How *I* chose my undergraduate university — Trevor Holmes


Okay so here’s the thing. Saturday I found myself at work for a short while. My own fault — I was late on something so took an hour to come in and fix things up so I wouldn’t look like a complete loser on Monday morning. I saw thousands of parents with scared-looking, uncommunicative kids being almost dragged along behind them. It was the parents who looked around with the sense of wonder, curiosity, and eagerness that once upon a time would have been the preserve of the young people seeking the right school.

Here and elsewhere, I have seen the helicoptered generation become less and less likely to pose questions of student guides, helpful staff, or faculty stationed at strategic points around campus. I’ve been an arts intake advisor at York, a part-time faculty member at Laurier Day, the head advisor at Trent’s part-time college, and a consultant to many a family friend going through the increasingly pressure-cooker atmosphere of choosing the right university. And every year, I worry more about the ability of young people to function in a world in which their parents are doing all their legwork. I know that we’re supposed to see parents as “stakeholders” or as “partners” in their children’s education — heaven knows I’ve tried on those very roles throughout my own kid’s elementary and secondary schooling. But university is supposed to be a wing-spreading time — a time of self-discovery and inquiry unfettered by parental will. Yet some of these students even seem to value the hovering, calling it input from their most trusted advisors, mom and/or dad.

Let me go back a few years — to 1986-87. I’m 17, turning 18. I’ve applied to three institutions (that’s all we were allowed to apply to within Ontario!). My grades are as high as they need to be in order to mitigate the stress of being denied anywhere, but still I want to know I’m making the right decision (I become easily paralyzed by the idea that if I choose one thing, I’ll never be able to do the gazillion other things I didn’t choose). So, after spending a gap Winter term at the U of Guelph taking a couple of courses to see if I can handle university, I arrange campus visits at my three choices for full-time study. I’ve already pored over the materials I requested in the mail (right — no websites — it’s the ’80s) from the admissions offices and from departments I’m curious about. My parents ask to see it all, but I’m the one doing the reading and thinking.

I take off with one of my friends to Queen’s to visit an ex of hers who shows us around rez and around campus. I pick up info from the disciplines I think I might want to study, and I have lots of chances to take in the atmosphere as well as ask my questions. I go to the U of T because my dad went there, and although I don’t know anyone, I scope things out and gather information. I visit Trent, where I suspect my heart will be, and I’m not wrong. I spend the day with a professor who knows someone who knows my family, and he takes me all over campus, introduces me to people in residence, people in different Departments, and I ask all my questions.

The only time my mom comes along is for a scholarship interview. She sits right outside the door and I blow the whole thing. Not her fault, but really, I wanted to do this under my own steam and resented being coddled through it.

Fast forward to September. My parents and many other parents drive up to Champlain College, Trent University. They all drop their kids off with plenty of stuff, there are plenty of tears, then they leave pretty quickly and we get on with the magic of intro week.

I suppose I’m sounding like a curmudgeon now, for whom the past was ever so much better than the degenerate present. I am, though, deeply worried (as a teacher of first-years, as a parent, as a teaching developer) that parents are doing far too much of the thinking, discriminating, and choosing for their university-bound (and I mean bound in two senses) young adults. I’d welcome stories from the 50s, 60s and 70s, stories from more recently that contradict my concerns, and stories from 1987 that show I’m just a misremembering, romanticizing blowhard. What do you think?

Published by


As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum and Programming, Trevor Holmes plans and delivers workshops and events in support of faculty across the career span. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Trevor worked at a variety of universities teaching courses, supporting faculty and teaching assistants through educational development offices, and advising undergraduates. Trevor’s PhD is from York University in English Literature, with a focus on gothic literature, queer theory, and goth identities. A popular workshop facilitator at the national and international levels, Trevor is also interested in questions of identity in teaching and teaching development.

6 thoughts on “How *I* chose my undergraduate university — Trevor Holmes”

  1. Oh my! After three years of teaching our deans and provost and librarians to (repeat after me) say “learning object” without giggling or sneering or worse, now it’s time to start re-educating them to yet another new vocabulary. Were those hypercard stacks and all those dusty director cd-roms learning objects during the time when we were all saying learning objects? Sure. Why not! We’re still spending a lot of time and energy making stuff that for the time being we will probably keep calling learning objects. Once the dust settles and a new vocabulary emerges, we’ll gladly call them whatever is the term du jour. I think the new vocabulary was useful in getting people to think about how they could create stuff that could be used beyond the confines of their own particular classroom, and it got them to think about design and usability and working collaboratively with people that they don’t normally collaborate with. And we think the students benefit, both on our campus and on the campuses that can figure out that our stuff exists. — mike

  2. Hi Trevor,

    My experience in selecting a university was similar to yours, but my motivation was different.

    I grew up on the Bay of Quinte, in a small town named Deseronto, which is known now for being close to Napanee, which people only know because of Avril Lavigne. Needless to say, for a hyper kid with dreams of being great, I had to get out of this town of 1600 people.

