Interview with Upper Canada College Alum, Chris Birks
Chris Birks graduated from Upper Canada College in 2006. Because of Upper Canada College’s learning center and the support network available at the school, he developed techniques for studying, focusing, creating the right learning environment, and getting motivated. He also enjoyed many extracurricular activities such as sports and music. After high school, Chris left for Scotland to pursue a bachelor’s degree at the University of St. Andrew’s in Ireland and a master’s degree in London, England. Chris worked around Europe until landing a job in the prosecutor’s office at the International Criminal Court. He is now practicing as an international commercial lawyer at a law firm in London in the aerospace sector. Chris credits Upper Canada College for setting him on the path for success and ambition and instilling in him a lifelong love of learning.
Highlights from the interview
You can achieve whatever it is that you want to achieve at Upper Canada College. I don't think the school forces boys too much to do this or that. Upper Canada College tries to keep the boys on the right path, but I think the message that comes through is ‘whatever you want to do, we can help you do that, and you're worthy of accomplishing that.’
Upper Canada College made a dream like going to St. Andrews possible in the first place. It was not a school I was even aware of prior. Still, in the last two years of my time at Upper Canada College, I chatted with the university's officer about the various options available to me. I had basically told him that I was looking for an adventure, and I wanted to be relatively far afield, but I wanted it to be in English, preferably. So that narrowed things down a fair bit to sort the British Isles to somewhere, either Ireland or the UK. We talked about St. Andrew’s, and I visited it and had an interview. I loved it, and that's how I ended up there.
What drove me in part to the U.K. was my love of history. At Upper Canada College, I was the President of the history club, and I was also an assistant to the school's archivist. Upper Canada College has an archivist, which is a function of the fact that the school was founded in 1829 and is older than the country itself. I was very interested in that, and at Upper Canada College, it felt like I was living a part of that history.
I was involved athletically. I was on the badminton team as a singles and doubles player. I played competitively against several schools in the region. Apart from that, I was involved a great deal in the band. We travelled to Calgary for a concert/band competition out there. I don't think we won, but we had a lot of fun. I was involved in the Model United Nations, which was really fun. The symposium, which brought people from all over the world, was held in Montreal the year that I was part of it, which is very fortunate for us. We had the somewhat difficult task of playing North Korea on the nuclear disarmament Committee, part of the model UN.
I would say my proudest moment at Upper Canada College would have been going from being in a difficult place academically at the beginning of high school, to achieving a general proficiency award at the school. I improved so much academically because of Upper Canada College’s learning center and the support network available at the school, which helped me to develop techniques for studying, focusing, creating the right learning environment and getting motivated. There was a big jump over about a year from not achieving what I wanted to achieve, to being on track to going to a very good university abroad.
Upper Canada College is very much at the top echelons of independent schools, not just in Ontario, but in the country. My grandfather attended Upper Canada College, which would have been in the 1920s. I have actually a copy of one of his textbooks from the 1920s, which was emblazoned with the school's crest, and it was leather-bound. It's very elegant, nothing like the standardized textbook we all use today. My parents’ goal was to get me to go to an excellent school and use that to move on to an excellent university, and so on. I distinctly recall going through the process. I must have been ten or eleven years old when I wrote the SSATS. I think there may have been an interview. I remember going into the Upper Canada College preparatory school just at the end of Grade 6 and meeting with the head of admissions, who informed my parents and me that I made it in, which was a very happy moment
Upper Canada College has facilities and resources to allow someone to pursue excellence in any field or endeavour. Be it dramatic arts or athletic pursuits. Upper Canada College has world-class athletic facilities, wonderful art and design facilities, both in digital arts, and painting and drawing. Upper Canada College also has great English and foreign language teachers. If you have passion, Upper Canada College will be able to nurture it.
What I appreciated about Upper Canada College is not just the facilities, but the people. The teachers were incredibly inspiring. Many of them excelled in their subjects before joining the school to teach their disciplines.
The Common Ties Network is incredible, the UCC Alumni Association, which is helpful to introduce boys who have just left the school to people who have attained a certain level of success in the field that those boys might be interested in. It also is really useful for keeping boys linked to the school as they grow up. So in my case, for example, I've been in the UK for 14 years now. Still, not a year has gone by where I haven’t met with dozens of Upper Canada College boys via the UK London-based Alumni Reception, which is always really fun. On some occasions, it is actually held in the Canadian High Commission, the embassy.
