How I became an online student: my journey through formal education

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This is my story, and little did I know I was born the perfect candidate for online education…

I had wanted to be a veterinarian for as far back as I can remember. I grew up in a rural area of British Columbia (BC), Canada, on two and a half acres with cats, dogs, chickens, horses, birds, hamsters and even a few fish, so it felt natural to be drawn to work with animals. Always ambitious, becoming a veterinarian assistant wasn’t enough. I had to be the doctor.

My mom was a primary school teacher, so I learned to read and write earlier than most kids my age. Although I’ve always loved learning and got good grades in elementary school, I preferred not being in class in favour of learning on my own schedule. This was nothing new in my life thus far – I went to half a day of pre-school, decided it wasn’t for me, and that was it.

I remember my grade 3 teacher expressing concern about my high absence rate and well-being, and I’m sure my mom had a hard time trying to phrase “She just doesn’t feel like going to class” in an appropriate manner. Mom got to be so mortified that she started making my aunt call in my absences.

In grade 6, I ended up being one of six kids in a grade 6/7 spilt class, so it was no surprise that most of our coursework was focused on the grade 7 curriculum. I was always naturally bright, so that part wasn’t a problem. What I didn’t expect was becoming better friends with the girls a year older than me instead of the peer group I had grown up with.

Accelerated, International Baccalaureate or traditional curriculum?

Because I was exposed to the hype of the last year of elementary school a year early, that was how I found out about the different options available at the high school I would be attending. Even though all my friends were going with a traditional curriculum, I wanted to see what else was out there.

In 1998, my high school was one of the very few in BC that offered the International Baccalaureate (IB) program. For those unfamiliar, at that time the IB program offered students the opportunity to complete the first year of university courses before they graduated grade 12, essentially spurring you straight from high school right into the second year of university.

The high school also offered an accelerated option – the chance to complete two grade years for a particular subject in one: math 8 and 9 in grade 8, social studies 10 and 11 in grade 10, etc.

In addition to these brainiac options, there was also a curriculum for those who wanted to go straight into the trades or weren’t interested in going to university or college. Essentially, this route was the bare minimum to graduate high school with the least amount of academic credits required for your Dogwood Diploma (British Columbia Certificate of Graduation).

Or, for those who just wanted the regular high school curriculum, they offered that too.

Even though I wanted to be a vet, I wasn’t interested in applying for the IB program. I thought doing two years in one was cool, and I liked the idea of having the option to graduate high school a year early and maybe take a gap year. I passed all the accelerated entrance exams except for math. I was upset about it but figured I would get the chance to pick up the slack later on.

When life takes an unexpected turn

This plan was all well and good until grade 9, in which I had to do some serious career planning. Since I was essentially already in grade 10 because I was taking so many accelerated courses, planning for university acceptance started when I was 13 years old.

For whatever reason, it never occurred to me that being a vet would require a lot of math and science, or maybe I was just hyper focused on the end goal. And then there I was, sitting in the career counsellor’s office, building my course plan full of calculus, physics and chemistry.

Suddenly realizing I had to take a majority of math and science classes hit me like a bucket of ice water – I was smart but my brain just didn’t think that way. Even at 13 years old, I knew myself well. Taking these courses would be a huge struggle. Getting into veterinarian programs in Canada has always been extremely competitive and almost impossible without high grades. In the space of a few minutes, while looking at that course plan in black and white, I no longer wanted to be a vet.

Plan B, or so I tried

My lifelong trajectory came to a screeching halt. I now had absolutely no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up. I continued with the accelerated course route, but I felt lost while I bounced different career ideas around in my head.

Around that time I had taken up a hobby of drawing women’s fashions. I briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a fashion designer until I found out it would require sewing, and a lot of it.

Since I wasn’t going to be a vet anymore, I wanted to take classes I was actually excited about, like Spanish and art. However, my high school was very small and offered a narrow choice of electives since it was so focused on academics.

