Reflections on seven years at the University of Manitoba

In April, God and my professors willing, I will write my last set of final exams at the University of Manitoba. Once pen is finished being put to paper I will have completed seven years at the institution we all know, love, curse and, most commonly, get parking tickets at. My last seven years have been composed of four years at the Asper school of business and three years at the faculty of law. These years have been chock-full of memories, experiences, successes, failures and everything in between. Yet, when I reflect on these years, my mind flicks back to my first day at the university. In fact, it turns to my very first class.

First day, first class. The room is filled with nervous students, shaking in their chairs at the reputation of the professor before them.

The professor, upon walking in immediately pointed his finger at a student in the back row and exclaimed “Why are you here?” The student stumbled on their words and ultimately came back with something along the lines of “Because I am enrolled in this class.”

Unsatisfied, the professor searched the room for another student or, rather, another victim. He pointed at another student and asked, again, “Why are you here?” This time, the student came back with “Well, I paid for the class.”

He remained unconvinced. And there I sat, head down, boldly positioned in the middle of the front row, hoping not to be asked. When I dared to glance up, the professor’s excited eyes stared back at me. “You,” he said to me, “why are you here?”

My somewhat panicked answer was that I wished to learn new things, understand how the world worked and have a better future. My professor seemed to accept this and, these years later, I stand by it. To me these are the three major purposes of post-secondary education: developing a more formidable intellect, gaining an understanding of society and, ultimately, finding a job.

So, based on these criteria, how has the U of M done?

There is an increasingly vocal school of thought that argues, given the breadth of freely available information on the internet, the educational value of post-secondary institutions to their students no longer justifies the cost of their tuition. And they are not entirely wrong.

However, there have most certainly been courses over the past seven years that have not contributed in any meaningful way to my intellectual growth. But, I have also most certainly taken courses of incomparable value which could not have been replicated by any other means than the classroom I experienced them in.

Based on conversations with friends at universities across Canada and North America, this dichotomy does not appear to be unique to the U of M. The difference between the former category — for which I can only wish for my tuition back — and the latter is determined by the quality and pedagogy provided by the instructor. Interest in the subject doesn’t hurt either.

I have also found that, as one would assume, I have found greater joy in courses whose subject areas I am interested in. That being said, my advice to prospective students is not to only take what they are interested in; rather, it is that the purpose of this education is to educate you holistically and broadly, so take courses in fields you may be unfamiliar with. You never know, you may fall in love with something you initially scoffed at — the way I did with tax law.

Further, the U of M has instilled a better understanding of how the world works. But the ability of post-secondary institutions to teach its students the complexity of the world is a difficult lesson.

On one hand, some argue that since the university system is fundamentally separate from the “real world,” students cannot learn how the world works from it. To me, post-secondary education serves as a reliable means of disseminating this knowledge. This is where universities truly shine, students often require exam or assignment-based motivation to spur them to read and learn what they perhaps should independently already desire to.

In this sense, I think the U of M has provided me a better understanding of the world. However, this success is predicated on an individual student and their own course of study. Improved competency in reading and writing across all programs has been, and continues to be, a focus of the U of M, and rightfully so. Being able to communicate your thoughts in writing is crucial, both as a future employee and as a citizen of the world.

However, to me, there is an intangible value in the critical thinking capacities that a university education provides. These skills offer students a less myopic lens through which to see the world.

In terms of employability, I have been fortunate enough to land a job. The labour market for university graduates is highly saturated. By most accounts, there are more potentially employable graduates than there are jobs. While my friends in science, technology, engineering and mathematics are often quick to blame any uncomfortable job market statistics on the so-called “unemployability of an arts degree,” this stigma is a gross generalization. The truth is simply that finding a job is difficult, no matter your degree or course of study. In fact, in my own circle, many friends with arts degrees are gainfully employed while my other friends with experience in the hard sciences continue to look for work.

Avoiding this job market crunch is certainly possible. Find an area of study that you are interested in, work hard to get good grades and, wherever possible, seek out practical experience in your field. Get involved on campus, not only to buff up your resume, but also to build connections with other students.

Perhaps I am wrong that university provides valuable skill sets. Maybe the future will be one ruled by Instagram entrepreneurs, cryptocurrency investors and non-fungible token traders free of the burden of both student debt and degrees. However, until such a time, a university education will remain valuable both pragmatically and in principle.

As my time at the U of M draws to a close, I often reflect on my professor’s question from my first class. To varying degrees, the three basic values I wished to obtain from my university experience were gained. Perhaps more important, however, is what the university experience has given me beyond that. I have formed lifelong friendships as a result of the struggle and shared experience that university education put me through. I gained an appreciation for the world around me before I was thrust into it and all its responsibilities. I suppose, at the end of the day, I am a better person for having attended this institution. And I think that was the point all along.