Aren't You a Bit Old to Be in This Class?

Aren't You a Bit Old to Be in This Class?

I continue to work on some posts for the coming weeks to encourage journalists to apply to be a Fellow-at-Large of the University of Toronto and Southam Fellow at Massey College. The tags for these posts is: Southam Fellowship

"Aren't you a bit old to be in this class?", asks the student sitting beside me. I laugh out loud because I was wondering the same thing.

It is my first day of civil engineering class.

As a Fellow-at-Large of the University of Toronto, I am able to study in any course offered by the university. Yes, any course, in any program (with very limited exceptions), at any level. All prerequisites are waived.

I focused my fellowship studies in municipal engineering.

Entering Class On-Time is Arriving Late

By the time I entered the lecture theatre, only a few minutes before class starts, nearly all the seats were taken. The only seats which remain at are the very front, or the very back.

I choose the front. Walking down the steps from the rear of the theatre, I can feel their eyes focusing upon me.

I imagine they are asking variations of three questions. Who is this interloper, who is this 'old' guy, and is he lost?

As I look around the room, I realize "wow, I'm now that 'old' middle-age guy in the class". Once I take my seat, I feel a bit out of place, and slightly tense.


"Aren't you a bit old to be in this class!?"

The tension is gone. I laugh, the students laugh, and conversation begins. I am now part of the group.

They are so young, as I was once so young

I remain struck by how they all look so young. I'm remembering back to all the memories I made at their age.

Engineering is a professional undergraduate first-degree program and the demanding requirements make it near-impossible to complete part-time or later in life when one has children or career obligations to juggle.

Nearly all the students are 18 or 19 years of age. There are a handful in their 20s. In this regard, it is unlike any other class I audited to this point - my other courses being graduate or night classes.

Engineering students take nearly all their classes together, they experience the tremendous pressure together, and become tightly bonded as a team. Which makes me even more of an interloper in their midst.

Why Civil Engineering?

Why civil engineering, municipal engineering specifically?

Two primary reasons.

Firstly, infrastructure is over half the municipal budget; being able to better understand engineering fundamentals is beneficial to my journalism practice. Secondly, the fellowship allows for study of course, in any program, at any level; I focused upon knowledge which can only be gained by university study in programs which do not allow auditing. Simply put, knowledge which I could only gain by way of this fellowship.

There are no auditing students in engineering. No one at the University of Toronto could recall an instance of a non-student joining a civil engineering course.

This is part of what makes the Southam Fellowships special, there are few comparable programs anywhere in the world. Here I am able to do something that would otherwise be impossible.

Prerequisites may be waived, but this does not mean one should not prepare for their courses of study.

In April 2019, I contacted the faculty of engineering to introduce myself. They quickly embraced the idea of a journalist studying in their program. They offered tutoring support, and asked that I take calculus courses in preparation to join the student.

Thus, I returned to the classroom in the summer of 2019 as a student taking a night calculus class.

Returning to Winter 2020 and my first day of engineering class.  When the professor formally introduced me, he ended with the most important detail – I too had suffered though first year calculus.

With this, I was now entered into the club. The students saw me as one of them.

During the course, many students took me under their wing. The student whom I sat beside on the first day? We sat beside each other for the remainder of the term, and they became my de-facto tutor.

I learned much from them, and have to say I was truly amazed at how brilliant they are.

Early in my journalism career, I often wrote about engineering students, their clubs, and tried to understand their culture. I can truly say, I did not know how much I didn't know, and even now, I have much more to learn.

I still do not know which elevator leads to Mario's Bakery.

Applications for the 2021/22 Southam Fellowships should open in mid-January. More information here.