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Alumni Interviews: The path from humanities student to corporate lawyer and mentor

Photo of: Philip SymmondsPhilip Symmonds (BA 1984, University College; MA 1987) switched paths to become a corporate lawyer. Symmonds returned to U of T to share his experience and offer advice to students as a mentor in the Backpack to Briefcase (b2B) programThat experience inspired Philip to donate to the university. He and his wife established the Philip Symmonds and Jennifer Le Dain Symmonds Undergraduate Scholarship. The award, which was matched through the Boundless Promise Program, will support students with financial need in the Department of English and/or those affiliated with University College.

What made you decide to attend U of T?

I grew up in Kingston, which has a pretty good university of its own, but like many kids, I wanted to go to school away from home and Toronto was a big, exciting city. When I visited, I loved the campus, which, to me, looked just as a university should. On top of that, the course calendar had what seemed like a bottomless pit of course offerings, and there was so much I thought I could take.

What was the appeal of studying English?

I was pretty good at English in high school and was always a voracious reader, but in Grade 13 I took three maths, three sciences, English and French. There was pressure at that time to study engineering. The economy of the ‘70s and early ‘80s was no wedding cake, and jobs for students were in short supply. I was either very naïve or very out of touch, but I thought I should study what I liked best.

Any favourite memories from your time at U of T?

Of course, I remember having a lot of fun. Oddly, though, it’s not the social aspect that I think of so much when I think back, but the great courses, books and professors. U of T was the “door in the wall” for me that opened into a world of writing and thought.

Why did you decide to go to law school?

After my undergraduate degree, I did an MA at U of T. I knew pretty soon into it that it wasn’t for me. It was getting very specialized and becoming less interesting to me. Someone said at the time that U of T had not hired a tenure track English professor in eight years. I also had to be honest and admit that I couldn’t see myself excelling at it. Reality set in, and I decided to make a change.

How did your studies in the humanities prepare you for your future career?

Practising corporate law requires a great deal of interpretation of agreements, case law and statutes. It is a different process from interpreting a poem or a big novel, but it involves close reading and the exercise of judgment in applying statutes, provisions and tests to facts. Also, studying English improves written and verbal communication skills, which are critical in the practice of law. I recall one writer saying that the way to become a great writer was to read constantly and that too few potential authors invested enough time reading. I think it is true that continuous exposure to good writing makes you a better all-round communicator.

Why did you decide to become involved as a mentor at U of T?

I was happy to share my experiences and to see if I could be helpful. The b2B program is a great way for alumni to come back and make students aware of the variety of potential career paths. I thought it was important to encourage the development of the program and be part of it. I am always impressed by the students who are willing to walk into a room where they don’t know anybody and begin to network.

What do you hope students gain from b2B and being able to speak with you?

I hope that the students come away feeling more confident about the future. I also hope that they see that people view their own humanities education as having been highly valuable. I think both are important in an era where the value of the humanities is being challenged.

What did you take away from the experience of being a mentor?

I think it has just been a great experience to reconnect with the university. Even to walk the campus tends to put a spring in my step. The students are uniformly impressive. I like hearing about their courses and their reading, what the latest hot spots are, and the range of their interests. It always leaves me feeling very positive and upbeat. There is something about spending time with young people who are so full of potential and promise and with the world before them.

What inspired you to take the next step to become a donor and set-up a scholarship?

The experience of reconnecting with the university made me aware of how important U of T had been to me. When discussing the possibility of a scholarship, it sounded perfect to me and my wife, especially as there was a financial need component, which allowed us to assist deserving students. I received a couple of scholarships when I was a student, and felt very proud and honoured to receive them (I think I still remember their names!). I felt the scholarship founders must have been some remote plutocrats from the past. Now I know they were just people who were privileged to have the opportunity to give back.