I told my mom I wanted to change schools. There was a larger school almost 3 times the size of mine, offered all the courses I really wanted and was only 10 minutes away from our house. The only problem was that school was at max capacity and wasn’t accepting any students like me who were just out of the location boundary acceptance range.

We had close family friends with kids my age who attended my desired high school because they lived within the school’s boundary. I suggested to my mom that I put down their home address instead of ours so the school would have to accept me, but since my mom was now a teacher in the district that idea didn’t fly.

Formal education takes a back seat

Not able to take the classes I wanted and not wanting to prepare to go to university just for the sake of going to university made for very a unconventional high school experience.

My desire to attend class never changed. I spent a lot of time in the library with friends doing absolutely nothing of importance other than the fun kids have at age 14 and 15, circa cell phones and social media. I could have applied myself more but I just didn’t see the point.

Circling back to my failed accelerated math entrance exam, I found out pretty quickly I wasn’t cut out for the university preparation mathematics courses. Calculus and algebra just weren’t my strong suit. My final grade for math 10 was dismal, so I ended up taking Principles of Mathematics 11, the “easier” math course so I had a shot at a B in case I ever changed my mind about going to university.

My 2002 official high school transcript.

In my early high school years, the majority of my time was spent with friends in my age group, but as I advanced in my accelerated courses I became closer friends with the students a year older than me.

This made grade 11 a very bitter sweet year. A lot of my friends were graduating and I wouldn’t be graduating with them.

That’s when it hit me – I could have been graduating too. If I was following my own plan of finishing high school a year early, I should have taken English 11 in the summer of grade 10. Why didn’t I? Because I realized too late that by the time I was in grade 11 my peer group would have shifted – to a year older.

Grade 12 was not all it’s chalked up to be

Instead of being the exciting year it’s supposed to be, grade 12 went by in a haze, feeling wasteful and empty. With my friends now off to more exciting lives in the real world, I was still stuck in high school, biding my time until graduation.

Thanks to all the credits I accumulated in my accelerated courses, the only class I needed to graduate was English 12. However, the minimum number of classes designated by the BC school system was 4 and career and personal planning was mandated, so I chose marketing and data management to round it out.

This resulted in a lot of spares, and my lifelong habit of not attending class kicked into high gear.

I was bored and unchallenged. Running my life and learning on my own terms was much more favorable than sitting in class for an hour and seventeen minutes.

If I wasn’t going to pick a career and go to university right away, I wanted to get working as soon as possible and start earning real, adult money. Instead of turning to alcohol, smoking or drugs like others may have done in my situation, I wanted to get out of high school and into the real world.

My dad owned a small construction company and I had already been doing administration work for him for a few years, but now that I had my driver’s license I would run company errands and pickup supplies during the school day.

This wasn’t enough however; I wanted a “real” job. So I applied at Home Outfitters (a home décor chain that is no longer in business) and was hired on the spot. I’m not sure if they read my availability wrong or were just severely disorganized, but they would sometimes schedule me during my English block – the only class I needed to graduate. I skipped out to work my shift, of course.

When in doubt, choose the shortest route

Even though I had no intention of obtaining any post-secondary education right after graduation, my parents had other plans. I was not allowed a gap year. I was not allowed to work. I had to do some kind of post-secondary study, in (their) fear that I would never go back to school if I had any kind of time off.

Sitting in the counselling office during my career and personal planning block, I pawed through post-secondary program brochures, trying to pick out a “career” for myself. Finally, I found something that might be doable – a Marketing Management Diploma at BCIT that was only 2 years long.

There were 6 specializations to choose from, including professional sales, entrepreneurship and commercial real estate. I took the list home to my dad and asked him: “Out of these 6 options, which one will make me the most money?” He said commercial real estate, so that’s what I chose.

I suppose I could do 2 years if I had to. It was the shortest program I could find, and to me, that was better than a 4 year degree. I didn’t look much at the program details. Length of program trumped all other factors.

