I was five when I decided I would attend the University of Toronto Mississauga.
I sat in my father’s lap in my grandmother’s house, where my mother grew up, one day before I was to enter first grade. I asked him what it said on his t-shirt. I knew the letters but couldn’t sound them out to form recognizable words. “The University of Toronto.” Papa told me that I must work hard when I start school because when I’d get older, I’d have the chance to attend university.
“University.” It sounded so… sophisticated.
He almost hadn’t had the chance to follow his dream of going to university, Papa said. His family didn’t have the means. It was also across the ocean in a country he’d never set foot in. The odds were against him, but throughout the three years that he spent in mandatory Singaporean military service as a teenager, he couldn’t get the dream of going to university out of his head. So he applied to U of T and got in.
Off Papa went to Toronto for the first time.
It was January. Snow was falling. It was the first time Papa had ever seen snow. His coat was inadequate, and he was freezing. He didn’t know anyone or where he would sleep the first night. He called his friend whom he had met in the army and who was studying at U of T.
“I’m in the airport,” Papa said.
“Sure, call me when you get to Toronto,” said his friend.
“I’m not in the Singapore airport, I’m in the Toronto airport!”
After he convinced his landlord to let Papa stay the night with him at his place, the friend found Papa a place with a few other U of T students not far from Erindale College. Papa figured out how to take the subway the next morning to the Eaton Centre to buy a better coat. Then he needed to figure out where to buy groceries. It wasn’t easy, but these struggles didn’t stop him from pursuing his university education. I kept going, Papa said.
Good thing you did, I like to tell him. If you hadn’t gone to Erindale College, you wouldn’t have met Mama, and I wouldn’t be here right now, nor would any of my four younger siblings.
Two of those siblings are U of T students at the St. George campus. Rachelle is taking neuroscience and psychology. Stephanie studies kinesiology. Since these programs aren’t offered at UTM, my sisters commute every day on the shuttle that brings students to St. George and they return to UTM when classes are over. Papa picks all three of us up from UTM at the end of the day and brings us back home in northern Mississauga.
My two youngest siblings, my sister Elizabeth and my brother Mathias, both want to attend UTM after graduating from high school.
“I mean, it’s the place where Mama and Papa met,” Elizabeth said to me once when she was nine. “It’s special.”
According to Mama, she and Papa met in the South Building—now called the William G. Davis Building, though the name change is recent and upper-year students like me can’t shake the habit of calling it by its old name.
It happened just beyond the front doors leading to the Meeting Place during Orientation Week. He was sitting at a table with a friend. As Mama and her older sister walked by, Papa tried to convince her to join the club he was representing—the Malaysian Singaporean Student Association. He made her laugh, she said.
For the next year, she’d see him around campus every now and then. She asked her friend to figure out his name and report back to her. Even though Papa knew Mama had a crush on him, he never asked her out. Finally, she got the guts to ask him. They ended up seeing a funny movie at her place.
After that, they went to another movie, this time at the theatre, and then they started going together to dances and club socials, and talking all the time on the phone. Papa knew everybody here, she said. He knew more people than she did, and she’d lived in Mississauga since she arrived with her family to settle here when she was twelve.
He also knew he was going to return to Singapore after university was over and that he couldn’t commit to a relationship with her after he graduated. That was why he hadn’t asked her out earlier.
He went back to Singapore when he graduated in 1985 with a bachelor of arts in economics and communications and a minor in computer science. As a souvenir of his presence in her life, he gave her his winter coat to keep. It was over. It was time to say goodbye. She cried.
They talked on the phone when he arrived back in Singapore. It was expensive to place a long-distance call back then, Mama said. And the signal was so bad. She wanted to visit him in Singapore. Her father forbade it.
When she graduated from Erindale College with a bachelor of science in chemistry and biology three years later, he came back for her and they got married in a church seven minutes from campus.
Twenty-five years and five kids later, they sent me to UTM, a mere 15-minute drive from our house near Heartland Town Centre, and watched me climb the stairs to the front doors of the South Building where they first met.
We still have the coat he gave Mama to remember him by. It hangs, patched and frayed, in the closet of our foyer. Papa digs it out every winter to wear before he shovels the snow from our driveway.
We are never throwing that coat out, Mama said.
When I was in first year at UTM in September 2010, the university held a “Meet the Principal” reception in the atrium of the RAWC where students were invited, over a buffet breakfast of muffins, coffee, and fruit tarts, to meet Deep Saini, who’d come from the University of Waterloo to be our principal.
I wanted to meet the new principal. University is a good place to meet people, I thought. I didn’t want to have no idea what was going on. I wanted to know who ran things around here. Having not heard of Deep Saini until the e-invite, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t that ignorant again.
My mother brought me to campus just to meet him. I felt like I was going to meet a celebrity. I braced myself for a huge crowd.
When we entered the RAWC, I saw him. I pointed him out to my mother with a quick jerk of my head. He stood in the middle of a circle of what seemed to be older faculty. I looked around. No crowds. Four or five students munched on the muffins and fruit tarts off to the side by the tables set up near the glass separating us from the swimming pool.
“Where is everybody?” I asked my mom. She had prepared to park her car for at least an hour, thinking we’d have to line up to see him.
Instead, we stood off to the side and a few moments later, he noticed us.
“Hello,” he said to me, his face breaking into a smile. The circle of faculty parted so that we could reach him in the middle. He held out his hand. “I’m Deep.”
“Hello, I’m Larissa and this is my mom,” I said, as if I were in kindergarten and it was show-and-tell time. I shook his hand. “She came to UTM, too, when it was called Erindale College.”
“Oh, so you have a history with UTM!” he said in an impressed tone.
“Yes. She and my father met in the South Building.”
