The Rally to Prioritize Postsecondary Education is today, November 17th, and it got me thinking about why postsecondary education is important to me and others around me, what kind of value there is in postsecondary education, and what others gained from their experience in university.
I should preface this with my educational background. I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 2014 at the University of Alberta with a biological sciences major and psychology minor, and like many others, I wasn’t sure what to do with my degree. I had a very generalized degree and limited working/research experience. So, my choices were to a) go out into the real world and find a job, or b) go back to school and continue my education in a more specialized area. Unexpectedly, in 2014 I did a little bit of both. I went straight into the Nursing After Degree program at the U of A, but due to personal reasons made the decision to temporarily withdraw. Truthfully, at first I thought my science degree left me with nothing more than a lot of student debt. It wasn’t until I was out of school that I really appreciated the opportunities and experience that I gained from being on campus. Therefore, I decided to talk to others on campus to see how they felt about their experience on campus and the value of their education.
1) Why is postsecondary education is important to you?
“My dad could not afford to attend university right away after his high school graduation. The fact that I was able to attend U of A without the same struggle makes my postsecondary education more significant. To me, my time at the university represents sacrifice, opportunity, and growth. The experiences, memories, and people make postsecondary education important.” – Jenny Yoon (Masters student)
“I would be lying if I didn’t say that postsecondary started off being important to me simply as a means for social mobility. My parents pushed it into mine and my brother’s head at a young age that it was a path towards a better life than what they had and were experiencing. Once I realized that it could lead to careers where I could both make a meaningful difference and explore my interests, I internalized that motivation and it became about a lot more than just mobility.” – Bill Chahal (Medical student, MBA candidate)
Thoughts from Sachin Rathee (4th year Medical student)
2) What is the most important thing you’ve gained from your university experience?
“The most important skills that I have enhanced over my university experience include the ability to work together with others as a team effectively to solve a common problem. University taught me the skill of critical thinking and being able to approach a problem from many different angles instead of a single direct approach. This constant interaction with other peers perfected my ability to effectively communicate ideas with team members and create a comfortable working environment amongst ourselves.” – Alex Nemeth (Mechanical Engineering graduate)
“My university experience taught me to be humble. Even with many undergraduate and higher-level courses I have taken, the amount of knowledge I posses is microscopic. There is always something more to learn, read, and discover. My university experience has taught me to always strive to know more than what I knew yesterday, and to never stop learning.” – Jenny Yoon
“Without a doubt the most important thing I’ve gained from university through classes, research, mentors, etc. is a critical thinking process. The thought processes and strategies have stuck with me rather than the minutia we’re tested on. Kinesiology, med, MBA – the biggest concepts I’ve pulled throughout my time in each has been how to think, why to think that way, and when.” – Bill Chahal
“The most important thing I gained in university pertains specifically to my degree in neuroscience: the understanding of the biological basis of motivation. It helped to answer many questions for me, such as: Where do our thoughts and actions originate? How are they processed in the brain? To what extent do we have control over our thoughts and actions? How can we increase that control? This knowledge has helped me reshape the way I think, learn, and treat others.” – Kian Parseyan (BSc Neuroscience graduate)
3) Why is broadening access to higher education important?
“Access to higher education should be not affected by your background, socioeconomic status, or race. Higher educational institutions foster and reaffirm the sense of intellectual curiosity and desire to learn. Broadening access will encourage commitment to lifelong learning for all. I believe that with more educational freedom, not only it will affect day-to-day lives of individuals, but also societal progress. From politics, health care, and business, higher education will help shape the future for the better.” – Jenny Yoon
“It is advantageous for society to have educated members because educated members can be more efficient and productive (and usually make more money). If someone wants to be educated but is held back because of poor access to funds, transportation, or services like childcare, society suffers. It’s really a shame that this is still being debated. The government needs to construct a code book on the governance structure of universities that is bounded by law (like the Alberta building code). In turn, they could trust the way that taxpayer dollars are spent on education and it becomes feasible to offer free university education to students who sign an agreement acknowledging that they will work in-province for a certain number of years following graduation. After about a decade, they would begin to see a return of the funds invested on free education via the increase in income tax owing to the overall increase in the income of the educated populace. Win-win.” – Kian Parseyan
“The social mobility answer I gave previously applies here as well. Limiting access to higher education cuts off lower socioeconomic groups, leaving them stuck where they are. For example, think about the background of the majority of students accepted to medical school here or even the Ivy Leagues – the vast majority all come from the top socioeconomic brackets, go to the best high schools, etc. Secondly, higher education is a vehicle through which you can learn to think for yourself. The more people we have engaged in higher education, the more people we will have actively engaged in our democracy, community, etc. Leadership positions in society need to be reflective of the diversity in the general population. Until that happens, access to higher education hasn’t been broadened enough.” – Bill Chahal
Those points really resonated with me, but I asked more students on campus as well. I noticed that for a lot of the answers many students said similar things (that they gained critical thinking skills, a new perspective on things, etc.) and that some would gravitate to a very “political” answer. I realized, with help from my friend Sansitny (Faculty of Arts graduate, co-founder of The Wanderer), that the way I framed the questions may have steered people towards a certain direction. He said, “They all have an implicit value statement, which is ‘Post-secondary is important.’ And we all are/have been students, so it’s safe to assume our consensus would be as such. It would be interesting to see what people would be doing if they didn’t go to university. Many students use university as a safe ground for a few years, eventually hoping they’ll figure themselves out. University is not always the way, and that’s the truth without any sugar coating. But, there is something peculiar to the university experience that promotes growth and self/life betterment.”