    I considered Trent, but then I realized the student population was the size of my highschool. I needed bigger, better, faster. The logical choice would have been to go to Queens, a good school, I could live at home and get a great education. Instead I chose York, and thinking back, I think the primary reason was that it was in Canada’s biggest city.

    My Mother didn’t help me, I sent away for the catalogs myself, I applied, I did everything, I probably told my mom in August that I was moving to Toronto. I paid for everything myself, I worked my way through school, I learned a trade while I was there, I got hired by the university, and I stayed there for about 7 years after my graduation.

    I will give you an example of how attitudes of students changed from when I started in 1995 vs. when I left in 2007:

    When I started working for the printing department as a courier, there were 4 couriers that delivered all the printing around the campus. We were a motley group who were lifted from a Tom Wolfe Novel. We actually all read “A man in full” and would be dragging 1000 kg skids through the hallways of students at breakneck speeds yelling “crash and burn” at people who would get in our way. We all worked hard and got our jobs done. At the end of the day, I would be tired, but the tuition was paid and I was happy.

    When I left, the lot of couriers had changed. It was hard to find one who would take more than 4 boxes at a time. No one would take a skid through the hallways. Deliveries that used to take me 10 minutes (I cruised around on my skateboard at work! what a job!) would take them 30. We started calling them goldfish because they had to be retrained every monday and carried maps with them everywhere. I knew every elevator and loading dock after a month and they didn’t know where farquharson was…

    I asked a courier to take 8 boxes on a large cart one day and he said he wouldn’t because his friends might see him. Union rules say you are not allowed to kill another member of the union. I gave up on them.

    All but one, she was a beautiful PHD student from Ukraine…. but I think there’s a union rule against that too.

  3. Thanks Mark Morton and plam! Nice to hear your perspectives. I too have worked with impressive undergraduates, and many of my first year students impress me deeply. Still, when I say things like “think for yourself a bit” — the resulting paralysis seems to happen in more students now than it did ten years ago. Maybe the same number still step up to the plate, and we just have more students around now, making the average bigger in numbers. I’d love to hear from some undergrads on these points — both the engaged and the lukewarm.

  4. First, personal experience. I applied to Waterloo in ’96. I got the Engineering Applicant Information Form, looked at the program with my dad (I actually looked at the list of courses in Computer Engineering) and decided I didn’t want to be an engineer after all. (I find that pretty funny today.) I considered CS at Waterloo a bit more seriously, but decided instead to stay at home and go to McGill.

    Although my parents helped pay for my undergraduate education, I don’t feel that they were running the show about choosing where to go, etc.

    Here’s what I’ve observed for other people. Prospective grad students who want to work with me are independent. That’s good, because otherwise I’d be deeply unimpressed. There might also be some selection bias here.

    Finally, my master’s advisor’s daughter (based in Montreal) went to the Ontario University Fair all by herself to check out different universities. So not everyone is a helicopter parent.

  5. Trevor, on the one hand I agree with you. A few years ago, after I started working at UW, I joined the squash league at the university’s athletic centre. I was looking forward to it immensely, because I had played on a squash ladder at my previous university, and I was eager to get back into that sport. I was soon disappointed, because the other players — all of them undergrads — let me beat them. I say “let,” because that’s really what it was: they were all much younger, fitter, and fleeter than I was, and by all rights they should have mopped me up. But it seemed that none of them really knew how to work hard at winning; on the court, they seemed blase rather than motivated. They would give up on a point rather than chase it down, and as a result I finished that season without ever losing a game. This, needless to say, was not much fun, so I didn’t re-join the league the following term. I wondered back then, and sometimes wonder still, why someone would choose to sign up for something, and then choose to sleepwalk through it.

    On the other hand, I’ve also had the opportunity over the past few years to interact with undergrads in other settings, where their drive and determination has shone. For example, the undergrads in the non-credit Arabic courses that I’ve been taking for the last year come to almost every class, even though they have a full-schedule of other credit courses or a full-time co-op work placement. In those classes, I see them engaged and enthusiastic. I’ve also had the good fortune to work with numerous undergrads who have been CTE’s co-op students for a term. Almost all of them were go-getters, problem-solvers, self-motivators; they worked hard, and they clearly took pride in throwing themselves enthusiastically into their jobs.

    Maybe the only way to resolve the opposing perspectives that I have on either hand is to recall my own behaviour as an undergrad, back in the early 1980s: in some classes, I was keen, eager, and fully engaged; in others, I was a bland and apathetic cipher; in others I tried to project a surly aura of jaded cynicism. Sometimes these behaviours were a response to the subject matter; sometimes they were a response to the teaching style of the professor; but mostly they were determined, I think, by my own evolving sense of identity, which in turn was shaped by circumstance, peers, hormones, fatigue, caffeine, and alcohol. I like to think that I’m now a more fully and consistently engaged person than I was when I was 17. But I might not come across that way to my son and daughter, when I tell them — at the end of a work day — that I’m too tired to play a game with them.

Leave a Reply