As a student, it feels a bit like you are living part of the school’s history. Upper Canada College is older than the Confederated country of Canada. It has artifacts dating back to the early 19th century, Victoria Crosses, uniforms, etc. It gives you a sense of the gravity of what you're living, that people who have achieved excellence, have made pages of history written about them, have attended that school, and walked those halls along with you. So all of it together makes for a really valuable experience for sure.
What differentiates Upper Canada College from other schools is the school’s history. UCC is called Upper Canada College because Ontario was still called ‘Upper Canada when it was founded.’ There are many great private and independent schools around the country, some of which are single-sex like Upper Canada College, and others not. I can't think of one with the story that Upper Canada College has, whose story stretches as far back as Upper Canada College’s does, and is as illustrious as Upper Canada College’s is. I would say that is the biggest distinguishing factor. I haven't attended those other schools, so I'm sure many of them have similar levels of excellence, but that's what makes Upper Canada College really stick out. Probably one thing I would add is the International Baccalaureate, although that is not unique to Upper Canada College. I think that sets Upper Canada College apart from many schools, even very good schools in the country.
The three phrases I would use to describe Upper Canada College would be values-driven, ambitious, and distinguished.
Upper Canada College instills in its students a sense of community, a sense of responsibility for the community, and a sense of moral purpose.
When you attend Upper Canada College in all its grandeur, you approach the school from several miles away, and you can see the clock tower rising up on the Hill, which is in the center of the country’s largest city. You have a sense that you are part of something great and that if you play your cards right, great things await you. I would say that UCC boys leave Upper Canada College with a sense of drive and a desire to achieve in whatever field of endeavour they embark upon.
At Upper Canada College boys are given a choice of subjects, I mean, that's not unique, but when they get into those subjects, there are loads of extracurriculars that flow from those subjects. At Upper Canada College, you can study theatre arts as part of the International Baccalaureate subject program and participate in an extracurricular production in a professional-grade theatre. In your early high school years, you can be part of physical education as a subject, but you can then join the hockey team and play in an Olympic class facility with coaches who have the best experience.
What might surprise some people is that not every boy that goes to Upper Canada College is a boy of means, whose family is wealthy, who are from the surrounding area. Upper Canada College draws boys from all kinds of socioeconomic backgrounds through the various scholarship programs, but also from around the world via the boarding program.
Being a student at Upper Canada College gives you a sense that you are receiving the best education that money can buy. I think when you're young, and you're made aware of that, you must also be made aware that your view is not the only view, that there are people from all walks of life in the real world who have not had the same experience as you. You need to be open-minded to those people, and to the very different experiences they've had. So while I was at Upper Canada College, I can't think of any particular incidents of boys being made to feel that their opinion is special, but I think there needs to be a very robust reminder, and a regular reminder that you are very lucky, and that out there, your view is not the only view.
My perspective on Upper Canada College has not necessarily changed, but it's become richer as I've seen the benefits the school bestows on its students, over a longer period as I get older. When I first left, I was incredibly grateful that the school backed me up and was there for me when I was falling behind and helped bring me to where I wanted to be, so that I could go where I wanted to go. That has added to my appreciation for the fact that the Upper Canada College experience is not limited to the number of years that you are at the school. It lasts far, far longer. That has been particularly important, and has only come into my awareness as I get older. That would be the primary thing that has evolved in my thinking about Upper Canada College.
I would wholeheartedly recommend students to go to Upper Canada College if they have the opportunity. I suppose the biggest reasons are the facilities and resources to make dreams come true, to enable a student to accomplish things and gain excellence in things that they had not considered possible before. Another big thing is that you're walking in very big footsteps. You're walking in a very long and remarkable line of students. That feeling of the gravity of where you're attending pervades everything you do. It can be intimidating at first, but once you get used to it, it is a strong force that drives a person to achieve excellence.
When you get out of Upper Canada College, once you graduate, you will never be without a network of old boys to depend on, both in a professional sense, and much more importantly in a personal sense. So I'd say, from being at the school and benefitting from the programs, the facilities, and the teachers that Upper Canada College has to offer, which are unparalleled, all the way through to even being late in your career, and having the very fond memories that are brought back by a meeting at whatever alumni reception, those are all very important things.
Upper Canada College is a very special place that makes all kinds of things possible, and it is a worthy education. You've got nothing to lose by sending your son to what I consider the best school in the country.
No place besides Upper Canada College can give students the resources and the backing, both in terms of facilities, but probably most importantly in terms of people, to accomplish whatever you want.