Walking through the halls of the University of Toronto‘s Mississauga (UTM) campus, it would be easy to assume Unnati Patel is a member of the faculty.
However, the 55-year-old Oakville, Ont., resident is not just a student finishing her degree — she’s a student who came back to earn her second degree more than three decades after getting her first.
“When man makes plans, God laughs … That old adage is real,” Patel joked during a recent interview with Global News.
In 1988, Patel graduated from the University of Toronto with a bachelor of science in electrical engineering. While it combined two areas she was interested in — math and science — there was another practicality she considered.
“There was a job at the end,” she said while laughing.
Patel said that throughout the years since her first graduation, she had a yearning to learn more about life more broadly — so an upcoming personal milestone combined with that desire to learn set Patel on a new path.
“When I turned 50, my curiosity and love for the liberal arts never went away. So I decided to kind of reward myself by taking a couple of courses locally at UTM,” she recalled, highlighting how two professors made their subject material come alive.
“And would you know it? I fell in love with philosophy. And so I said, ‘You know what? Bucket list. Let me just treat myself to four years.’ I put the career on hold. I had saved significantly and invested wisely throughout the years so I could treat myself to this four-year little sabbatical.
“When the universe talks to you, you have to listen.”
Armed with that motivation, Patel enrolled with the University of Toronto and went into the bachelor of arts program for philosophy. Unlike most of her classmates, who are decades younger, Patel said she brought life experience and a career in engineering.
“I’ve got this perspective where I’m going, ‘We need to ask all these fundamental questions.’ And in fact, I think all of us need to do philosophy and we are doing it without realizing it. And engineers need to weigh in on what they’re creating and whether they should even create it,” she said.
“It shouldn’t be just the purview of the politicians or the executives of corporations or the leaders and just a select few to make these decisions. We all need to be engaged because all these technological changes that’s happening right now, it’s really going to fundamentally shift our societies in the next few decades with self-driving cars and automating all of the white-collar jobs.”
After several years of studies, Patel celebrated her second convocation — something she said she wasn’t too keen about the first time.
“I was savouring every moment of it because when you’re in your 20s, I didn’t even want to go to the first graduation. You’re so busy with life and as engineers. We had our big coming out party when we did our iron ring ceremony,” she said.
“So convocation was supposed to be just this boring thing. And my boss said to me (at the time), ‘Forget it, you’re going. You can’t walk into work without going to your convocation — and for your family.’”
To mark the occasion, Patel and her family recreated the same photo they took three decades earlier. In 1988, Patel became the first member of her family to earn a degree. She stood with her father, who proudly posed with the prized document, her mother and her then-four-year-old nephew as Patel’s sister took the picture.
In November, the family got together again — complete with similar outfits to those worn in the original photo, including the bright red suspenders sported by her nephew. Unfortunately, Patel’s father died in March, but this time Patel’s sister stood in holding a picture of their dad.
“I’ll tell you this graduation and the convocation ceremony meant so much to me because I was feeding my soul and I was so alive and happy for four years,” Patel recalled.
“I was doing it just for the sake of doing it. And I know that’s a first-world luxury and not everybody has it, so I was really milking it.”
Patel said she was pleased to have the support of her parents throughout her journey, but she admitted that at first, her father questioned her choice.
“‘What is philosophy? What’s it good for? You’re giving up his lucrative career and all of this,’” she recalled her father saying.
“(But) he saw the joy it brought me. And then bit by bit, he saw that I was succeeding and he saw that I had a big plan — he didn’t understand it.
“They were enjoying and watching this because they’d see me coming alive in a way that I hadn’t in engineering, and so they absolutely embraced it because of that.”
Fast-forward to November and even though Patel’s father wasn’t there, she said the occasion brought out something she hadn’t seen in her mother for some time.
“She was absolutely thrilled. And I’ll tell you, it was the first time she wore colour and bright colours and dressed up since dad’s passing because they were married for 63 years,” Patel said.
“It was lovely. She was beaming. She was drinking it all in and enjoying it. And that just buoyed up all of our spirits as well because it’s been a rough eight months.”
Going back to school as a mature student
When Patel went back to school as a mature student, she said she the questioning of her choice came from an unexpected source.
“Yeah, I expected strange looks — you know, all that kind of stuff — and what I found was that they didn’t care. The younger people did not care — didn’t judge me. I was just another person sitting in the room,” she said.
“In fact, the nay-saying (people were) my age who said, ‘What are you doing? Are you crazy? Giving up a lucrative career and you’re doing philosophy. And what’s the point of that?’ … The detractors came from our age group.”
Samantha Hartlen, a lead co-ordinator for orientation, transition and engagement with the University of Toronto’s student life division, told Global News Patel’s journey isn’t that unusual. She said the biggest issues for older students are finding a sense of community on campus and understanding contemporary technology in the classroom.
“So you’re assigned to your first group assignment and everyone … is a traditional-aged student except for you. That’s a very common scenario,” she said. “Sometimes I hear or notice that mature students talk about that as perhaps a deficit or a challenge. But I often talk to students about the thinking about how their own life experiences can support them and actually enrich the experience of others.
“But I think also being open to learning from students who, while perhaps they’re just out of high school, they maybe have been more connected to how things work academically … Not being afraid to ask questions. Take advice. Rely on them for help. Kind of finding where they can bring their own assets and strengths to that, but also being vulnerable and learning from people who maybe only have one or two years’ experience out of high school.”
When it comes to the overall number of older students, the University of Toronto didn’t have an age breakdown. However, Hartlen said the school recently held a mature student welcome session where approximately 150 students showed up to learn more about the services on campus — a resource that’s available to anyone who is thinking about pursuing post-secondary education.
Meanwhile, Patel — who is now getting her masters in philosophy and is contemplating getting her PhD — said she isn’t sure exactly what she wants to do next in her career. She said she potentially wants to get into a leadership-type role overseeing a multidisciplinary team, but is keeping an open mind.
“Now I’m throwing my focus on and bringing all of this new knowledge to what I already had as life experience and the technical background and the management background and all that, and somehow figure out a way to combine it and just add value and bring knowledge forward,” Patel said.
And for anyone who is contemplating a second career — no matter their age — she had some advice.
“Do it… Figure out a way to do it. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be pleasant, but do it anyway because we only go around in life once,” Patel said enthusiastically.
“Don’t just do stuff that you think you’re expected to do, do stuff that brings joy to you and by doing it, you’re going to bring joy to the world. You never know where life takes you.”
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