'It definitely means a lot': U of T grad John Montefiore completes a degree he started 25 years ago

Portrait of John Montefiore in front of University College
After leaving U of T in 1996, John Montefiore returned to school two years ago to finish his Bachelor of Arts degree – an achievement that left him unexpectedly moved (photo courtesy John Montefiore)

John Montefiore’s path to graduating from the University of Toronto with the Class of 2020 was a little unconventional. As a member of St. Michael’s College, he recently completed his honours Bachelor of Arts degree with a double minor in human geography and education in society – a degree he started in 1995. 

Montefiore left university in 1996 amid academic struggles and convinced himself that a degree wasn’t necessary for his personal success. But it remained unfinished business until he made the decision to return in 2018 at age 42.

The second time around, he never missed a class and always sat in the front row. As a result, he was a two-time recipient of the Francesca Annamaria Meneguzzi Award of Excellence, in 2019 and 2020 — an award that celebrates the achievements of St. Michael's College students who re-enter university after a minimum of 10 years out of school.

Arts & Science writer Sean McNeely recently caught up with Montefiore to ask him how it feels to finally graduate after all these years, and what he plans to do next.

How does it feel to graduate?

I underestimated the way I was going to feel. After all these years, I thought it wouldn’t mean anything, but it definitely means a lot. I totally understand the value of education now. It’s not necessarily the value that other people see in it, but the value it gives me as an individual, for my confidence and my self-esteem.

Was there a defining moment that encouraged you to return to university?

My professional career in corporate training and development stalled and I was considering a career change, but I also decided to explore going back. When I walked into the registrar’s office, I hadn’t made up my mind. I was asked for my student number and I said, “I don’t remember!” They found me and said, “Fill out this form and do you want to start in September or January?” And I said, “Wait! What?” That was a surreal moment for me. I felt rejuvenated after that meeting and decided to go all in. 

Did support services play a role in your successful return?

Absolutely. I hadn’t written an essay in decades, so I found the college writing centre to be invaluable. Before I handed in an assignment, they would give me feedback, which was really great. The first time I came to university out of high school, my mindset was, “Here are your textbooks. The class is at this time and good luck.” But it’s the complete opposite. The university has so much built in to help students succeed and I’m so grateful for that.

What are the pros and cons of being a mature student?

I was better at time management. I firmly believe time management is almost as important as the work itself. And I underestimated the skills I had developed over my life that would help me at school. What was tricky? There were times where other students thought I was the professor or the TA – and once a student thought I was security. That probably made me work a little harder in establishing relationships with my fellow classmates.  

What’s your plan for the future?

I’m currently enrolled in the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies, taking a process management course for a certification in project management. I’m also getting my designation for training and development. I’m taking this time to complement my degree with certificates and designations that build on the experiences and skills I’ve accumulated before I re-enter the workforce.

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