U of T graduate prioritizes fit over ranking when choosing grad school

U of T grad pivots away from the constructed notion of prestige in education as she transitions into graduate school

Yomni Makonnen, 21, strolls through the grounds of the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto on May 31, 2024. She will be pursuing a master's degree in education at York University. (Emily Cheng/Toronto Observer) 

The air crackles with anticipation in the vast Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto (U of T). Proud families clutch flowers, their smiles catching the flicker of celebratory banners. Graduates, cloaked in gowns, straighten mortarboards — a nervous thrill dancing in their eyes. 

As each name is announced, Yomni Makonnen and the other graduates hold their breath in unison, poised to cross the stage and celebrate the culmination of their years of work.

When graduates walk out of Convocation Hall, they arrive at a crossroads in life often with the question: “What am I going to do with my life now?” 

Banners hanging outside of Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto congratulating all graduates on Monday, June 10, 2024. (Emily Cheng/Toronto Observer)

Pursuing graduate school graduate school is one of the many paths in life one after completing their undergraduate studies. Makonnen, a 21-year-old graduate from U of T, will be starting a master’s degree in education at York University in the coming fall.

“Deciding to go to York was kind of a tough decision,” Makonnen said. “When deciding to progress in your academic career, something that a lot of people look into is the prestige of the institution, and that was one thing that I had to take into consideration.”

According to the QS World University Rankings 2025, among over 1,500 universities around the globe surveyed, U of T ranks 25th and is the top-ranking Canadian university, while York ranks 362nd.

Moving beyond the notion of prestigious schools

As a U of T graduate, Makonnen’s choice of school for pursuing a master’s degree sparked curiosity among others.

“Quite a lot of people, including faculty, were wondering why I was choosing to go to York, and not continuing at Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) or staying within the U of T schools,” she said.

In the process of deliberating on which school to go to, Makonnen told herself that she wanted to prioritize her own experience over the university’s ranking.   

She considers York to be an “incredible” school and is particularly drawn to its student body. York has an active Black community with 12 Black student associations and clubs. Its faculty and campus also appeal to her.

“I had to learn how to disconnect myself from society’s standards and decide to pursue my own passion and what made me comfortable above what everybody else thought was good,” Makonnen said. “A big part of that was learning how to find alignment with myself.” 

Essete Makonnen, Yomni’s older sister, said she is “excited” about Yomni’s shift in mindset and that this shift is “very important.”

Essete says she is happy that she can attend an institution where the collaborative atmosphere aligns with her work style and pace, and where the environment is supportive and not overly stressful or negative.

Yomni Makonnen, a 21-year-old student graduating from the University of Toronto, at the Meeting Place at the Scarborough campus of the University of Toronto on May 31, 2024. She will be pursuing a master’s degree in education at York University. (Emily Cheng/Toronto Observer)

The dilemma of prioritizing fit over ranking is faced not only by graduating undergraduate students but also by graduating high school students.

Despite having secured offers from various universities including U of T, Samantha Chang, a Grade 12 student, chose to further her education at a college because it was “more economically affordable to my family and I.”

“I think the choice is worth it,” Chang said.

Why pursue a master’s degree in education?

Yomni was part of the Imani Academic Mentorship Program at U of T. She learned more about the Canadian educational system and realized her passion for the subject through the program. 

She wrote her undergraduate thesis on the impact of Afro-centric educational intervention programs on the experiences and well-being of Black students. It was one of her biggest goals this past year and what inspired her to pursue a master’s degree in education.

“That was incredibly difficult because I’ve never done such a big project before, and it also required a lot of independent work,” Yomni said.

“That was what inspired me to do my master’s and continue researching this further — just knowing that I was capable of doing that and realizing through the process that I actually really enjoyed the process of writing and research.”

Where she sees herself in 10 years

Being an international student, Yomni has gone through many changes big and small. Looking prospectively, in 10 years, she hopes to work on a policy level to improve education systems in Canada or back in her home country. 

“I’m learning that 10 years isn’t a very long time, so I don’t want to be too ambitious,” Yomni said.

“I just wanted to be able to make sure that schools are places where they actually deliver all the things that they say they deliver in their spaces, where people are able to grow in their individuality, and really build confidence and become lifelong learners.”

Navigating the crossroads in life

Yomni walks out of Convocation Hall with her diploma and a big smile on her face. Arriving at the crossroads in her life, she has learned to navigate through by getting comfortable with the discomfort change brings.

“Change is definitely uncomfortable,” she said. “It requires you to question yourself and challenge yourself a lot, but it is also 100 per cent inevitable. And it’s so important to get comfortable with that discomfort.”

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Posted: Jun 17 2024 12:30 pm
Filed under: Features Profiles