“Maybe you will meet your future husband here, too!” he joked. People around us laughed. I decided I liked him. My mom’s face changed as the realization that I could find my future husband in university dawned on her.
“Sure…” I said, drawing the word out. “No pressure, right?”
I couldn’t say I hadn’t considered the possibility, but I’d never mentioned it to my mom before. As people laughed at my words, I realized that maybe I should have. She was stunned by the idea.
I couldn’t believe it—the principal was now voicing one of my secret hopes for university life and almost giving me his blessing. I inwardly thanked him for introducing Mama to the idea that I might actually date in university.
Later in the car, she said, “You aren’t actually going to date, are you?”
“Why not?” I asked. “You and Papa did. And that turned out splendidly. Maybe I’ll stop by some tables at Orientation Week and some cute guy like Papa will make me laugh.”
Stories like ours, the fruit of an Erindale marriage coming back to find everything changed at their old campus, aren’t the most common, but they do exist. I met up with one other family to get their perspective.
John and Lilly Di Massimo met in a first-year accounting class in September 1978 at Erindale College, where they were both completing a bachelor of commerce, accounting stream. They attended Erindale at a time when there were few international students, when the only buildings on campus were North, South, and Crossroads (later expanded into the Student Centre), and when no assignments, essays, or course selections could be done electronically. It was a nightmare, said John, who remembers in detail the woes of doing a computer science class manually. At the time, computers ran on physical punch cards.
John and Lilly formed a friendship with other Erindale students in first year before starting to date two years later. It helped that Lilly knew John’s older sister from her Italian electives. They were pioneers of today’s well-known and popular Italian Club of Erindale. John acted as the vice-president and Lilly was the treasurer. They would coordinate dances with York’s Italian club, play intramurals in the gym in South, and grab a bite to eat at the Meeting Place or the Blind Duck. Not everything is so different from today.
When they graduated in 1982, they didn’t suspect that over 30 years later a son of theirs would attend the same campus and earn the same degree.
John also worked for several years at Erindale College and sat on the Principal’s Advisory Council when Bob McNutt was principal, and on the committee that chose Ian Orchard to succeed him. John even put a brick in the wall of the Kaneff Centre when it opened in 1992. More than 20 years later, it’s being expanded into the Innovation Complex. When we talked in January, he told me that he’d only just received his plaque that week for participating in the Principal’s Advisory Committee, now that it’s been disassembled along with Erindale College Council. UTM now has a decision-making instead of an advisory body—Campus Council.
“They changed the way things are run,” reflected John, “which is good. It was almost expected. The size of the campus is unbelievable. That it’s grown to be the size that it is is just phenomenal. I don’t think you’re going to find too many of these types of campuses around Canada, how it’s set up with the greenery. It’s beautiful.”
One of the Di Massimos’ sons, Robert, graduated from UTM just last year—June 2013. He knew plenty of international students during his years at UTM, had the advantage of more than three buildings on campus, and never had to do his course selections manually, nor most, if any, of his assignments without the aid of computers.
When I met with the three of them to talk about their years here, Lilly remembered that theirs was the largest graduating Erindale College commerce class.
“When we graduated with the B. Comm. degree, we were 23 people and that was the largest graduating class ever for B. Comm. at Erindale. Fifteen hundred started and 23 graduated right to the end,” she said.
Today the number of students entering the commerce programs is in the thousands, but the same thing happens as it did during John and Lilly’s time at Erindale—the numbers dwindle as students progress deeper into their degree.
“In second year,” said Robert, “they had us at a breakfast and they said that our numbers were cut by about 50 to 60 percent when we had to specialize.”
The program still requires a double major in commerce and another subject, such as accounting. But the cost is very different.
“Price-wise, it’s like night and day,” said John. “What we paid is not like what you’re paying now.”
This is because of the deregulated fees of the commerce program. Students now pay around $14,000 a year, as Robert did when the new fees were introduced.
Robert, who commuted to campus every day from Vaughan during his undergrad years like his father, said his decision to go to UTM was made freely of his parents’ history.
“It was something I felt on my own,” said Robert. “I felt that it was a place where you always felt welcome, where professors and students and everybody were always trying to help you and make sure you have the best experience you can have. That’s the vibe I always got from UTM. I loved it.”
It’s unlike the St. George campus, he said, which has always sported a more competitive environment. “At the St. George campus, it’s really intimidating. Nobody wants to give you the time of day,” said Robert with a smile.
Some things don’t change—his parents said it was the same in the ’80s.“A bunch of friends and I did get accepted to the downtown campus,” said John. “We chose here. It felt much more at home.”
“It wasn’t like the downtown hustle and bustle that was so impersonal,” Lilly added. “The ambience makes a big difference. When you’re downtown you’re plopped in the middle of downtown Toronto and trying to find a niche, whereas here you’re part of the same community.”
Their favourite places to study were almost the only places one could study: North, South, and the library, which was inside South, just across from the Meeting Place in the area now occupied by the office of the School of Continuing Studies.
“That’s a very small place for a library,” I observed.
“Yes, it was,” said Lilly with a laugh. “Very small.”
John and Lilly reminisced about handing in everything on paper. You lined up at a set time to drop off your work. If your handwriting wasn’t good enough, you were screwed. So everybody learned to type.
I was taking the interview down with an iPad, so far removed from the time John and Lilly were describing to me. I felt utterly relieved to have the technology that allowed me to be a student in a way that I never could have been if I had been here when my parents were, when John and Lilly were. I’m sure Robert felt the same.
I wrapped up the interview when I realized that we could go on for forever talking about life as a student of Erindale College 30 years ago versus life as a UTM student today. At some point, you have to wrap up the nostalgia.
I teased Robert about the idea of marrying someone he met at UTM, like his parents and mine did.
“You never know,” said John as Lilly laughed. Robert just smiled.