Too good for their own good

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By Amanda-Marie Quintino 

She’s a stand-up comedian at Yuk Yuk’s, a Toronto Star columnist, stars on Much-Music’s hit shows Stars on Trial, Video on Trial, and LOL, and co-hosts CBC Radio’s Sounds Like Canada.

Plus, she’s a student. Fourth-year Radio and Television Arts student Sabrina Jalees may already have a star-studded career, but there’s something stopping her from giving it her all ­— she has a degree to finish.

“I love my program and all that it offers, but I’m also getting offers from other places – offers that pay, that advance my career, so it’s hard to know which path to choose,” says Jalees.

She’s not alone. Just last year, half a dozen students in her programs dropped out because a better opportunity came their way.

Former RTA student Greg Alsop also left Ryerson to pursue stardom after his band, Tokyo Police Club, got signed and was offered a chance to go on tour. He plans to return to class once the tour is over.

But RTA isn’t alone in its fight against the allure of landing a full-time job without aquiring a degree. The School of Journalism, for example, has a history of students who leave the program to pursue job offers.

Graeme Smith, an international correspondent for the Globe and Mail, is one of Ryerson’s biggest success stories. He’s also a journalism dropout. Now, Smith has been told he is unable to receive a promotion until he completes his degree.

When a student drops out of a four-year program, they have eight years to return and finish their degree. It serves as a safety net for students who leave Ryerson for a job.

Deciding whether to take a gig versus finishing a degree you’ve put money and time into is a common dilemma at a school with practical programs like Ryerson, explains RTA Student Affairs Coordinator Liz Gesicki.

“There’s no right or wrong answer in a situation like this,” says Gesicki, who helps students deal with this difficult decision.

While students might find jobs, Gesicki says they’ll hit a ceiling in their career, and only a degree will help them through.

Although RTA department Chair David Tucker supports extra-curricular success, he worries about professional obstacles students may encounter down the road without a degree.

“One can most definitely be successful without a formal education, but the world is becoming more complicated and higher education is not only expected, but increasingly needed,” says Tucker. “An undergrad is the new high school. It’s a question of sustainability. “Will you be a short-term success? Will you choose another path that requires accreditation?”

Claire Walker, owner and operator of Claire Walker Casting thinks employability depends on the person’s application of knowledge ­— whether it’s from field lessons or classroom lectures.

“Half a theatre performance degree is better than no degree at all,” says Walker, who has 35 years of experience. “Anybody who finishes a degree obviously has a better chance at being regarded well for their dedication and willingness to receive educational training for a craft.

“But when it comes down to it, if the part fits you, if you’re the best person for the part, then you’re going to get it over anybody else regardless.”

And for third-year dance student Kaitlin Standeven the part fit perfectly. Last month, she landed a full-time position at the Toronto Dance Theatre. After her impressive performance in the school’s summer training program, the director of the theatre company offered her a full-time contract from October to May. At first, she didn’t even consider the position, but after much faculty encouragement, she decided to take the leap.

Standeven, 20, is now taking two night classes with hopes of not falling too behind. As a full-time company member, she is in the studio from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, leaving no room for a full course load.

“Clearly, I wasn’t going to turn down an opportunity to do what I always wanted to do, what I was studying to do,” says Standeven. “I was really happy in the dance program, but when it comes down to it, it was an obvious decision for me. I needed to take the position.”

Dance Director Nadia Potts is glad she did.

“I told her to take the job,” says Potts. “Just drop everything and take it. You can always go back and pick up the degree, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Students seem to be searching for a middle ground, says Linda Grayson, vice-president administration and student affairs.

She believes a degree is needed in today’s professional world, but understands some students take a break to get hands-on experience.

“Sometimes they’re really anxious to apply what they’ve learned,” she says.

Jalees is already doing what she loves and plans to maintain her balancing act between school and work for as long as she can.

Realizing the fun may fizzle, she’s decided to stay in school and get her degree.

“I think it’s manageable to do both, and until the decision is really breaking you, I think you should definitely try to incorporate finishing your degree into your career,” she says. “There are 24 hours in a day. I mean, you started it, right? Might as well finish it.”

— with files from Natalia Manzocco

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