The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Meet the Interviewee: Sarah Arsalan

Before moving to Canada in 2015, Sarah Arsalan lived in Iraq for eight years and another seven in Qatar. She then moved to Mississauga, Ontario, where she attended high school. Sarah is going into her second year at McMaster University, where she is enrolled in the Kinesiology program. I got the opportunity to interview Sarah about her decision to go into this field and perspective as a newcomer to Canada.

What were the biggest university-related challenges you experienced as a newcomer? How did you overcome them?

“When I first came to Canada, I had trouble understanding how the education system works. I was overwhelmed and many aspects of the application process were not as self-evident as they seemed to other students. My first confusion was regarding the distinction between universities and colleges in Canada. Everyone around me seemed to have a shared understanding that these two entities are unique in nature. At that point in time, I knew I wanted to pursue post-secondary education in a healthcare related program. However, I struggled to understand the implications of choosing one type of institution over the other. After doing some research, I arrived at the conclusion that if I wanted to pursue a bachelor’s degree in science, I would have to go to a university. That narrowed down my options from every post-secondary institution in Canada to every university in Canada. I was still overwhelmed.

My high school held presentations about Ontario universities, which I attended to gather information about my options. I coaxed my parents to take me to the Ontario Universities Fair (OUF). I was able to rule out a good number of universities but I still had too many options that seemed potentially suitable. I wanted a program that would allow me to pursue my interests and also lead me to a financially secure career path. However, I hadn’t had the faintest idea what the job market is like in Canada or what the difference was between health science and life science.

In addition to choosing a program, I also struggled with acquiring financial aid to fund my education. When I learned about the existence of the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) from flyers in my high school, I looked it up and told my parents about it. I was informed I would have to figure out how to apply by myself as it was a completely foreign territory to my family members. After applying to OSAP, I also made sure to apply to get a grant from McMaster and sent applications for other additional scholarships.

Spoiler warning: it all worked out at the end. The application process was nothing short of frustrating, but I was able to work through it and get over the obstacles. I would be more than happy if any of my insights regarding university applications helps anyone. Here are some additional things I believe students should keep in mind:

  1. Start early. I cannot stress this enough. It takes time to work through the confusion and the stress that comes with the application process. Be kind to yourself and start looking into your options as soon as possible. Attend university fairs and go on campus tours. Connect with students who study in the programs you are considering applying to. You will find that the application becomes easier to handle the more you work on it.
  2. Don’t be afraid of asking questions. No matter how stupid you think it may sound, ask the question you have in mind. Whenever I had a question, I would send emails and make phone calls and make sure there wasn’t any part of the process that was confusing or unclear to me. What makes this so important is that getting your questions answered will give you peace of mind and will also protect you from most application related trouble in the future.
  3. Stay organized. When I was applying to universities, I got a 3-ring binder and divided it into different sections. I used it to keep track of all the information I needed to know about the process. I had a section in which I wrote my impressions of the programs I was interested in and the reasons each one was appealing. I also had a section for OSAP and financial aid to make sure I send all required documentation before the deadlines. I found it very important to keep track of everything in one place. It doesn’t have to be a binder. Every student can pick what suits them, whether physical or digital. The point is to stay on top of the application and avoid letting things slip away from your mind by recording them and reminding yourself of what needs to be done to complete the application process.”

What sparked your interest in Kinesiology at McMaster?

“At the time of my university application, I had been a resident in Canada for about two years. I did not know much about the school system or about the available programs to know that kinesiology was an option. To be truthful, I didn’t even know what the word “kinesiology” meant. When I learned that kinesiology was alternatively known as “sports science”, I quickly became disinterested. I thought that I would have to be a really athletic person with an interest in sports to really enjoy the program and do well in it. I later came to know that kinesiology was offered as a grade 12 course and that many of my classmates took the course and it was the reason why they decided to apply to kinesiology programs. I decided to cast aside my first impression of kinesiology and look into the best available kinesiology programs in Canada and apply to them.

In the days following the offer of admission from McMaster’s kinesiology program, I reached out to a student who had graduated from the same program and I went to visit the university as well to meet the professors and current students to learn more about the nature of the program. It took me a long time and a lot of deliberation, but in the end, I decided to select McMaster’s kinesiology program. What persuaded me to make this choice was all the program’s features. The kinesiology courses offered seemed fascinating and I was impressed to know that this program was ranked among Canada’s best sport science programs. More research revealed to me the various ways I could get hands-on experience as a kinesiology student. Opportunities like getting undergraduate research experience in the field and volunteering in a physiotherapy clinic or in McMaster’s Physical Activity Centre of Excellence (PACE) made the program all the more attractive. My efforts to learn more about the program made me confident that it suited me when I accepted the offer.”

If you could go back in time, knowing what you know now, what would you tell your former self upon preparing for the application?

“If I could go back and change one thing about the way I completed my university application, it would be the time frame in which I completed it. I would have made sure to start the process early enough in order to know all my options in advance. A little planning goes a long way and saves you from a lot of undue stress. In regards to my grade 12 courses, I would have picked a combination that includes the courses required for admission into my programs of interest, and also courses that I wanted to take. One of the mistakes I did was enrol in courses I thought I should be taking, rather than ones that knew I wanted to take. Taking the time to think through my choices would have made me realize that I was letting others decide what my life should look like instead of making my own plan and following it.

In regards to the programs that I applied to, I would have completed my research into the programs and compared their similarities and differences in advance, so that I would know with a reasonable level of confidence what programs to apply to and which one to pick when I received offers of admission. What I did instead was delay that process, which caused me to stress later on when I was trying to narrow down my options to the one that suited me the most. I can’t help but feel that a bit of time management and planning would have allowed me to avoid the stress I went through.”

Based on your experience in the program, would you recommend Grade 12 students to apply? If so, what advice would you give them upon applying?

“I would absolutely recommend this program to grade 12 students. I have noticed that many students with an interest in biological sciences turn their eyes toward programs pertaining to health science, life science, and biomedical science. I regret to say that I had that perspective as well. I initially neglected kinesiology and did not consider it as an option.

However, investing time in researching the program made me see that kinesiology is a fascinating field with numerous branches of studies and diverse applications. I was able to see this for myself during my first year. My kinesiology courses during the first year were vastly different from one another, but all of them were rich in information that had applications in real life. I was able to put the knowledge I gained to good use when I joined as a volunteer at McMaster’s Physical Activity Centre of Excellence (PACE). I was tasked with assisting clients with multiple sclerosis or spinal cord injuries to complete their weekly exercises. My knowledge of anatomy, physiology and motor function proved valuable as I monitored the clients’ form and observed their level of exertion to determine if their regimen needs change.”