2019 J.D. Leslie Prize winner

Agata Nowak

A Dream Come True

At the Faculty of Arts Convocation Ceremony on October 26, 2019, Agata Nowak was "thrilled” to receive the J.D. Leslie award, while her husband and young daughter looked on proudly and her fellow graduates applauded her inspiring journey. The Prize represents outstanding achievement in an undergraduate degree earned primarily through online courses. This year’s winner is many things: new Canadian, wife, mother, full-time worker, housekeeper, gardener, half-marathon runner, weightlifter and now a University of Waterloo Graduate.

Agata Nowak

Her journey truly demonstrates a dedication for lifelong learning. When Aga (as she prefers to be called) left her native Poland to move to Canada at the age of 20, she thought she had to give up her dream of getting a degree. In 2010, newly pregnant and working full-time, she decided to once again pursue that dream, determined to be a better role model for her daughter, and make her parents proud. Aga believes “they were always secretly skeptical about my chances of graduating from university after moving to a different continent.”

She found the opportunity at the University of Waterloo – in her words "the most prestigious university that offered entirely online degrees" – and began her part-time studies, studying mostly at night, after the rest of the family had gone to bed.

Despite the language, economic, and cultural barriers she faced as a new immigrant, she was determined not only to succeed, but excel, and she did, completing her Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature, and graduating in Winter 2019, on the Dean’s Honours List with a 90.35 average.

When asked about her favour courses she says “My two absolute favourites were American Lit and Popular Potter – the latter was my very last course, an elective that I took for the sheer pleasure of it. As a lifelong Harry Potter fan, I loved being Sorted into Houses and finally finding out what my Patronus was. And the exam was the best.  I took it at one of UW’s exam centres, so the students were all from different disciplines.  Depending on the course, some of us were allowed to bring aids. My aids were all seven Harry Potter novels, which I meticulously lined up on my desk. There wasn’t one person who didn’t do a double take as they walked past me.  Before I knew it, the whole room was engaged in a lively discussion about Harry, which completely eradicated my pre-exam jitters.”

Aga firmly believes studying online was the only way she was able to reach her dream of earning a University Degree. It requires self-discipline, but “online education lets you work toward a better future while keeping up with the present.”

Over the 9 years it took to complete her degree, the support of her family and friends was crucial. “I was fortunate enough to have Canadian friends who refused to listen to my ‘English-is-not-my-first-language’ excuses” she explains “they encouraged me to apply and cheered me on through the years.”

Aga would also like to thank those who were instrumental in her academic success, in particular Professors Jay Dolmage, Victoria Lamont, and Jennifer Harris, for their support and guidance, and whose connection as advisors and instructors transcended what she thought possible online.

Her advice to other people who are considering going back to school: “If you want a degree, you can absolutely get it. No matter how many conflicting responsibilities you have, you can make it work. You can overcome any obstacles in your way. How do I know? Because if I can do it – a new Canadian, wife, mother, full-time worker, housekeeper, gardener, half-marathon runner, weightlifter – then you can do it too!”