best to keep up with readings in classes because they really do help when test time comes” but also balance their time wisely. She encourages networking and building relationships with other students in your programs because “these people are going to be by your side for the rest of your years ahead and I guarantee that UTM is where you’re going to form some of your most long-lasting friendships.”

Currently, Valadao plans to spend her summer catching up with family and friends after a strenuous four years. Valadao sees herself working in a clinic or a hospital, where she can help elderly patients perform daily tasks. “I find it rewarded to see smiles on people’s faces after brightening their days, whether it’s by helping others through physical struggles, making them laugh, or simply asking how their day was.” In the fall, Valadao will be attending Mohawk College for a brain disorders management graduate certificate program.

Sameer Kotwal, sixth-year, Biology and Anthropology

Sameer Kotwal, a sixth-year student majoring in biology and anthropology, explains that if he could go back to first year, he wouldn’t change anything about his experience because “this could change who [he is] today.”

“It sounds cliché, but I don’t have any regrets. But, it took me a long time to become passionate about my courses, or become truly invested in my education, or as a first step, even go to my classes more regularly. [But] if I could go back, I would definitely push myself to work harder in my courses, and build better relationships with my professors,” Kotwal says. “There is a lot of stigma for students who want to take more than the conventional four years to finish a bachelor’s degree. For a long time, I would even lie about which year I’m in. For example, in my 5th year, I would tell people I’m in my 4th year. In my 6th year, I would tell people I’m in my 5th year. I was just so afraid of social judgement, and of people assuming I’m ‘dumb’ or not committed, or anything along these lines. It took me a long time to learn that everyone has their own path to get to where they want to, and that there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.”

Describing his overall experience at UTM as “tiring but worth it,” Kotwal admits that he will “definitely miss this school and the relationships [he’s] built through it.”

“I’ve had six years to learn, make mistakes, and grow. I definitely wouldn’t be who I am today if I didn’t have the last six years-worth of experiences,” Kotwal says,

After graduating grade 12, Kotwal had to decide between accepting an offer to Western University or University of Toronto. Ultimately, he chose U of T Mississauga and quickly realized he made a good decision.

Six years of working, studying, and building relationships on campus makes it challenging for Kotwal to pick his “most memorable moment,” but if he had to choose one, he explains that he’d pick his three years working as a don on residence. “This opportunity gave me a chance to go from a student to a teacher. I got the chance to be a friend and a role model at the same time. I also learned more about what our school is all about: its strengths, its weaknesses, and how to support our students better. University leaders have always preached about building a balance in your life as a key to achieving student success. For me, even though it sounds cliché, this opportunity was that key.”

In the long term, Kotwal would like to “explore the intersectionality behind medicine from the point of view of a physician.” He explains that this could involve working in research or helping to build more culturally and socially-sensitive medical service.

“I want to be a physician, and not just because I have a passion for the sciences, but also because I want to help address several barriers [and] issues people (everyday citizens) in the community face in terms of healthcare (which in my opinion, should be a basic human right for all). Also, one of the reasons I took longer to finish my degree was to get better grades, become a more committed student and a more involved community member. A career as a medical professional involves constant learning, which requires commitment, passion, and a sense of purpose. It took me a long time, but I worked hard to build these skills and these are some of the most important lessons I’ll be taking away from my time at UTM,” Kotwal states.

To the incoming first year students and those he has met through his residence experience, Kotwal emphasizes the need for balance. He reminds students that academics and building social networks are equally important. “Also, don’t worry about making mistakes and don’t fear failure. Speaking from my own experience, there is nothing wrong in making your own path to your goals—maybe even take a couple extra years to finish your degree like I did.”

Eden Finer, fifth-year, CCIT and Professional Writing

“Honestly, [it’s] kind of unreal. I don’t think it hit me until now that I might not ever be around such a large amount of people my age. In the real world, I’ve been told that it’s hard to find others in a similar stage of life as you, and who are about your age. I think a lot of us take for granted how easy it is—for the most part—to make friends in university. The way it’s set up is kind of perfect for that,” says Eden Finer, a fifth-year student majoring in CCIT and Professional Writing, in reference to how it feels to be graduating this year.

Leaving grade 12, Eden was drawn in by CCIT’s joint program with UTM and Sheridan. She explains that the program continued to touch upon on some of the topics that she studied in high school, but “in two highly reputable institutions with high quality education.”

When asked about her most memorable moments, Finer narrows her decision down to two: her co-curricular trip to Thailand and her experience as lead organizer for Ad Summit.

“The first one would have to be the co-curricular Thailand trip where we learned all about voluntourism, or ethical tourism. We got to wash elephants and pave a road with the Akha people amongst many other unforgettable experiences,” Finer recalls. “My other most memorable moment would have to be being lead organizer of Ad Summit this past school year. It was one of the most challenging experiences I had in my undergraduate career. Including myself, we started off with three lead organizers. About halfway through the fall semester, both of my two co-lead organizers stepped down from their positions, following half of the rest of our executives who did as well. When faced with the decision of either shutting it down, or pushing through, we decided to continue to try to make it work.”

“Planning a whole conference, especially from the ground up, is extremely challenging. It’s not something many can handle in addition to being a student. I was left to lead a team by myself. We were behind schedule. It seemed hopeless. But we managed to pull through, and eventually hosted a successful conference on March 2nd. I have no regrets with the decision I made to make the Ad Summit Well Fed Artist conference happen. We got really good feedback.”

For the first-year students, Finer provides a few words of wisdom: “You have nothing to lose by putting 100% of yourself in your work. Also, try to get involved outside of the classroom. It’s where I found some of my closest friends, and gained the most invaluable experiences.”

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