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first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at

This week First Person looks at heading back to class, something that’s always challenging, even without a pandemic.

By age 30, I had an unfinished degree in English cultural studies, finger knuckle tattoos and no resume. I had spent the last six years cashing in government cheques for a disability that ranged from benign to totally debilitating, depending on the day. I had no discernible skill set yet had somehow managed to convince a local theatre company that I was the right person to handle props for an upcoming production.

Impressed by my sheer gumption and can-do attitude (or else, unable to find any qualified person willing to work for so little pay), they invited me back. That one props gig led to more and eventually other theatre companies began reaching out to me as well. Props requests turned into: “Hey, we need someone to do sets …” or “Can you do costumes?” “Sure!” I said, having not the slightest clue how to do any of those things.

For the first time in my life people were offering to pay me money to do something other than the most menial tasks. And I figured it would probably be a good idea to be at least a little bit qualified at that thing I was being paid to do. I also had enough respect for my employers to realize that I could seriously benefit from a few design fundamentals classes. Besides, everyone I worked with had a theatre degree, and this gig was something I could picture myself doing for a long time.

Which is why, at the ripe age of 31, I made the hard and scary decision to go back to school and get a degree in theatre production and design. Since I was going into a brand-new field, my previous 80 university English credits only counted as electives. I would still have to do all the courses pertaining to my major, which would take at least three years. Nonetheless, starting over appealed more to me than returning to the degree I ditched at 21. It seemed less embarrassing than the prospect of having to face professors who may recognize me from a decade ago. But only marginally.

Being in school in your 30s means you are old enough to know what you want and how to go after it. The work itself is relatively easy after having to navigate life as an adult, and your professors make great intellectual sparring partners and usually happen to be nice people who like their jobs. But being in school in your 30s can be depressing, too, because – let’s face it – you are in school in your 30s.

In some classes I was being taught by people roughly my own age but with a decade of experience in the industry. I could have been them if had made better life choices! But instead here I am, learning how to hang a stage light for the first time with people who graduated high school last year.

I certainly wasn’t going to try to integrate socially by acting like a 19-year-old. I refuse to wear sweatpants in public or to describe anything as “lit” or “extra.” I figured the best way to go about university social life was to adapt a more-or-less prison mentality: keep your head down, do your time and then move on with your life.

But the truth is, most of my classmates seem pretty cool. After spending years in the company of what can politely be referred to as “fringe figures,” it’s nice to be surrounded by people who plan on contributing to society. There is nothing nicer than meeting a 20 year old who is bright and talented but also confident and self-assured in ways I didn’t yet know how to be when I was their age.

How lucky one must be, to know what one wants out of life at 18, and to work toward it and have circumstances work out! But most of us don’t just emerge fully formed. It takes years to become yourself. So much can change in the pivotal decade between 20 and 30.

My first shot at university was defined as much by mental illness as by a persistent feeling of “what am I doing here?” It took a herculean amount of effort to get out of bed and make it to my 8 a.m. classes as I wondered, did I really need to know what a Marxist theorist thinks about Sex and the City? And what would I do with that after graduation? The future was one big scary unknown, marred by the lingering suspicion that I actually wasn’t cut out for any sort of employment, period. My depression clouded my brain like a heavy haze. I’d think to myself: is this really who I am? This terribly uninteresting person with nothing to say who is barely making it? It wasn’t until my late 20s, when I started taking antidepressants, that I began to know my true self, who is as smart and funny and competent as anyone.

To be sick for a long time and then to feel well again is a magical thing. You feel brand new and capable of anything. You marvel at your own capacity to do the things that for a long time were unavailable to you because of your illness. Which is why going back to school at 31 felt so right.

Maybe a degree in theatre sounds frivolous to an outsider, but the more time I spend in my program the more I am convinced that I am learning good, practical things that will one day amount to a rewarding career. I still don’t know whether I want to focus on costuming or carpentry. Or become a lighting designer. Or do all three. I thought I could even become a professional props maker or open my own scenic fabrication shop. The possibilities seemed limitless. Then COVID-19 hit and the theatre industry shut down virtually overnight.

Since then, I know the faculty at my school have worked hard to adapt our experiential, studio-based curriculum to something that could be delivered largely online. It feels like a setback, but years of setbacks have made me nothing if not resilient. I remain optimistic. There is deep satisfaction in knowing that I am working toward bettering myself; that once I graduate, I will have an accomplishment that nothing and no one can take away from me. Not even mental illness. Or a pandemic. Despite everything, it feels like, 12 years later, I am finally getting undergrad right.

Vera Oleynikova lives in Toronto.