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Two illustrated people on campus wearing backpacks. One looks around 20 while the other looks much much older.
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True Story: I encountered a ‘professional student’

By Abby Hughes

I’d heard mention of so-called “professional students”—those who’ve been in school for what seems like a lifetime, maybe because they’ve switched degrees, chose to pursue a post-grad program or just enjoy being told what to do. 

I thought the title was simply a mocking name, an ancient academic fable. That is until this week.

It was the first day of my master’s degree in communications and I was jazzed. And not just because it bought me two more years to think about what I actually want to do with my life. 

The class was packed like the subway during rush hour when a scruffy looking guy in jeans, sporting a Guelph University hoodie and a worn Tim Hortons limited-edition beanie walked in. He secured the only available desk, directly to my right.

He looked just slightly weathered as though life was beginning to beat him down—the tell-tale expression of someone on the brink of 30.

“Nice hat,” I said sarcastically.

“Thanks, it’s ironic,” he said. He smiled with the dim-witted exuberance of a golden retriever puppy. “My name’s Stu… Stu Dantt.”

“Abby,” I replied. “What do you study?” I asked Stu, mostly excited for him to flip the question back to me so I could reaffirm why I’m taking two ye—I mean why I’m so EXCITED about my masters.

“Right now? Philosophy. Who knows in the future though,” he said. 

The look on his face told me he knew how confusing that answer was for me. The fuck did he mean by “right now”? And what was that about the future?? How dare he lead the conversation away from my very valid and important degree choice?

“What do you mean ‘right now’?” I questioned, evidently annoyed.

“You see, I’m what you’d call a professional student. I’ve been in school for,” he said before starting to count on his fingers  “Eleven years now,” he finally stated. “And today’s the first day of my latest degree in philosophy.”

I was so bewildered I didn’t know where to start with my questions. Stu took that conversational opening and ran with it.

“I started out just like many other youngsters who also don’t know what to do with their lives, I took a business degree. Generic, but can’t go wrong, right? I took my time with the degree. Then toward the end, I just really didn’t want to stop suckling on Ontario Student Assistance Program‘s (OSAP) sweet, sweet teat, so I kept on going. I got a master’s in history and now here I am: a philosopher for the next few years. Then, who knows what?”

Aghast, I finally made my mouth move to produce a stammered question: “But do you never want to use your skills? To perhaps help other people? Or contribute?”

“Oh god no! What if I tell an inspiring historical tale about the gold rush to a business client and they invest all their money in gold?” Stu says.

“And what if they hold me accountable?” Stu shudders at the thought.

“No, I prefer to keep it all up here,” he grinned, tapping his temple.

“So, what do you mean, “professional student?” I asked. “What happens when you leave school and have to pay off all your debt?”

Before I could bombard him with more questions, Stu held up a pointer finger, holding his place in conversation and effectively stopping my next word. He exhaled a puff of vape smoke slowly and stealthily so as to not produce a cloud.

He chuckled slightly and leaned in close. “Oh, I’m never leaving. If you never leave, you never have to pay off your debt,” he said with a sly smile. 

“OSAP money and my side hustle are enough to give me everything I need. I sell t-shirts with non-fungible token (NFT) artwork printed on them. It kinda distorts the point of the NFT, you know?” he said.

I guess I still look puzzled, as Stu added, “It’s pretty deep. I wouldn’t expect a youngster like you to get it.”

The professor began class just as Stu rambled something about being a “vessel for the spirit of academia,” but I heard almost none of what he said. I’ll admit, I began contemplating the “professional student” lifestyle. Did I really want my masters or did I just want to have a place to show up that gave me a sense of purpose? 

When the professor took a break an hour into the lecture, Stu began to head for a smoke break and asked if I wanted to come. I declined and instead whipped out my laptop to see how long you can actually take OSAP for, the curiosity tickling my brain.

Turns out Stu’s plan wasn’t so sound—like, at all. OSAP cuts the cord at 340 weeks of funding and by my math, Stu wasn’t going to be getting any money for his new philosophy degree. 

Stu sauntered back into class after the break and reclaimed his seat next to me. “Miss me?” he asked.

“Uh, sure. Hey Stu, sorry  to break this to you,” I started. “But…um, you do know OSAP stops giving you money after about 10 years right?”

Stu paused, looked confused and then smiled. “Nah, that can’t be true. I definitely scammed the Matrix on this one.”

Hastily grabbing my laptop, his eyes scanned the website over and over, while all the colour from his face drained. His cheeky smile turned to a wide-eyed, full-teeth grimace.

“Oh no no no, what have I done,” Stu wheezed.

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