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  • Writer's pictureRich Dlin

Choosing a University

One of the many benefits to working in high school and university education is the opportunity annually to witness and share in some of the milestones that teens and young adults experience, each year gaining more perspective as their experiences compare, contrast and evolve beyond your own from that age. In many ways it's like the movie Groundhog Day stretched out over a year, where just like Bill Murray's character, the lessons accumulate and deepen with each repetition. Unlike Bill Murray though, there is no accompanying desperation to exit the loop. Only a joy in absorbing, organizing, and collating - and then having the opportunity to share - the wisdom this provides.

This week I had the pleasure of discussing post-secondary plans with a few of my students. I've always enjoyed this time of year with grade 12 students for that reason. Many have lived their entire academic lives to that point building to "when I graduate high school" without really having any kind of sense of what that would mean, or how it would look. And how can they? For better or worse, we funnel our kids through an education system that begins roughly around the time their lasting memories begin, and more or less standardizes a learning experience that dominates their lives, which are completely structured around school - from the way the days and weeks are structured around school during the school year, to the way time-off is structured over the course of a calendar year. By the time they reach grade 12, "student" is the only life they have experienced, with the pinnacle being "high school student". What's more, for many grade 12 students, the path they are on is meant to lead to post-secondary education, meaning university or college. So they know university is coming, but they don't really know how that will look. They are also not generally prepared for the multi-layered independence post-secondary education implicitly includes, although they do know that it is included. It's exciting and scary, and it can overwhelm them with both these feelings at times. And while some kids fully know what they want to do and where they want to go, these are a minority. For most it's some level of "I have no idea what I want to do, and I don't really know where I want to go, either." To these kids I usually recount my own experience at that age, and fold in the years of observations I've made with my students in grade 12, and what they tell me when they get in touch, sometimes years later. I will summarize that here as well. If you bear with me, hopefully you'll see the reason I share this with students, and now with you.

I was born in 1969. My parents were both children during the second world war. My father was an immigrant to Canada and my mother was the child of immigrants. Neither of them experienced anything academically beyond high school, and that was very, very common for their generation. But for the few that did go to university, it seemed to my parents that "success" was guaranteed. "If you get a university degree, you can write your own ticket" was something my father was wont to say regularly. And why wouldn't I believe him? Parents always know the score. So I knew I was going to university all through my high school years, even though I didn't really know what that would mean as a lived experience.

Enter my grade 12 year. This was in the ate 80's, and in Ontario at that time there was a 5th year of high school called grade 13 (later that 5th year changed to be called OAC, before it was eliminated in the early 2000's), which was mostly for students who wanted to go to a post-secondary school after graduating from high school. It was generally known that for university acceptance, your grade 12 marks "counted", although there were few students or parents who knew for sure what that meant. But it was definitely enough to put the fear in you! For myself, what it meant was that I felt I needed to work to my potential, something I knew I had not been doing for all my previous years of school. I still remember the conversation I had with myself. It went more or less like this:

please forgive the adolescent arrogance it contains - I was younger and so much less injured from life's vicious left hook

"So, you'd better start working to your potential if you want to get into university"

"Sure, but what university to I want to go to?"

"I have no idea. What do I even want to do?"

"No clue."

"Well, what are you good at?" adolescent arrogance approaching...

"Everything." note - this meant subjects in school - it didn't extend beyond that. I just had a high opinion of my academic prowess

"Ok. But what are you best at?"

"Easy. Math."

"Oh, great. Math. Of all the subjects that's the one you are best at? What the heck can you do with math?"


"Nuh uh. No way. There is no way you want to be the teacher dealing with the stunts teens pull in class."

"Ok. So how about teaching university?"

"Ok. That's the plan."

