When Deanna Toews made the decision to “retool and regroup” three years ago at the age of 46, she was both nervous and excited about returning to school.
“Not everyone gets to hit reset in mid-life,” says Toews, who graduates with a honours bachelor of science specialist in Mental Health Studies.
“I realize this was a special opportunity and experience for me, at my age, to get another chance at university and pursue something I’m passionate about.”
After years of working first in software development, then as a freelance writer for the last 15 years while also raising two children, she wanted a change. Most of her work experience had been solitary and a big motivation for Toews was not only a chance to work as part of a team, but also help others through public health.
She was drawn to the Arts & Science Co-op program at U of T Scarborough because it offered a chance to combine a degree with professional work experience.
“Working in the mental health field taps into aspects of my personal experience with people I’ve known who have had difficulties with depression and substance use – I’ve seen directly the impact of that on people’s lives,” she says.
Toews did her co-op placement in the lab of Dr. Istvan Mucsi, a nephrologist with the University Health Network whose research focuses on reducing psychosocial barriers in access to kidney transplants and in finding living kidney donors. As part of her placement she worked on a project specifically looking at access to kidney transplants and donors among different migrant communities in the GTA.
Her placement was also personally meaningful for Toews. Part of what attracted her to kidney transplant research was a long-time friend of hers who had been living with kidney disease and required two transplants, one from a deceased donor and another from a live donor.
“I saw her go through that process, the restrictions of having non-working kidneys and the transformation that a transplant could have.”
The month after her placement finished, Toews’s friend of 30 years died from kidney failure.
“The transplants had given her an extra 20-year lease on life. On a personal level it was a very meaningful experience, being able to connect it to my co-op experience,” she says.
This was the second time through university for Toews, her first time earning an English degree in the early 1990s. She noticed some differences from her first time around, with more half-credit courses and fewer that lasted the full year. She also found a greater emphasis on professionalism compared to decades ago when “university had the potential to be slightly more chill.”
She feels having more life experience helped prepare her for the challenges of being a full-time student.
“You may have some additional responsibilities as a mature student, whether it’s paying for rent or a mortgage, raising children or working part-time or full-time jobs,” says Toews, who credits her husband as being her biggest supporter.
Toews recently landed a job as lab manager of Associate Professor Vina Goghari’s Clinical Neuroscience of Schizophrenia lab at U of T Scarborough. She was also accepted into U of T’s Master of Social Work program, and will start in Fall 2020.
In terms of advice for fellow mature students, she says it does take a bit of courage to take the first step, but encourages those thinking about it to at least give it a try, whether through taking a non-degree course or exploring what programs are available.
“Don’t limit yourself, don’t let those negative thoughts of not being able to do it, or feeling you’re too unforgivably old to be among classmates half your age,” she says.
“Give it a try. You may surprise yourself. I found this campus – everyone from staff, faculty and fellow classmates – to be very welcoming and supportive.”