When I think back to my first few weeks as an undergraduate student at the University of Alberta, what I mostly remember is the scorching heat. September 2009 was filled with days of 30+ degrees, including a record high of 34 degrees on the first day of fall. The warmth kept the campus active, with Quad filled on a daily basis. It made for a great introduction to the U of A.
Going to university had never been a question for me – I’ve tended to be academically strong and an absolute disaster with most anything requiring manual labour or hand-eye coordination for most of my life. Going to the U of A was not much of a question either – I lived in Edmonton, and I figured that it made financial sense to stay in my hometown and save money by living at home. We in Edmonton are rather gifted to have a renowned institution of higher learning in the heart of our unassuming, northern city. While I spent most of my time on the north side of campus in and around the Tory Building, the few times I explored the engineering area or the massive medical complexes that occupy the south side of 87th Avenue, you definitely get the sense that this is not just some local, middle of the road university, but a truly state-of-the-art institution and a leading research university in Canada.
I studied Political Science, and enrolled in the Honours program in my third year. I’ll make a brief plug for Honours – if you have the grades, and really love your field, I highly recommend considering an Honours program. It is a much more immersive educational experience, with significant self-guided research. Plus, you get the chance to meet and befriend some really great people that make up your cohort.
I won’t bore you with the details of the rest of my undergraduate career, but I will say that it was a very positive experience that I don’t regret in the slightest. There were ups and downs for sure, but overall, that warm feeling I had on those first scorching days here carried on for the next four years.
As I leave the university, I feel that the aspects that make the university a popular place to enroll are also its downfall – the U of A is seen as little more than a continuation of high school. Our student body is largely commuters, and the vast majority hail from Edmonton and Northern Alberta. Most of us go home at the end of the day, only coming to campus when we have classes and exams. While we may have individual connections with each other, and with faculty members, we seem to lack a connection to the institution itself. It’s just another set of buildings in the middle of the city.
One of the things that I envy about the education system in the United States (and believe me, there aren’t many) is the college culture that permeates the country. Going to university if a coming-of-age event – young Americans are almost expected to leave their hometown and go out of state to college. People are proud of their alma mater, and they show it. Here, we don’t have that. Sure, there’s Lister culture, but that represents only a sliver of the UAlberta community, and isn’t the same as the campus cultures of American universities.
I think that it’s this lack of ‘campus culture’ that has let the provincial government target post-secondary education so easily in the recent budget. Many of our students and alumni lack a connection with the institution, and that lack of connection is even more pronounced in the city and province at large. While our big city mayors have recently made statements espousing the importance of our universities as integral components of Edmonton and Calgary, it isn’t enough.
As I graduate, I’m proud of my university, and I hope more and more people are as well. We have a great institution sitting on the banks of the North Saskatchewan, a place that’s most than just a continuation of high school. This university has been an important place in many of our lives – let’s make sure that more people know it.
Graeme Archibald recently completed his Bachelor of Arts (Honors) in Political Science at the University of Alberta.
CC photograph courtesy of mattclare on Flickr.