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How to turn your life around

Engineering grad Nathaniel Turnah learned that setbacks don’t have to last forever
By: Will Sloan
June 07, 2018
Nathaniel Turnah

Photo: Nathaniel Turnah went from a low GPA to the Dean’s list. Photo by Clifton Li.

Not every student hits the ground running, but failure doesn’t have to last forever. At the end of his first year at Ryerson, engineering student Nathaniel Turnah was on the cusp of dropping out. On June 8, he’s graduating with high marks and a career lined up.

“When I came to Ryerson, I was really, really shy,” Turnah remembers. “I would do my own thing, stay by myself, just go about my business. … I wasn’t going to classes, I was just staying home, sulking in bed most of the time. But I’m so grateful that failure happened then, because it woke me up.”

Turnah had a steep learning curve. Born in Malaysia and raised in Nigeria, he moved to Canada at age 15 to pursue an education while his family stayed behind. In Toronto, he completed high school while living with a foster family, but felt alienated in an unfamiliar community.

At Ryerson, he finished his first semester with a 2.75 GPA, but by the end of the second semester, he had failed two courses. “I was going through depression, I was missing my family a lot, and I was so alone in that period,” says Turnah. “The friends I thought I had were actually making me feel depressed. There was this one guy who just kept making fun of me in public, with people around, who I thought was my friend—making me feel like I’m nothing. It really dealt a huge blow to my confidence.”

Several factors helped Turnah turn his life around. While Turnah's ex-friend was placed on academic probation, their new class schedules mostly kept them apart. A visit from his family helped buoy his spirits. “I’m really grateful to my parents, especially my dad, because usually the next step after something like this happens would be to call me back. … He was angry at first, but in the end he believed in the project. He came with my mom and siblings, so they saw me and we all had a good time together. They set me back on the right track that summer.”

Crucially, Turnah began emerging from his shell. He attended events for international students and joined study groups with ambitious peers. “I had this one course in the summer where we all did our assignments together, and I got so many friends through that. These were friends who were aiming high, and it helped me aim higher. I surrounded myself with people who were aiming for higher. In the fall semester I took a course and got an A+. ‘This is impossible! How? How?’”

He moved from an isolated neighbourhood to downtown, and his roommates—all PhD candidates—helped him aim higher. “Before I said, ‘Okay, I could get an A+, but if I don’t get it, that’s fine.’ But these guys were like, ‘A+ or nothing else!’ It really moved me.” Turnah ended the 2016/17 school year on the Dean’s list.

His support system expanded with his extracurricular activities: he served on the Ryerson Aero Design Team; was hired as a project manager for Ryerson’s Intro to Engineering course; and worked on the support staff at the Ryerson Athletics Centre. Outside of school, he sings in the choir and tutors piano at his church. “All these things, they came after that moment of failure,” he says.

This summer, Turnah starts a new job as project coordinator at Turner Construction Company. Turnah advises struggling students to honestly assess their situation, and to not hesitate about seeking help. “If your so-called friends are bringing you down, or you don’t have a good support system, the Ryerson community is a support system. There are so many groups I joined that brought so many good people around me, and that changed everything. But back in first year, I didn’t have this.

“Often there is this kind of tendency for international students to not really feel aligned with the culture and become secluded. They don’t want to push themselves out of their comfort zone, but it’s really necessary. If you join and give to your community, you get back from your community as well.”

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