How to train for your dream job by being in two places at once

Online education allowed Edward Scarpazza to work on his undergrad while getting experience in the field as a paramedic

Edward Scarpazza
Scarpazza, 26, was working as a paramedic when he decided he wanted to become a doctor (photograph by Sarah Dea)

Scarpazza, 26, was working as a paramedic when he decided he wanted to become a doctor (photograph by Sarah Dea)

I graduated from paramedic school in 2014. The diploma was a great fit for me, since I love working with people and I love medicine. I decided that I wanted to go as far as I could in the medical field and become a physician. I had to figure out a way to work as a paramedic while building my future as a physician, and I knew I needed an undergraduate degree.

My course coordinator at paramedic school told me that I could bridge my college program over to a degree program at Athabasca University in Alberta, which specializes in online education. And then it clicked—online school was how I was going to work on my undergrad while getting experience in the field.

As a paramedic, you see a lot of traumatic things on the road. The shifts are long, and they don’t just affect you physically—seeing people who are sick or in pain, who are dying or dead, affects you emotionally. It definitely affected my schoolwork in the first year or two. But with experience and time, I got used to separating what happened at work from my studies.

At Athabasca, the education is really self-directed. They give you a study guide and say, okay, this is the material you should be looking at, these are the readings and objectives for certain units, and so on. The rest is really up to you, including how you schedule your exams, which are normally run in-person at a testing centre. I’ve always been independent and self-motivated, so making my own schedule works really well for me, especially given my job, where the shifts can be all over the place.

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Sure, there are some things you miss. The biggest drawback of online study is that it can get kind of lonely, even if you’re good at studying on your own. But there are ways to work around it. For one thing, there are so many social media groups dedicated to Athabasca students, and through those, I’ve met some other students in my area. We get together to study sometimes. Also, Athabasca offers resources to connect students, like classroom discussion forums.

Clarifying concepts isn’t always easy when you don’t interact with professors in person, but each class has an assigned tutor, like a TA, who’s responsible for answering questions about the material. You send them an email, and they always answer really quickly. In one of my organic chemistry courses, I asked a tutor to clarify a difficult concept and we ended up chatting on the phone. In that one discussion, she clarified a bunch of related concepts and made the rest of the course so much easier.

For some of my courses, like microbiology, I had to travel to Athabasca (from my home in Kingston, Ont.) to participate in in-person labs. The school provided a list of places to stay, including with local alumni, and I ended up staying with one of them. She offered lodging to myself and two other students, cooked dinner for us and showed us around. It was really amazing.

Professors have office hours, just like at any other university. Some professors spend a great deal of time clarifying concepts in difficult courses, which has really made a world of difference. They often provide their phone numbers. That’s one thing that I really appreciate—it feels like the professors want you to succeed.

Right now, I’m working directly with COVID-19-positive or suspected positive patients as a paramedic, and that’s been quite stressful—especially since I live with my grandparents. Not much has changed for me in terms of my schooling, except that I don’t know if I’ll be able to write my MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) in September. I don’t want to say that the pandemic has any benefits, but at least it’s showing that online university is a valuable way to get an education. That said, I’m eager for the prospect of returning to in-person studies at medical school. I miss the experience, knowledge and perspectives of classmates and professors. Also, I miss the shared passion for a field of study that motivated me to pursue further academic and professional goals.

as told to Liza Agrba