The pandemic has brought about societal disruption and mass unemployment, and from that — a chance for people to reconsider careers, make big changes and go back to school.
According to Universities Canada, a national association of colleges and universities, enrolment numbers have been better than anticipated for the 2020-2021 school year, with overall enrolment growing by two per cent. Part-time enrolment increased by four and a half per cent this year, compared to two per cent growth over the past five years.
The Toronto Observer spoke with three Torontonians about their decision to go back to school because of the pandemic.
Hannah Russell, 24, holistic health student
The pandemic gave Hannah Russell the time and space to examine her beliefs about work and her values. It sent the 24-year-old on a completely new career trajectory.
Russell completed an acting degree at Hussian College in Los Angeles in 2018, and afterwards, she tried and failed to secure a U.S. work visa. Originally from Thunder Bay, Ont., Russell moved to Toronto and continued to audition for roles while working part-time as a server at Steamwhistle Brewery.
In March 2020, Russell was in the middle of producing a play with a friend.
But the pandemic put the play on hold indefinitely. Russell said she started to experience anxiety and turned to holistic methods such as meditation and journaling to try and improve her mental health.
It worked. Russell had also been sharing her attempts to lessen her anxiety with a couple close friends throughout her journey. As she started to feel better, they reached out for advice to help with their own pandemic-related stress. Russell had a lightbulb moment when one of those friends later thanked her.
“I actually started crying. I was like ‘Oh my God, I was able to actually help someone, that’s so cool. And I don’t even know what I’m talking about,’” Russell said.
After realizing how meaningful it was for her to help others, Russell enrolled in a one-year online program at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, based out of New York, to become a health coach.
She has been paying for her program through her savings as she doesn’t qualify for student loans since the school is located in the U.S. She says she is close to completing the program and is planning to start her own business in the spring to coach clients.
Reflecting on how the pandemic has altered her life and plans, Russell says the sheer amount of down time made her realize what’s most important to her.
“Honestly, at first it was shitty, with all the anxiety and stuff. But it ended up being so great because it really brought to light what my true values and goals are in life,” she said.
Arunima Choudhury, 24, paralegal student
Arunima Choudhury, a part-time barista at Jimmy’s Coffee in Toronto’s Kensington Market, has had a long-running interest in social work. She wants to establish a new career in which she can help others.
After graduating from the University of Toronto in 2019 with a a bachelor’s degree in English and diaspora studies, she secured a job at a charity in October 2019.
“It was nice to get a job that wasn’t in the service industry after graduating from school. But when the pandemic hit, we were obviously furloughed,” Choudhury said.
She was once again on the job hunt.
“It was sad, cause I feel like I probably would have stayed on and done more with the company, if this had been any other year,” Choudhury said.
After fruitless attempts to find work in the non-profit sector, she decided to apply to the paralegal studies program at Humber College and started in January 2021. She says that she is funding her schooling through her part-time job at Jimmy’s and through OSAP.
Choudhury says she has always been interested in the law. She hopes to use her degree to help those who cannot afford a pricey lawyer.
“I’m also just proud that I’ve kind of come to where I am, because it would have been really easy to just do what I was doing in March and been sad about it,” she said.
Bram Judd, 31, MBA student
Bram Judd was working on a contract as a corporate communications and capital markets consultant when the pandemic hit. The contract was originally supposed to be extended, he says, but was cut short when the severity of the situation set in.
“They started looking towards extraneous expenses that could potentially be cut. And that was me,” Judd said.
As other potential work opportunities dried up, Judd started thinking about business school.
“[It’s] something I had considered for quite some time. But this was just sort of the final ‘aha’ moment that I needed,” he said.
Judd is funding the two-year program through a mix of savings and student loans. He says he is mostly happy that he decided to pursue his MBA at York’s Schulich School of Business, especially when he looks at the current job market.
Judd hopes that getting an MBA will open up doors in industries that interest him, such as management consulting, and that he can develop new skills as he waits for “the world to sort itself out, rather than try to fight an uphill battle finding employment while we’re in the thick of it.”