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Outside the classroom: five students explain how extracurricular activities helped them

Frank Gu, a student in the bachelor of applied science in engineering program, stands with a solar car at the University of Toronto's Bahen Centre.

Jennifer Roberts/The Globe and Mail

With a hyper-competitive job market looming just past graduation, the rigours of academia may sometimes seem all-encompassing for Canada's hard-working university students. Fortunately, university life isn't just about essays, reports and exam results. To ensure graduates leave their postsecondary institution with more than just a degree, Canadian universities offer a vast array of extracurricular and co-curricular activities, from athletic pursuits to cultural organizations, to service clubs.

"Student clubs and organizations provide a way for students to easily make friends and find people who have things in common with them," says Sandy Welsh, vice-provost, students, at the University of Toronto.

Ms. Welsh notes that extracurriculars can help students develop valuable skills that can benefit them in their future careers, skills such as leadership, communication and time management.

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"It's also an important way for our students to get some balance in their life," she says. "They study hard, and [these] activities allow them to take a break from their studies, get their head out of their books and just have some fun."

Meet five students from universities across the country who are pursuing their passions along with their studies:

Frank Gu, University of Toronto, bachelor of applied science in engineering

Extracurricular activity: Blue Sky Solar Racing

My first year of university was not very eventful and the course materials were too bland for my taste. I looked into joining student design teams to get a better learning experience.

Blue Sky Solar Racing seemed to be the most organized and well-run club at the time, and electric vehicles always fascinated me. Three years down the line with a race on the horizon, I am still here and enjoying this experience.

Building a car is a complex task that involves many people from different backgrounds and expertise. We have a total of more than 100 industry partners who help us out in various aspects, including consulting, tooling, manufacturing and material supplies. It's put me into contact with many leaders in the automotive, composite and manufacturing industries, and many have even reached out to our team looking for potential talent.

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To say the very least, I think this extracurricular activity has given me a better understanding of careers in the different sectors that we are involved in, and provided a myriad of opportunities after graduation.

Olivia Aguiar, Simon Fraser University, bachelor of science in kinesiology

Extracurricular activity: Women's soccer

Soccer has always been a part of my identity.

By attending SFU, I have the opportunity to play for Canada's only NCAA institution, meaning I am able to experience American collegiate athletics while also obtaining a Canadian education from a top comprehensive university.

The athletics department – from studentathletes to teammates, coaches and staff – has become my second family. I have irreplaceable memories from all of the hours on the road, in the locker room and in study hall.

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It wasn't easy, by any means, however I can say that I will be leaving SFU not only as a better athlete and student, but a better person.

There is no 'one-size-fits-all' approach to balancing athletics and academics. With experience, you get better at understanding how to manage your time and stay on top or ahead of your course work. If you have a desire and willingness to do whatever it takes to make it all work, you will find a way.

Taylor Morriseau, University of Manitoba, master of science in pharmacology and therapeutics

Extracurricular activities: Indigenous circle of empowerment, NSERC Create H2O program for First Nations water and sanitation security

In February, 2014, I took an unprecedented leap into a foreign surrounding with five strangers on a service learning trip to rural Belize. For me, the exposure to contemporary Indigenous issues – food sovereignty, land rights, environmental issues and health disparities – paralleled the complexities I saw at home, including those that are too often ignored in academia. Moreover, the late-night talks in the company of five blossoming friendships sparked a renewed desire to remember, reclaim and research my own Cree heritage.

Returning home, it was not long before I sought out the Indigenous Circle of Empowerment, a unique student leadership development program grounded in culture and focused on effecting positive social change.

For me, schoolwork and extracurriculars do not demand a 50-50 split. When I am engaged in co-founding community projects or troubleshooting techniques in the lab, I am fully committed to the tasks at hand. On the flipside, I dedicate myself to schoolwork without distraction when required.

Jennifer Li, Queen's University, bachelor of history, concurrent education program

Extracurricular activity: President of the Alma Mater Society

As President of the Alma Mater Society (Queen's student government), the actions and decisions I make with my team can have a direct impact on student life. I've been given a behind-the-scenes look at faculty, staff and administration and a true appreciation of the work that gets put into making sure students are supported. I've also met some of my closest friends in student government.

The skills I've developed in my role – public speaking, negotiation, people management – are ones that I would not have developed inside the classroom and will set me up for success in whatever career I choose to pursue. This role has also opened the door to many networking opportunities and has introduced me to a number of professionals I can learn from and follow career-wise.

Salman Sajid, Dalhousie University, bachelor of computer science

Extracurricular activities: Vice-president Executive, Dalhousie International Students Association; President, Pakistani Student Association

Being an international student, when I got to Dal, along with being slightly homesick, I also felt extremely overwhelmed with the new environment and my surroundings.

Having gone through that experience, I decided to start volunteering with the International Centre to help new international students settle in.

Being involved in extracurricular activities completely changed the trajectory of my degree, personal growth and career options.

I initially came in with the mindset to purely become a computer scientist. However, with increasing involvement in event planning, volunteering, and community service, my interpersonal and public-speaking skills were improved at an exponential rate. I also became interested in taking courses that dealt with the study of leadership and project management.

Due to my extracurricular activities, I have handled teams of 55-plus individuals, which has enabled me to handle crises and work under pressure. The network that I developed over the four years helped me secure my first few internships, and I recently received a full-time job offer from a company that I am currently working for as an intern.

Responses have been edited and condensed

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