Annie Clark often found that playing a student was much easier than being a student.
Clark, who is graduating as a member of Innis College, had no trouble raising her hand in class as Fiona Coyne on the popular television series Degrassi, which she starred in from 2009 to 2013.
Playing a character who wrestled with anxiety, alcoholism, domestic violence and her sexual identity, Clark exuded confidence.
Being a student at U of T? That was a little more challenging.
“With acting, I go on several job interviews every week and I put myself out there and perform,” she says. “And it's funny because that doesn't make me nervous.
“But raising my hand in class made me really nervous. I guess it’s because I had so much more experience in acting atmospheres. I never felt super confident in school, so I would get so nervous if I had to speak in front of the class.”
Overcoming these fears, Clark juggled acting and academics and completed an honours bachelor of arts degree in American studies, capping an academic journey that spanned ten years.
“As I was doing my last exam, it was surreal,” she says. “It took me a while to realize there was nothing left to do.”
I feel really happy to have my degree, should I decide to change paths again. To me, it’s a symbol of my dedication and perseverance. And it's going to be so exciting to walk across the stage at graduation and have my family there.
Clark graduated from high school in 2010, and many of her friends immediately headed to university. But she was in the middle of her contract with Degrassi and enjoying life as an actor. She was on the show for her last two years of high school and for what would have been her first two years of university.
When her time on the show wrapped up in 2012, Clark came to a crossroad.
“I didn’t have a plan after the show ended,” she says. “I did a few movies, but those took a month or two. I felt I needed to commit to something I could focus on for the long term.”
She enrolled at U of T that year, and occasionally a classmate would approach her and ask if she was that actor from Degrassi. Clark never minded the attention — she found those who asked were always polite and she was flattered by the recognition.
At that time, Clark was still very much involved with acting, and as a result, struggled to complete her classes. She recalls a pivotal meeting with an academic advisor who helped her accept the fact that she was still devoted to performing.
“She made me feel like it was okay to make the choice to put school on pause,” she says.
Four years and a few television and movie roles later — including the 2013 thriller Solo where she was in every single scene — Clark returned to academics in 2016.
“Things were slowing down acting-wise, and I was looking to focus on something productive,” she says. “With acting, you don't have a lot of control over anything. With school, I was in control of what I was taking.”
Clark’s path to graduation was a little unconventional — rather than have a set major, she took different courses that interested her. She explored several disciplines, not surprisingly, beginning with film.
“But I had been working in the film industry since I was 14. So I asked myself, ‘Why am I trying to study something I’m already working in?’”
She then considered other areas like sociology, law and criminology, but nothing stuck.
“When I stepped back, I realized I was taking courses that fit perfectly into an American studies degree, though it was something I hadn't really considered,” says Clark.
“It was perfect for someone who didn't want to dive into one discipline. I got to take political science courses, English courses, history courses. This degree was so much more about learning than it was trying to get a specific job in a specific field.”
Still, continually shifting from assignments and auditions wasn’t easy, especially with Clark living in Los Angeles for half the year.
“That's why it ended up taking me so long,” she says. “I would do a semester at U of T from September to December. And then I would live in L.A. from January to June. That worked for me until I realized there were full-year courses I needed to get to graduate, I couldn’t keep taking half courses.”
She again decided to put school on pause and moved to L.A. full-time in January 2020 — and three months later the COVID-19 pandemic began. When the acting industry shut down, she returned to Toronto to be with family that spring.
As the pandemic worsened and U of T switched to online learning, Clark decided to enroll again. And then something clicked.
She was able to focus solely on school and she loved the online learning format. Her grades skyrocketed, as did her confidence.
“I never enjoyed school as much as I did in the last year and a half,” she says. “I loved doing it online. I felt much more accountable and less nervous to participate. And it made me feel so good to be productive during such a crazy time. I came out of my shell in a way that I didn't expect.
“I know that wasn’t most people's experience with online learning, but for me it just worked.”
Clark’s first love is still acting. She’s back to auditioning and wrapping up her latest film, playing the leading role in Love Hacks which is being shot in Hamilton and the GTA.
“But I feel really happy to have my degree, should I decide to change paths again,” she says.
“To me, it’s a symbol of my dedication and perseverance. And it's going to be so exciting to walk across the stage at graduation and have my family there.”
Congratulations to U of T's Class of 2022!
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