The Truth About the University of Toronto

“Don’t lose it—it’s just a parking machine,” I told myself as I stood outside the Hart House trying to buy a parking permit using a machine that refused to work.

It was a lovely sunny afternoon in November when I decided to revisit my former campus, grab something to eat, and perhaps get some writing done at the Hart House work area. I soon discovered that the cafeteria had been closed for two years, and other cafes in the area either had no Internet and power connectors or served very specialized food.

“It’s OK,” I thought to myself as I made my way toward the Bancroft Building where I used to have classes. For a while, it felt nice to be inside this building after so many years. Seeing Mesopotamian reliefs and the maps of the ancient Near East on the third floor reminded me of a wonderful year in grad school when I finally got to live my dream. But then I run into a former course instructor and to my horror learned from her that the building has been affected by asbestos.

As I made my way back into the parking lot, with a hot burrito dripping on the ground, I couldn’t help but wonder how I’d managed to survive the campus life through all those years.  I’d been on campus for less than two hours and already so many things had gone wrong (nothing major–just small, annoying things).

When the news about the campus suicide came out in March, I naturally felt shocked. I felt even more shocked to find out it had been the third suicide in the year and the second one in the Bahen Center for Information Technology [1]. So I felt compelled to share the truth about the university life.

First of all, I want to mention that my experience at university had been wonderful in many ways. I got to work in some of the most incredible places, such as the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies and John M. Kelly Library. I held century-old books in my hands and leafed through the pages of texts written Slavonic and Latin. I held Bronze and Iron Age pottery from the Near East terrified of breaking it. I met many amazing instructors. The skills that I gained through inquiry and research are invaluable. However, there is also a darker side to the façade of green fields and Gothic architecture.

This post is not meant to discourage anyone from applying to the university. If I were to go back in time, I would’ve still gone to the U of T and probably have chosen the same programs. This is simply an attempt to share the truth and perhaps raise awareness of the existing issues.

Life on campus can be a very isolating experience.

The U of T’s downtown campus follows an old college system initially to “provide the advantages of a closer-knit community experience within a large research university”  [2]. However, the college community life is almost non-existent. You end up having classes at different parts campus, sometimes located on the opposite ends. Most classes take place in very large spaces, where you get to see many unfamiliar faces, and it’s very hard to make contact with anyone, let alone forge friendships.

I did have a few close friends, but they were different faculties and universities. We bonded over interests unrelated to our fields and luckily are still in touch. However, I hardly ever communicated with anyone from St. Michael’s College or my faculty unless it was school-related. Such was the nature of the campus life.

You never feel good enough. 

I remember standing in line for an essay writing appointment and starting a conversation with another student who was also waiting to meet the same instructor. Somehow, we got to the discussion about essay marking, and I told him that despite my efforts, I often felt that my essays were never good enough. I was doing relatively well—sometimes even above the class average, but the feeling of not being good enough persisted.. “Well, they make it feel that way,” the student replied.

And that was true.

The University of Toronto prides itself in maintain high standards in education. According to the World University Rankings, it’s among the top three most prestigious universities in Canada [3].  So depending on your grades, your self-esteem can either rise to unprecedented levels or take a nosedive.

Now, I’m not saying that universities should drop their standards. Encouraging students to maintain a certain level of quality is good for them. It inspires a sense of responsibility and prepares them for the future life. However, there is a fine line between expecting a high level of work and expecting too much.

With the U of T. it’s often the second case. No matter how hard you work on an essay or a final exam, there is always something that could have been done better.  You never know when your argument is fully developed or when it still requires more writing and rewriting. You never know if you provided enough details on a tricky exam question. With workload and deadlines, keeping up with required level can be challenging.

I’ve later taken continuing studies courses at another university, and they too required lots of hard work and perseverance.  However, the assignment requirements and the amount of workload were much lighter than at the U of T. Thanks to more reasonable course demands, I was able to take away more from the new information.

Technological glitches are rampart.

On the day of my graduation, one of the chancellors asked me if I had any concerns about university experience. All I wanted to say at that moment was “please fix those damn microwaves!” Obviously, I did not say those words.

As a U of T student, I constantly had to deal with technological glitches, such as broken microwaves, a malfunctioning photocopiers, or library computers that had older versions of Word incompatible with my documents. There was always something going wrong. Every single day. While little malfunctions may sound insignificant, dealing them on a daily basis can very frustrating, and it add up to the already existing stresses of student life.

Resources for mental health help need to improve.

And finally, as we’ve learned from the news, the number of students with mental health issues has been rising [4]. Luckily, I’ve never reached the point where I needed help with mental health, but I can relate to all those who are currently experiencing emotional turmoil. I don’t know the stories of the three students who took their lives, but I suspect there could have been feelings of inadequacy and isolation involved. While it’s impossible to change the class sizes or grade standards, improving mental health resources is one thing the university can do to help all students feel included.  

If you are one of those students and are reading this article, please know that you’re not alone. Others have come before you and have experienced your pain. Hang in there. It will get better in time no matter how hard the situation may seem. And don’t forget to make the best of the student life too!

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