A dedicated crossing guard charts his own path to a degree in Creative Industries

He's written film reviews and an entire novel. What's next?

Rendering of crossing guard Keaton Smith signaling cars to stop for pedestrians crossing
Keaton Smith during his shift as a crossing guard near Pape in Toronto on May 29, 2024. (Zeid Kayyal/The Toronto Observer) 

The sun shines down on the intersection of Pape and Aldwych avenues where cars whiz by and pedestrians navigate the construction sites.

Amidst the chaos, a young man in a bright orange vest stands, his hand extends holding a red stop sign, commanding the traffic to a halt.

Keaton Smith, 22, is a familiar face to many commuters and students at Centennial College’s Story Arts Centre campus, where the Toronto Observer is published.

Rendering of Keaton Smith
Keaton Smith poses for a picture near Pape in Toronto on May 29, 2024. (Zeid Kayyal/The Toronto Observer)

For the past two years, he has been a dedicated crossing guard, ensuring the safety of pedestrians crossing the street.

But these days, he stands at a different crossroads: one that will lead him away from the familiar orange vest and into higher education.

After serving his community, he is embarking on a new journey in the Fall of 2024 as a student of Creative Industries.

“I’ve recently applied to TMU, Toronto Metropolitan University, and I’ve been accepted into it, which I’m very excited about,” Smith said. 

From homeschooling to higher education

Smith’s path to higher education has not been conventional.

Homeschooled for a period during his childhood, Smith developed a passion for storytelling through blogging, film reviews, and writing at the age of 12.

According to his mother, Hoa Nguyen, poet and professor at TMU, when he was 13, he “review[ed] movies for TIFF Kids one year, based on his blogging.”

This passion for writing has continued to drive Smith’s creativity.

“Every year, there’s an informal contest, National Novel Writing Month in November. Basically, you challenge yourself to write a 50,000-word novel in a month,” said Smith, who has completed this challenge in 2019, and will attempt to take it on again. 

Self-directed learning teaches several skills

His homeschooling experience also influenced other aspects of his life, such as applying to university, as it taught him “how to be self-directed,” according to Smith.

According to the Ontario government website, self-directed learning involves “developing dispositions that support motivation, self-regulation, perseverance, adaptability, and resilience.”

However, the pandemic disrupted Smith’s educational trajectory. He took gap years after graduating high school in 2021, as he did not like online school during the pandemic and preferred waiting until universities returned to in-person teaching.

“[Online school] was not a great interface for his learning style, and I think that he found that discouraging,” Nguyen said.

According to a study conducted by the University of West Attica in Athens, Greece, students in the first years of university prefer in-person learning as they “perceived remote teaching as dissatisfactory.”

WATCH | Crossing guard turned student discusses changes in his life

“I always encourage students to reflect on things they enjoy and notice what excites them as they are researching possible jobs, internships or even virtual experiences [during gap years],” said Dr. Corinne Guidi, an independent educational consultant, to NBC’s Today.

During his gap break, Smith worked as a cashier at a fast-food restaurant in addition to working as a crossing guard. His current job is one he finds purpose in, but is not sustainable for his future.

“I definitely like working here in this job, but I don’t see myself working in it for a long time,” said Smith. “I love being part of the community and, you know, helping people out with stuff like this.”

A family legacy of creativity

Smith’s decision to pursue a degree in Creative Industries is deeply rooted in his upbringing. Growing up in a household where both of his parents were professors at TMU’s Department of English exposed him to a vibrant and creative environment from a young age. However, Nguyen also recognizes the challenges in such a transition.

“Change is always anxiety-provoking,” Nguyen said. “To grow is often painful.” She compared the process of change in someone’s life to that of a butterfly’s metamorphosis. “Your whole structures are being rearranged,” she said.

“I think because he’s challenged himself and followed through [in general], he has actually really exceeded expectations. I mean, he has a far better work ethic than I did when I was his age.”

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Overcoming challenges

As Smith prepares to begin his studies at TMU, he is filled with both excitement and apprehension at “seeing what the path ahead” holds for him.

His biggest concerns revolve around the fear of being overwhelmed and not performing well academically.

Returning to academia “was mostly an internal struggle,” he said. However, he is determined to persevere and make the most of this new chapter in his life.

“I am slightly afraid of my own future, but it’s something I just had to face,” Smith said. “I had to, sort of, sit down and realize that whatever I’m worrying about probably isn’t as bad as what’s actually going to happen.”

For those considering a similar path, Smith offers two pieces of advice:

“One is to not be afraid and just sort of plan things out,” said Smith. His second tip is to just “go for it,” be brave, and to not worry about failing.

Smith’s family and friends have been a source of unwavering support throughout his journey.

“They’re all very happy for me,” Smith said. “They’re all very supportive.”

One day, he hopes to become an editor or publisher. But for now, he’s focused on the stretch of road ahead, and the university adventure that awaits.

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Posted: Jun 19 2024 8:20 pm
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