I still really wanted a year off so I applied as late as I possibly could, hoping admission to the program for the next year would be full. However, to my parent’s excitement and my disappointment, I was accepted.

After what felt like 5 very long years, I finally graduated high school. Despite all the classes I skipped I still graduated with Honours, but because I only had 4 classes in grade 12 I was declared a part-time student and didn’t qualify for the Principal’s List of Distinction.

Achieving Honours Standing upon high school graduation.

BCIT was NOT what I signed up for

Absolutely not looking forward to attending British Columbia Institute Of Technology (BCIT), I started the Marketing Management program in September of 2002, just 3 months after I graduated high school. I was 18 years old, and was not prepared AT ALL for what I was about to experience.

I very quickly found out why the diploma program was only 2 years long. It was actually a 4 year program condensed into 2 years, which meant twice the workload in half the time. While it’s perfect for its intended audience – students who want to start working in their career field as fast as possible with hand-on skills – it was a disaster for students like myself who didn’t know what they wanted to be when they grew up.

BCIT – Year 1, Level 1: September

No matter what specialization you chose, everyone took the same foundation courses the first year of their Marketing Management Diploma. I had 7 or 8 courses at a time, from September to December and then January to April. Not one class was considered “easy.”

Course List for Level 1, Fall 2002:

  • Computer Applications 1
  • Business Communications 1
  • Microeconomics
  • Accounting 1
  • Essentials of Marketing
  • Business Mathematics
  • Organizational Behaviour

BCIT was full of homework, group projects and late nights. I wasn’t prepared for the heavy course load. I didn’t want to be there and my grades showed it.

To my relief, I met another girl my age who was also not thrilled to be in the program. I’m sure we weren’t a good influence on each other, but she helped me get through Level 1. We would get together to “study”, only to find ourselves going out for tacos.

My BCIT transcript for Levels 1 & 2.

I survived everything except Microeconomics, which I would have passed had I not skipped the class where our instructor gave a pop quiz. It was pouring rain that dark morning. I was tired and decided to catch up on some studying at home for the first block instead of going to class. My lifelong habit of working on my own schedule strikes again.

BCIT – Year 1, Level 2: January

Course List for Level 2, Winter 2003:

  • Principles Of Management
  • Computer Applications 2 for Marketing
  • Business Communications 2
  • Macroeconomics
  • Accounting 2
  • Introduction to Marketing Communications
  • Sales Skills
  • Business Statistics

I made it to level 2 in January, but my friend didn’t. She got really sick and had to be admitted to the hospital. She was actually happy about it and I was jealous – it meant a withdraw for her while I had to go on with something I still didn’t want to do.

The program was hard and there was always so much work. I’ve never been someone who cries, but I cried a lot during my time at BCIT.

Back then, there were no study communities on Instagram that you could turn to for support or inspiration. For the most part, you and your classmates were on your own.

I was the youngest person in my class by at least 8 years. While working on group projects, my classmates suggested we go to the on-campus pub for our meetings, but since I was 18 and still underage I wasn’t allowed in.

I had to re-take microeconomics in summer school before I could advance onto Level 3. A few of my classmates had also failed, so we all sat in the back row and shared a textbook. I passed with 55%.

BCIT – Year 2, Level 3: September

Two weeks into Level 3, my mom was admitted to the hospital for emergency surgery. The doctor told us she had lost so much blood she almost died on the operating table.

Sitting in class stressing about my mom, I made a crucial decision. I didn’t want to be there, and I couldn’t concentrate with everything going on in my personal life.

So I packed up my bag, told my friends sitting on either side of me that I was dropping out, and then I got up and walked out right in the middle of class. It was a lab block so there were only 30 students, and every single person in the room watched me get up and leave.

I went straight to the hospital and spent the afternoon visiting with my mom.

My parents finally cut me some slack after that, and they were ok with me not finishing my diploma. It was early enough in the semester that I received a “Withdraw” on my transcript and got a full tuition refund.

