When I started my undergraduate degree four years ago, everyone told me I was in for an exciting ride. I grew up listening to stories of my dad leading frosh week at the University of Toronto, playing on the engineering football team, and partying every chance he got. 

My mother, on the other hand, spent all her spare time studying in a corner of Robarts Library in downtown Toronto. She got As in her courses, and graduated with degrees from York and Queen’s University. 

There was no question that my siblings and I would go to university — that we would study hard like our mom, and party hard like our dad. One of the first videos of my oldest brother had my dad serenading him with the U of T fight song, while he donned a navy blue onesie with the school emblem on it.  

In the fall of 2017, I moved alone from Toronto to Ottawa to start at Carleton University. 

I was prepared for lectures that would drone on for hours in rooms packed with countless people, and professors that would only see me as my student number. 

I was ready for the university experience everyone told me about. 

Four years after I started at journalism school — or ‘J-School’ as the students and professors call it — I still find myself pleasantly surprised at how different the program is from what I expected. 

A photo of me taken in October 2020, a few weeks after online classes had resumed in my final year of university. (Photo © Matthew Atkinson-Smith)

The classes are small and intimate, the coursework is hefty but manageable, and the students and professors are always hard at work producing all forms of content across all media platforms. The fourth floor of Richcraft Hall is a hatchery of ideas, from both faculty and students. 

I was in my second year when I finally realized that my experiences in J-School would be nothing like what my parents went through when they did their degrees. 

There would be no crazy parties for me, and although I got marks like my mother, you couldn’t find me tucked into a corner of the library. 

My classmates and I were mostly in the field, asking the hard questions and getting the inside scoop on stories unfolding around Ottawa (or so I tell myself). 

Shortly after, I realized that the only people who could truly relate to the trials and tribulations of my academic career were my fellow J-Schoolers. 

While I’m often left out of conversations when my friends in other programs complain about exams and essays, there’s a sense of solidarity that I feel with the some 5,500 people who have graduated from Carleton’s J-School. 

An online environment

When COVID-19 restrictions began across Ontario in March, I didn’t put much thought into what it meant for my final year at J-School. My courses were switching to an online environment while still publishing our story assignments, leaving limited time for thinking about what the future could hold. 

In the summer before fall-term classes, I tried to keep my mind away from thinking about what September would bring. I reminded myself of the first lesson J-School taught me: don’t go into new opportunities with biased notions; let things surprise you. 

I would chant it like a mantra as I watched my mother, a high school teacher, try to learn Zoom on her computer before giving up in frustration. I couldn’t help but imagine my professors going through the same struggle with technology before settling for a half-understanding of Zoom. 

When classes came in September, I was yet again reminded to expect the unexpected in J-School. There’s a constant reminder in my classes that we’re “well into the pandemic” and it’s time to get creative with our storytelling. 

Although my time at J-School has sometimes felt endless, I know that in a few months — just like so many other people who have had to forfeit certain milestones to the pandemic — I will have a Zoom graduation. 

I don’t feel particularly sad or left out of yet another university experience my parents would reminisce about nostalgically. Instead, I feel ready to explore the dark waters ahead, armed with lessons I’ll never forget from J-School.