The things that almost held me back were: my existing student debt, the time commitment, the financial investment, and my own insecurities about what someone should have achieved career-wise as they approached 30.”
I began a second undergrad degree at the age of 27. I first graduated at the age of 21 with an Honours BSc in Biology, and spent 4 years bouncing between jobs and cities, reading, researching, taking art classes, making friends, becoming a yoga teacher, adopting cats, travelling, and casually tackling the festering question that resided in the pit of my stomach: what do I actually want to do with my life?
I certainly didn’t want to pursue any of the options that were available to me with the pesky Biology degree I had stubbornly forced myself to complete. It is a point of pride for me that I managed to finish that degree, but it was only out of a sheer unwillingness to quit, and definitely not out of passion for my major.
My lifelong interest in nutrition combined with the fact that I would obtain the professional Registered Dietitian designation at the end of my studies led to my decision to return to school to study Nutrition & Food. It was a 50% passionate and 50% practical decision, and to this day, I am very happy that I did it.
Historically, nutrition has been full of binaries in my life. I have found joy and pain from my relationship with food and my body. At different points, I’ve been a strong, competitive athlete who eats whatever she wants and an anxious crash-dieter languishing in food guilt. I’ve experienced mental distress about food and found joy and creativity in the cooking and eating experience. At one point, I held strong beliefs about veganism and today, I eat a diet inclusive of animal products. I’ve thought that white bread was the devil, that pizza would make me gain weight instantly, and that bitter, black coffee was the only logical choice. I’ve felt guilty about enjoying cakes and beers and hearty pasta dishes, even if those food items were consumed in the presence of loved ones. I’ve felt strongly that I had secret food sensitivities that were sabotaging my health and giving me cystic acne. I’ve come full circle to include almost all foods in my diet, and experienced first-hand what it feels like to rid yourself of the psychological torment of food guilt and find food freedom.
To put it lightly: I’m passionate about food and food relationships.
So I decided that I should go back to school and study Nutrition and Food formally, with the goal of becoming a Registered Dietitian who can help others work through their own food challenges. The things that almost held me back while making this decision were: my student debt, both the time and financial investment, and my own insecurities about what someone should have achieved career-wise as they approached 30. The universe must have heard my deliberations because the Government of Ontario made tuition FREE (for a brief but blissful period of time) for low & middle-income individuals, and that was the push I needed to jump back into school.
Before my first semester even began, I’d spent hours reading blogs and combing forums for affirmation that my decision to pursue a second undergrad degree was the right one. I found a lot of people saying it was not. Why go back to school for a second undergrad degree when you could get a Master’s? Why not start a business with the money instead? Why plunge yourself deeper into debt instead of crawling out of it? So instead of ruminating on all the should’ve/would’ve/could’ve’s, let’s talk about the positives!
I’d spent hours reading blogs and combing forums for affirmation that my decision to pursue a second undergrad degree was the right one. I found a lot of people saying it was not.”
Firstly, as a mature student, I take school very seriously. I’m here to learn everything I possibly can so that, upon graduation, I am an expert in my field. This is decidedly not the attitude that I approached my first degree with. I was 18, and I wanted a degree. I didn’t have an academic mentor to guide me, and I chose my degree poorly. But I can’t live my life regretting my 18-year-old mistakes, and there are much worse things to do than obtain a Bachelor of Science. I could have gotten into drugs, but instead, I got really into the intricate anatomy of plants and animals and ecosystems!
Because I’m at school to actually learn, I am able to obtain high grades (which is essential for getting selected for the competitive Dietitians of Canada internships & Master’s programs). I engage with the course content in a way that was foreign to me in my first degree, as I struggled to keep my head above water and maintain sanity at the same time. Keep in mind, I’m writing this before applying for internships, so these words could be my famous last ones!
I engage with the course content in a way that was foreign to me in my first degree”
I’m more confident in approaching my professors to ask questions about the course and their careers. I speak in class and pose questions during lectures. I go to office hours. I choose courses wisely, based on skills I’d like to develop or knowledge I’d like to specialize in.
I’ve been able to seize opportunities that would have floated past me in previous years. I volunteer rigorously, and was even selected for a humanitarian outreach trip to India. It’s been a beautiful and fulfilling, yet exhausting and mentally draining experience returning to school at an older age.
I’m 28 while I write this, and I’m fully aware of my youth and the many wonderful years I have ahead of me. However, it is easy to feel old when you are a full decade older than some of your peers. I’ve come to rest in a tranquil place called “I don’t care” in regards to my age, and instead am harnessing the power that comes with having greater life experience before embarking on something as significant as a degree. If you are in a position to go back to school for something you are passionate about, then you will succeed. If your first degree wasn’t a great experience, your second one might be a beautiful success story because you will have more self-awareness and conviction about your wants and needs. Universities are filled with resources to help and guide students, the problem is that too many students are too overwhelmed to access these services and end up missing opportunities, or in the worst cases, suffering in silence. A mature student is more likely to leverage the opportunities available to them.
I do recommend going back to school, as long as you are sure about the path. I will be 31 when I’m finally a Registered Dietitian. This means I will be starting my career later than some, but earlier than others, and I’ll be starting with a different sense of urgency than someone who graduated with their entire 20’s ahead of them.
I will be starting my career later than some, but earlier than others.”
In my first degree, when I was 20/21, one of my best school friends was a 32-year-old woman that I marvelled at for how young she looked and how calm and organized she stayed during exam season. That’s the beauty of a second undergrad degree; you can excel, instead of just surviving. Now, it’s my turn to smile when my peers try to guess my age and send me panicked texts about exam content.
To learn more about Sarah’s journey to becoming Registered Dietitian, listen to her podcast episode or check out more of her nutrition writing.