BCIT was over. All in all, it did have some positives. I made a lot of amazing friends and had some great instructors that actually cared about your success.

Missing out

A few years later, in my very early 20s, I felt that maybe I had missed out on the university experience. But it wasn’t about the academic part – it was the opportunity to join a sorority and meet new friends. I thought that maybe I wanted to be a psychiatrist, so I signed up for an English class at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) as a trial run.

I would have to upgrade anyway if I wanted to apply to The University of British Columbia (UBC) since I didn’t take enough provincially examinable courses in high school, and I wasn’t old enough to classify as a “mature” student for entry.

However, it was almost an immediate no. But it wasn’t the course work that was the deterrent, it was the going to class part. I was working full-time then so I had to go to class at night. Even though I had paid for the course with my own money this time, I still dropped out only a few weeks in – and too late for a tuition refund.

Any desire to go to university quickly exited stage right.

Enter: The corporate world, where visions of school dance in my head

Realizing that any sort of formal post-secondary education just wasn’t going to happen, I spent many happy years working in the corporate world. I took a ton of certificate courses relevant to my jobs and actually enjoyed going to class – but only because they were all seminar-style and had a 1 or 2 day max attendance requirement.

And it turns out that I’m not bad at math after all – just the kind that involves trigonometry, calculus or algebra. I excel at and enjoy any real-world math such as budgets, return on investment or job costing.

Throughout my years in the corporate world, I held a few administrative positions of which I seriously considered pursuing as a long-term career.

I got a job as a payroll administrator and was planning on getting my professional payroll designation, only to have the company I was working for go bankrupt 9 months after I started working for them.

After that, I was hired at a construction company as a staff accountant and decided to pursue my Chartered Professional Accountant (CPA) designation. It would be a long road since I didn’t already have a degree, but since I was now much older I thought I would be able to follow through.

Because it was close to my work, I found myself back at BCIT taking accounting courses. I worked full-time during the day, so my only option then were night school classes which I (actually) attended twice a week.

Not long into my new job, I was temporarily transferred to another division for a few months to help out on a large construction project. Because I was such a good fit, my temporary assignment turned into 6 months, then a year, but I still continued to attend my night school classes.

I ended up staying until the very end of the project, and was offered (and accepted) an administrative position in operations.

A great boss = time not wasted

After my big on-project experience, the idea of becoming an accountant and doing the same thing day after day bore me to tears. And if you’ve been following along in my story so far, I bet you can guess that I’d had enough of going to class. No matter how old I got, going to class never seemed to work out for me.

I officially gave up on being a CPA in favour of exploring more exciting opportunities related to my job in operations.

I settled on becoming a certified project manager and met with my boss to discuss my career path. He was so supportive and gave me a real-life “assignment” to help me gauge how much I had to learn if I wanted to step into a new role. It was the best thing he ever could have done for me. As soon as I dug in, I realized I didn’t really want to be a project manager after all.

If it wasn’t for that one hour he graciously spent with me, I would have once again started down the road of abandoned programs and degrees. The truth was, I was now 32 years old and that road was getting a bit weary to travel on.

Finding my true calling

Once again, I felt lost while I tried to decide what to do for a career. I liked my job in operations but that’s all it was – a job. I knew I was capable of so much more.

That’s when I really got into reading blogs. I stumbled across the blog Making Sense of Cents and was mesmerized by the amount of money she makes from her website, just by writing blog posts to help others save money.

Ever since I was little, I have always loved writing. I was that girl who would start her journal entires with “Dear Diary” and they would go on for pages. I never considered writing as a career because I grew up in an era where we were told that writing won’t make you any money.

However, the world is a much different place now. I thought to myself “I could do this blogging thing.” And that’s when I discovered my true calling – writing, digital marketing and content creation.

I wasted no time getting started, and spent every free hour I had working on my newfound passion. In addition to Google research, I took the course Making Sense of Affiliate Marketing (by Michelle at Making Sense of Cents) to speed up my learning process. If she could make 5 figures per month blogging, why couldn’t I?

