Slogging through your degree

My undergraduate degree in Communications from Simon Fraser University was a sham.

I read other people’s textbook highlights to cut my reading in half. I learned I could, in a couple of years, pass most of my courses and not really learn that much.

And yet, it seems so socially important that we have a couple of letters after our name, not just for the prospects of our career and earning potential, but as a testament to our desirability.

And when I say I am pursuing a law degree, I get the feeling the response is quite different than if I said I work full-time at Wendy’s drive-thru.

Have we all been tricked into believing personal enrichment and value can only come through a four-year degree program at an institution that has concrete walls and library carrels scrawled with obscene graffiti?

Forty-one per cent of working-age Canadians have degrees or diplomas, making Canada the country with the highest proportion of educated people among the 30 countries surveyed.

But Anna-Lisa Ciccocioppo, Counsellor and Career Development Coordinator at the Counselling and Student Development Centre on campus, believes the need for a degree is very real.

"When you’re in university, there are a lot of skills that students develop that they perhaps don’t realize," explained Ciccocioppo. "They learn generalist skills, personal skills and specialist skills–depending on what degree program they are in. These are skills any employer is looking for."

But these are skills Feisal Hirani believes can be developed quicker with a job. Hirani, 26, has been working full-time since he was 18.

"Post-secondary courses educate you on how a textbook says things are to be done, but nothing beats first-hand experience," he said. "I think I learned more in my first year working than I could have ever learned in four years of university."

Hirani works for EnCana as a Service Delivery Lead where he supervises a team of 23 people. He also started his own computer consulting company, Tech-Styles Enterprises Inc., when he was 21.

Despite being ahead of most of his peers of the same age, Hirani acknowledges it hasn’t all been smooth sailing.

"For me, had I been old enough, or had I had a degree, the opportunities would have come easier," said Hirani.

Ciccocioppo is quick to support the benefits of a degree.

"Post-secondary education, especially a university degree, opens a lot of doors," said Ciccocioppo. "I think students get the message that to have a good career, that often involves having a degree."

Degree holders are also much more likely to carry a bigger wallet. 2001 census results showed higher education had a direct impact on earning potential. More than 60 per cent of people in the lowest earning bracket did not have more than a high school education, while more than 60 per cent of people in the top earning bracket had a university degree.

For University of Calgary student Mandi Sutherland, financial factors have influenced her decision to pursue an LLB degree at the university following her graduation from the U of C dance program in 2000.

"I always wanted to be able to support myself without being dependent on somebody else," said Sutherland. "I knew that dancing wasn’t a practical degree that would lend me with a position that would allow me to provide for myself.

"In the time between finishing my dance degree and starting law school, it was difficult with just an undergrad to find a decent paying job."

Hirani also recognizes differences in earning ability for degree and non-degree holders.

"Without a degree, your growth potential is linear. Coming into the market with a degree and no experience, the growth potential is more exponential. There is a point where my earning potential will hit what my earning potential would have been with a degree and at that point I start to lose out," explained Hirani, who is planning to take part-time courses over eight to 12 years in order to complete a degree program while working full-time.

So the question to get a degree or not get a degree still lingers, particularly for those of us who may not find ourselves passionate about one specific thing.

Ciccocioppo offered some helpful advice.

"I think self-assessment is very important," she said. "Not just looking at what jobs are out there, but asking ‘who am I, what are the skills I’ve learned, what are the skills I want to use in my work, what are my interests, what are my values?’"

The Counselling and Student Development Centre on campus offers various career workshops and career counselling services for U of C students. More information is available by contacting the centre at 220-5893 or online at

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