By Shannon Boklaschuk
When Sarah Trevor returned to university in 2020 after a five-decade hiatus, she didn’t know exactly what to expect.
Trevor quickly realized how much technology had changed since she first became a post-secondary student more than 50 years ago. In the late 1960s, students didn’t have personal computers, and allowing them to bring calculators into exams was a point of debate. Today, however, students often own multiple electronic devices and conduct much of their research and learning online.
“Note-taking I found difficult back then, but it’s a breeze now with Panopto recordings,” said Trevor, who is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts (honours) degree in history in the College of Arts and Science at the University of Saskatchewan (USask). “The library services have expanded beyond anything I could have ever imagined.”
The Saskatoon mother and grandmother, who is in her 70s, completed high school in Southern Rhodesia in the 1960s, prior to the civil war and before the country was renamed Zimbabwe.
When she and her geologist husband planned to get married in the 1960s, Trevor combined her first year of a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Cape Town, in South Africa, with a library diploma, and then left university for mining camps in Africa and Canada. She spent much of her adult life on the Canadian Shield, becoming a founding member of the Flin Flon Writers’ Guild and the Northern Visual Arts Centre (NorVA).
“During this time, the history of mining, the British Empire and the financial evolution that drove it became the foci of fascination. I was researching a novel from the point of view of Renaissance miners and metallurgists when we moved from the North to Saskatoon,” she said.
In Saskatoon, the USask library became a “favourite haunt” for Trevor as she conducted research for her book. However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic—and the subsequent closure of the USask campus—eventually cut the novel from its “research lifeline,” she said, thus spurring her to apply to become a USask student.
“One reason to apply for enrolment in 2020 was to access library services. With a student number, I could continue research, a significant reason for our move to Saskatoon,” Trevor noted.
“Other factors played a part in my application. Through the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild, Sheri Benning of the English department had become my writing mentor. When, in the spring of 2020, I had to decline her suggestion that I apply to do a master’s thesis in creative writing, all because I had no undergraduate degree, it was a blow. Then I heard my granddaughter, who had dropped out in her first year, was in the process of enrolling at Carleton University. That was impetus enough to apply for enrolment at the University of Saskatchewan.”
Trevor jokes that her application for admission must have been a “headache” for staff at USask. Her application was certainly different from that of more recent high school graduates; when she completed high school in Southern Rhodesia in the 1960s, the term “transcript” was unknown. Instead, itemized courses and marks “were typed on flimsy blue paper and signed by the school’s headmistress,” she said.
Trevor never thought it would be possible to return to post-secondary studies after decades away, and at times she is still brought to tears of joy at the realization she is a university student once again. She said “negotiating registration hoops was a small price to pay” for the privilege of learning from USask scholars such as Dr. Glenn Stuart (PhD), of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology; Dr. Sharon Wright (PhD), of St. Thomas More College; Dr. Colin Sproat (PhD) and Dr. Bill Patterson (PhD), of the Department of Geological Sciences; Dr. Kathryn Labelle (PhD) and Dr. Robert Englebert (PhD), of the Department of History; renowned author and USask alumnus Guy Vanderhaeghe; and sessional lecturer Wendy Doell, from the Department of Economics.
“Each class enlightened and continued to amaze me at the wealth of knowledge accessible to students of this great university,” Trevor said.
However, when Trevor first began her undergraduate studies at USask in September 2020—amid the COVID-19 pandemic—she initially felt like “an imposter.” She thought her desire for further education was “self indulgent,” and she was also concerned that her academic writing skills were “zero.”
“But all the help I needed was an email away,” Trevor said. “The university’s libraries and their staff provide a stellar education in academic writing and citation. In addition, they ensured access to every item I required, despite the pandemic.”
Trevor’s doubts about returning to school were alleviated when she began excelling in her studies and earned two major donor-funded history awards for academic excellence during the 2020-21 academic year. She received the Ruth and Eber Pollard Scholarship in History, which recognizes the academic achievement of undergraduate students specializing in history, with an interest in Canadian history. She was also honoured with the Simpson Prize in History, awarded annually to two first-year students who have written the best final examinations in a history course at the 100 level.
As a result of receiving the awards and because of the encouragement of her professors, “here at the University of Saskatchewan, even I can feel I belong,” Trevor said.
“Although at the start I believed all I wanted was to access the necessary library resources for my novel, the University of Saskatchewan and her faculty have reset my compass and reawakened my passion for learning,” she said.
One of the things Trevor has appreciated most about her USask experience is the interdisciplinary nature of the College of Arts and Science; for example, she is particularly pleased to have the opportunity to take geology courses as she pursues a Bachelor of Arts degree in history. She has also been impressed with how the USask community has adapted during the pandemic, noting the university’s response to the global health crisis “has shown how adversity can bring innovation.”
“In some situations, online learning serves both students and faculty well,” she said. “That being said, this glorious campus without students—unthinkable! As an active participant, I am following the evolution of hybrid education with interest.”
Trevor plans to complete her undergraduate degree and then apply to graduate school; she already is thinking about possible master’s degree theses. As an award-winning student, she also has some advice for her fellow undergraduate students who are embarking on a new academic year: “Use the syllabus for every class to mark your calendar and check this daily. Don’t fall behind. If a class overconsumes time and causes you to neglect others, see if you can take it in spring or summer—then drop it, and register later. There is no shame in giving full attention to each course. The library services are phenomenal—use them. Don’t be afraid to speak to, or email, profs and seminar/lab grad students. They are here to help us. There is no stupid question.”
Trevor’s experiences at the university have left her feeling positive and optimistic about the future, despite the ongoing pandemic. She also has words of encouragement for other mature learners who may want to follow in her footsteps.
“Don’t doubt yourself. You will have more support than you can imagine,” she said. “As a mature student, you cannot believe how valuable is your skill in prioritizing and organizing your time.”