It was the first blogging related course I ever paid for, and to this day the investment has been worth every penny.

After that, I took Stupid Simple SEO (search engine optimization) to learn how to drive organic traffic to my websites in addition to using Pinterest and Instagram.

I was LOVING taking courses online and on my own schedule. No skipping class, no commute time and no losing interest halfway through.

The discovery of accredited online degrees

It was then I realized I could teach myself anything. The world of online learning was like a shining beacon of hope. And then I had a thought – what if I still pursued an official degree, but did it all online?

Even though I had abandoned many previous attempts, I always felt that one day I might regret not getting a degree. But I wanted to do it for myself – not on the basis of someone else’s merits.

So if I was going to go back to school, it would be to help make my own dreams come true – the dream of finally having my own business and not woking for a company that might go bankrupt, or a job that would bore me to tears.

Online degrees have existed for decades, but I was really skeptical. So skeptical, in fact, that it took me 4 whole months of research before I finally chose a university.

At that time, no one I knew had done any higher education online.

Through my research I found out that not all online degrees are accredited. If was going to do this, I wanted it to matter.

In the end, there really wasn’t much choice in my selection. Since I had been away from post-secondary education for so long (re: my BCIT days) most universities wouldn’t accept the majority of courses I had taken in 2003 because they were now almost 15 years old.

I also wanted my degree to come from a university that was headquartered close to home, so that narrowed my choices even further.

To my surprise, Thompson Rivers University (Open Learning Division) accepted every single one of my courses without question.

Laddering my way to success

One of the great things about Thompson Rivers University is their laddering process. On the way to a bachelors, you have the option to complete a certificate and/or a diploma that contribute to a degree while giving you a piece of paper in the interim.

In 2017, I applied to the Certificate in Management Studies program, and thanks to all my transfer credits, graduated in 2018. I had successfully finished a post-secondary education program for the first time in my life. I was 34 years old.

Because you can be enrolled in two programs at once, I graduated in 2019 with a Diploma in Management Studies.

After that, I immediately started working towards my Bachelor of Commerce in Marketing – all with the end goal of helping myself in my own business.

An online degree is not a piece of cake, however. Even though I’m not on campus, there are times when I don’t feel like studying, get assigned subpar professors or need to inspire myself with some serious inspirational exam quotes.

The clashing of two worlds

I enjoyed my corporate job for a long time, but I was running out of energy to work full-time and run my own business. I had virtually no downtime and was physically and mentally exhausted.

Around the same time, I had finally started to travel extensively, which has always been one of my biggest dreams. After experiencing what the world had to offer, I wanted to travel every chance I got.

Because vacation time at my corporate job was extremely limited, I had to turn down countless trips because I couldn’t get time off, and I was beginning to get frustrated.

It was then I realized a 9-5 job just wasn’t for me anymore. I was ready to take the risk and work on my business full-time – which I could easily do from a café in Paris or while flying to Spain.

After my realization, the turning point came much faster than I expected. The company I was working for underwent a major rebrand and restructure. The environment turned toxic, and the amazing and supportive team we once were completely fell apart.

The last straw was when we had to set official quarterly goals – both professional and personal – that had absolutely nothing to do with our bonuses or compensation. My new direct manager only suggested more administration tasks for me, didn’t feel like my commerce degree was a fit for my current position, and didn’t like even one goal I proposed. I went home that night and cried.

That was it. I knew there was more to life and I was completely capable of achieving what I really wanted. I went on my pre-planned 2 week vacation to Europe, and gave my notice 2 days after I got back.

Aside from starting my own business and actually finishing a post-secondary diploma, leaving my 9-5 was one of my proudest moments in my professional life thus far.

Finally free

Without the weight of a 9-5, I now had complete control over the direction of my future. It allowed me the brain space to fully assess what was best for myself and my own goals – not the arbitrary goals of a faceless corporation.