I didn’t want to be one-sided as San pointed out. Coincidently, I overheard an interesting viewpoint that day from a worker at the hospital. He said: “I walk through the university and to the hospital and see university students scoff at me because I am pushing a cart around, but I graduated from university too and it did not get me closer to getting a job than I was when I was going in. The truth is, I make more money than probably 85% of the students that graduate with a degree.” It was a good point, and I knew lots of students stayed in university to buy time, not knowing what to do after graduation. So, I decided to dig a little deeper. I reworded my question and asked:
Do you see value in postsecondary education?
Thoughts from Deshane Deenoo (Kinesiology student)
“I think it depends on the person too. If you are interested in working the trades, but you go to university because everyone else does, well then there’s no point. I came from a really academic high school, and everyone was like, ‘Well, what are you going to do after high school?’ Well, university, that’s the standard, and people don’t know the other options out there. I would say it is a good experience, but if it’s just going to contribute to your loans then you have to balance that out and decide what’s for you.
“The more they increase tuition, the more they cut off people from having that access and for some people, it’s just not affordable, even with the student loans. That is one of the barriers and it’s kind of sad because it’s one of the things that ‘makes the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.’ You know, there’s only so much money and you have to allocate it somehow throughout the province, throughout the city, throughout the country, so it’s a hard decision but having access to education is so huge that some people take it for granted, and others never get the chance to embrace it.” – Brandon Lieu (1st year Medical student)
I couldn’t agree more. I believe the government has the responsibility of prioritizing education and making it as accessible to everyone, postsecondary institutions have the responsibility of using the funds they are given effectively, and students have the responsibility of making the most of their degree.
During my time off from university, I worked a lot of odd jobs. One of the most valuable experiences I had was working at a program called Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada. Part of my job there was to call people, many of whom were refugees from war-torn countries or countries with very low literacy rates, to tell them that they had the opportunity to take part in the LINC program (which is funded by the government and free for refugees). It was the best part of my day because those people were so grateful; some would literally cry tears of joy because they had the opportunity to access education. They could finally learn how to speak, read and write English and have the opportunity to go into the professions they wanted, to provide for their families, and to connect with others. They recognized that having knowledge and being able to communicate is empowering.
That definitely put things into perspective. How lucky we are to be in Canada, and how lucky we are to have access to education and the opportunity to learn. Education is something that we should never take for granted and that we should stand up for. Yes, maybe my general degree didn’t gain me as much credibility as I had hoped. However, it gave me the opportunity to learn about things that truly interested me. The things I did gain – involvement in the campus community, opportunities to challenge myself intellectually and outside of academia, an appreciation for the scientific process, how to critically think, to work with others and an inquisitive mind – were invaluable, and I will carry them with me forever. I think my friend Kian said it best:
“A university degree did not help me get a job; it helped me put together my life. University pushed me harder intellectually than I would have otherwise pushed myself. It extended my capabilities. It did NOT help me get a job, but it helped me increase my level of income. The honest answer is that my university experience was two-fold. When I first got into university I knew what I wanted to do, but half-way through I was forced to actually ask myself what I wanted to do. I wish that universities and society were set up to help you answer that question, rather than to put you through a revolving door to your career. Ultimately, my degree is a piece of paper tucked behind a few books in my basement. The doubt I experienced halfway through my degree forced me to ask the tough questions. And only by answering those questions and finding out who I was, could I become the person I am today. That piece of paper has the value of paper to me. My knowledge is invaluable.”
Photography courtesy of Hanhmi Huynh.