I promise you that is more or less exactly how the conversation with myself went. At the speed of thought, I went from having no plan for post-secondary to deciding I wanted to be a math professor. I didn't even know what that would entail, but it was the plan. Fortunately there was a student teacher working at my school at the time, who was from the University of Waterloo Math Teaching Option program, and my math teacher suggested I speak with her. She told me that to be a prof at university the path is to earn a PhD. She also told me that it wouldn't be a terrible idea to get teaching experience on the way to that goal. Finally, she told me that if you want to study math in Canada, Waterloo should be very high on your list of choices, because at the time it was the only school in Canada that offers a Bachelor of Mathematics (it would seem that today this is also offered at Carleton and Windsor, but that Waterloo is still the only university in Canada with a Faculty of Mathematics). And that sealed the deal. I decided that since math was my jam, and that since Waterloo was the best place to study math, as well as a place with a well-established math teaching program, then even though none of my friends were planning to go there (not even my girlfriend who is now my wife of 26 years), that I would go there, get a BMath, an MMath, and continue on to earn a PhD, so that I could be a math professor. All told I think the amount of time I spent making that decision, including the 20-minute conversation I had with that student teacher, was approximately 21 minutes.

I then dedicated myself to learning the material in all the courses I took in grade 12 and grade 13. I did not focus on marks because it didn't occur to me to do so. I focused on learning. What happened was that my marks skyrocketed from mid 80's to high 90's. My grade 13 average that was submitted to universities was 97%. And I did get into Waterloo math, and subsequently was admitted to the Teaching Option program.

But that's where the plan I made in 21 minutes ended. I did not pursue a Masters degree until much, much later - and then it was for much different reasons. I did not even enter teaching right away, even though I graduated with a BMath from Waterloo and a BEd from Western. Because by the time I finished my degree - which I enjoyed immensely - I no longer wanted to be in school. I was ready for adulting. My first job was as a software developer for a small company that developed point of sale software for hair salons and shoe stores. That job lasted 10 amazing years, until I decided I was ready for a career change, and that is when I entered teaching. High school - that thing I could never envision myself doing. That thing which I did for about 17 years, with an additional 2 years seconded to the University of Waterloo as a Visiting Lecturer in the Math Faculty. And now I am in the next stage as a small business owner, growing Dlin Academy, the very site where you are reading this.

Okay! So you've reached the end of my personal anecdote regarding university choice. And hopefully you can see how it simultaneously mattered and did not matter with respect to what transpired as I got older. It mattered, because I chose to pursue a subject I loved. And that made my experience at university a fun one. It didn't matter because some of my reasons for going to Waterloo did not immediately transpire - and when they did transpire, it was more coincidental than by plan. I taught high school for 17 years, and loved it. The secondment to Waterloo was an opportunity that is offered to practicing high school teachers. My education (including the Masters degree I alluded to earlier) definitely afforded me the opportunities to pursue these things, but the 10 years I spent as a software developer had as much to do with my success in education as my degree(s) did.

I can not tell you how many former students have reached out to me to tell me how different their university experience was from what they thought. How many of them have told me about switching programs part way through - sometimes more than once - because they realized they were on a path they did not enjoy. And how many of those eventually landed in a career that they are enjoying as a result. Because university is many things, but one of the best things it is is a time for self-discovery and embracing the joy of learning for learning sake. And letting that lead you to your passion.

So what does this mean for choosing a university or college? Here are my main points of advice:

  • Choose a discipline that excites you, not just a discipline that will pay well.

  • Be open to programs and places your friends are not considering. Most adults will tell you that they did not meet their best friend until after high school. In the words of my good friend Steve, if you are in high school, you have probably not met your best friend yet!

  • It's ok to consider the location when choosing a university, but that should be a minor part of the equation. Look for a school that excels in the discipline that you love. Because that's where you will meet the profs and fellow students that share your passion, and that is when the greatest growth occurs.

  • Don't worry too much about making the wrong choice. The truth is all universities have much to offer, and once you are there you have the power to make the choice the right choice. If you're anxious that turning down Western to go to McMaster will be a critical turning point in your life, then trust me on this - it won't.

Finally, some very practical advice: ask your guidance counselor for help. That is their job, and they are very good at it. If you find yourself speculating, or getting your information from friends, verify it by going to your guidance counselor.

Thanks for reading,


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