Because I did (and still do) every part of my business myself, from writing to website design to IT and social media, I realized I had a big gap in my skill set. I was weak in the technical part of running a business, including coding, algorithms and general computer science. I do teach myself what I need to know, but not without a lot of Googling or YouTube in some areas.

For one of my electives in my Bachelor of Commerce program, I chose Computer Programming 1, which covered problem solving and computer programming using the Java language. I immediately loved it and knew in an instant that this was what I really needed to be learning to strengthen my business skill set.

Although general business and marketing is important in running your own business, as a result of my past resume of work and life experience I felt I had developed most of these skills already. Yes, I would dive deeper into those concepts at a higher level, but it wouldn’t give me the technical working skills I really needed on a day-to-day basis.

I didn’t think twice about changing my degree. I was officially accepted into the Bachelor of Computing Science program at Thompson Rivers University (Open Learning). It would take me a bit longer to finish, but I knew it was the right decision.

Life: one big plot twist

The only constant in life is unpredictability. In 2020 we experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, forcing everyone to embrace distance learning. For me, learning online was something I had already been doing for the past 3 years, so that constant of my life didn’t change.

What did change, however, is that my dad was suddenly diagnosed with a very rare type of cancer, putting him in a wheelchair and resulting in me temporarily stepping away from my studies for nearly a year. Our world was completely turned upside down from two different health perspectives.

Studying is not an easy road, but when coupled with full-time work and dire personal events, it forces you to think about what’s really important.

In January 2023, I made the tough decision to officially drop out of my Bachelor of Computing Science program for the foreseeable future. My dad had passed away, and my mom was left with the extremely difficult task of moving out of the home she had lived in for the past 35 years, a hardly attainable job to do on her own.

But we persevered, somehow ending up exactly as we had planned.

With all personal hardships behind me, I was able to think clearly again. My goal remained unchanged all that time: to finish my degree and help other online students through my writing and content creation.

However, with all that time to think I knew switching back to my original plan of pursuing my Bachelor of Commerce in Marketing was the right decision. I just couldn’t handle the type of math that is required for computer science, and my daily work doesn’t really involve the type of coding I can learn on YouTube.

But once again, life is nothing without the plot twists it gives you. I would have liked to finish my degree at Thompson Rivers University, but they had closed their Bachelor of Commerce program the year prior and weren’t accepting any new enrolments.

I chose to look at this as an opportunity. To try a new school, try their online learning systems, and expand my knowledge of distance learning even further.

So I applied to, and was accepted into, the Bachelor of Commerce – Marketing program at Athabasca University, an open, online university in Alberta, Canada. I anticipate a July 1, 2024 start, and I’m excited!

The learning journey never stops

Life really has no limits. Learning new things can be uncomfortable and scary, but taking calculated risk is the best way to grow and the only way to get what you want in this world of unlimited opportunity.

In all the choices I’ve made throughout my formal education journey, my only regret is not graduating high school a year early. But if I did, like the butterfly effect, I may have been in a totally different place now.

I’m not surprised that none of my attempted corporate career paths worked out. Deep down I’ve always been entrepreneurial, but I grew up in an era where it wasn’t as encouraged or as easily accessible as it is today. Thanks to the internet, blogs and social media, I get to do what I love and help others while having the freedom to live and learn on my own schedule.

The world is ever-changing, but it’s never too late to change paths.

I hope sharing my story helps whoever is reading this. Formal education is not a straight path, and everyone’s experience will be vastly different depending on where you attend school, the state of the world and the technology available.

If you feel lost, behind or at a crossroads, just know you’re not alone.

– Alexandra Markin

Being an online student isn’t just for higher education. It’s for learning how to navigate real life – how to manage your money, run your own business, cook or learn a new language.

The learning journey never stops, and it’s why this website exists.

The world has changed. Online learning isn’t for everyone, but if you’re curious you’ll never know until you try.


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