A generation apart

It’s Canada’s 150th birthday. We talked to alumni who were at Scarborough College when Canada turned 100, to see what it was like here in the Centennial year. Then we talked to recent grads to see how things have changed. Things sure have changed

By Gilbert Ndikubwayezu
Illustration of students of different generations sitting on the ground talking

The Scarborough College bus was moving slowly as usual, dropping students off at the intersections. Ralph, the driver, was everyone’s favourite, both for his sense of humour and his willingness to weave through neighbourhoods, getting people as close to home as possible. On that chilly Tuesday evening, Bruce Geddes was daydreaming his way home to Eglinton and Victoria Park after a day of French and political science classes. Then, as the bus passed Yonge, moving east on Wellesley — boom! The whole city went dark.

“Other than car headlights the city disappeared in a haunting blackness,” Geddes remembers. “None of us knew what had happened, and our ride home was unforgettable as we watched people trying to find their way in the dark.”

It was November 9, 1965 — the day of the Great Northeast Blackout. If the day stands out in Geddes’s memory for its drama, it also serves as a marker of how student life has evolved in this institution over the past 50 years. 

That fall, Geddes was one of fewer than 200 students registered at Scarborough College in its inaugural year. Their classes were actually in the old Biology building downtown, because the Scarborough campus was still under construction. It would still be incomplete when they moved in the next year.

“Some days we felt we should have been wearing hard hats,” Geddes jokes, “since workers continued to finish off areas as we attended lectures in the beautiful new teaching halls.”

In those early days, classes were very small — from five to 25 students, compared with dozens or hundreds at the downtown campus. They developed close relationships among themselves and with faculty and staff. A librarian might pass you in the cafeteria and remind you, by first name, that your book was overdue. Geddes says there was “a real community feeling. We truly felt that staff and faculty were always ready to do the best for us.”

Fifty years later, hundreds of students live in residence on the U of T Scarborough campus, in single or double rooms priced anywhere between $4,000 and $9,000. A sizeable number still live off-campus, but transit now goes in all directions.

Commuting more than 30 km from Oshawa was no problem for Alyssa Miller, who graduated in 2016 with a double major in Political Science and Sociology. She made the trip for five years — first on the flashy GO train, which took less than 30 minutes, allowing her plenty of time to socialize before class. Things got even better in 2013, when Durham Region Transit launched an express bus from Oshawa straight to UTSC.

“Living off-campus didn't stop me from making friends,” says Miller. “It’s a smaller campus, so if you're open to new experiences and talking to people, you'll meet people quickly.”

Popular annual events such as UTSC on Ice help bring students together. Miller enjoyed the free skating trip to the Harbourfront Centre and was glad to contribute to a good cause — the students collected donations to help the community’s less fortunate.

Another advantage of modern-day UTSC is the rich selection of cultural, recreational and entertainment activities. Interhouse leagues now compete in the state-of-the-art Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre. And Miller enjoyed top-notch concerts, both on campus and around town.

“I was never much of a partier, but there were some really cool events organized by various groups on campus,” she says.

Veronica Gomez, a recent graduate in English Literature and Psychology, attended ballets and visited art galleries, both on and off campus. And she spent many weekends downtown, enjoying the nightlife. “There were a lot of bars and clubs that were mostly populated with students,” she says. “So you'd always bump into someone that you'd know.”

Gomez, who now works at Health Bound Health Network rehabilitation centre, belonged to a group called Students of English Literature and Film, and helped organize some of their events. She also worked in UTSC’s Admissions & Student Recruitment office, helping with events for prospective students; at the annual Ontario University Fair; and, every summer, at the Academic Advising & Career Centre. As a coach for the centre’s Get Started program, she helped incoming students prepare for the transition to university. “That was always a very fulfilling experience,” she says.

In contrast, student life was quieter for Bruce Geddes. Entertainment and nightlife on campus were almost non-existent. He does recall a drama group that would stage plays erratically, and a soccer team that played quite well against other colleges. Otherwise, he says, “the only excitement was catching up on your reading and late essays in the library.” Except —

there was one other thing: In Canada’s 100th year, 1967, the Toronto Maple Leafs won the Stanley Cup. No one knew that it might be the last time. Still, snatching a ticket to those playoff games would have been a dream. 

Shirley Criscione was one of Scarborough College’s first graduates in 1968. Her memories of nightlife on campus: hanging out at the small cafeteria, or occasionally going to movies.

Meanwhile, if you missed a class, there were no laptops or cellphones to help you catch up. “You had to get lecture notes from a friend,” says Criscione. “If you were lucky, they might put carbon paper behind their note-taking and create a copy.”

A year’s tuition might have been $500, and another $50 for books. Of course, three loaves of bread cost 21 cents; as did three boxes of Kraft Dinner if they were on sale. Criscione worked part time as a cashier at Dominion, for 65 cents an hour. A top-paying summer job would bring around $40 a week. “You went home and gave your family half your paycheque,” she says. “Many people did this. So, it was difficult to save up that $500.”

She remembers the college’s lack of diversity, which reflected the fact that Scarborough itself — and even Toronto — was much different then. Criscione had no Jewish friends until she came to the college, and even then most of her classmates were white and protestant — and a few Catholics. There were 97 students in that first graduating class, and only one of them was black.

In Criscione’s high school days, most girls were still planning to become teachers, nurses or secretaries. She was the first female on either side of her family (and it was a large one) to go to university. Women were not encouraged to consider the professions — there weren’t many female doctors and hardly any female engineers.

Sexism was rampant. “I remember an incident in my third year,” says Criscione. “I had saved up and bought myself a three-piece outfit: a skirt, a pair of slacks and a matching jacket. I thought I looked pretty smart in the suit,” she says.

“After astronomy class, the professor took me aside and spoke to me: ‘Miss Allen, you will not wear slacks to class again. Dressing in slacks is not acceptable.’ So, of course, I didn’t wear that suit with slacks again, only with the skirt. When I look back, I can’t believe that I accepted his edict and abided by it.”

“We were a homogeneous group of students,” says Geddes, “white, living in east Toronto for the most part, no international students, largely of British and some European stock. Sexual orientation was not a public issue like it is today. It was not as open a topic for discussion.”

Toronto, and Canada at large, would progressively become shaped by immigration policies that welcomed people from other countries. By 2006, half of Toronto’s population was born outside of Canada, and 47 per cent reported themselves as being part of a visible minority. More than 140 languages and dialects were spoken in the city by then, and over 30 per cent of Torontonians spoke a language other than English or French at home.

There is no better place to see this reflected than at UTSC. Gomez, who graduated in the summer of 2016, says how amazing it was to look down the row during any lecture and see people from different ethnicities and cultures. It meant, she says, “that there were always opportunities to learn something new. I've never experienced that type of inclusiveness anywhere else.

“There were clubs and student groups that embraced all types of cultures and subjects. It seemed that no matter what you were interested in or where you were from, there was always a place for you. I'm happy to say that diversity was something that was embraced when I was a student,” she says. “Differences between students were seen as an opportunity to learn and grow with one another, not  something to separate us.”

Criscione and her husband recently attended a celebratory event at UTSC for donor alumni. When they looked around, they noticed that the older alumni were pretty homogenous, much like that first graduating class. But the younger ones were as mixed a group as you could find anywhere on the streets of Toronto. “To me,” says Criscione, “that is worth celebrating in itself.”