Student profile: Hannah Hermanson (CivE Year 3)

Changing lanes in academic pursuits and sports

Hannah Hermanson (CivE Year 3) poses in the SF Pit with her Engineering leather jacket sporting 2T3 on the sleeve. (Photo courtesy Hannah Hermanson)

Hannah Hermanson is a third year Civil Engineering student currently employed during her Professional Experience Year (PEY) in Calgary. As a student-athlete she has been a member of the U of T Varsity Blues swim team for four years and has now switched to water polo. Academically, she switched lanes too, changing from a path in math and physics to one in Engineering.

This interview was conducted at the end of the school year, then updated recently to add her PEY experience.

Can you tell us just a little bit about yourself?
I’m Hannah Hermanson in third year Civil Engineering and I’m also planning on doing a minor in business. I’m originally from Hawaii, but both of my parents are Canadians, and I have dual citizenship. That’s kind of what pushed me to come to U of T.

I’ve been swimming competitively for 16 years. I started when I was super young and, since we were living in Hawaii, it was more because of safety concerns that my parents got me into swimming. We were always at the beach, and they didn’t want us to drown, so it was mandatory swimming lessons if you’re going to go to the beach.

Since then, I’ve been swimming everywhere we lived. We moved to Spain when I was 12, so wound up swimming competitively there for three years, then we came back to the States, to North Carolina for high school, and was swimming there. Then I came to U of T and I’ve been swimming the past four years with the [Varsity Blues] team here.

Were you born in Hawaii? It’s a big weather adjustment here in Canada from there.
Yes, I was born in Maui. It’s very different being here, especially in April when it’s still snowing.

Why U of T? What attracted you specifically to this institution?
My mom’s from Alberta, and my dad is originally from Ontario, so there was a tie to Ontario, but I was mostly just attracted to U of T for the academics and the programs.

And why Engineering at U of T?
Originally, in my first year, I was in math and physics in the Arts and Science program – that was what I got into U of T for.

Then I thought if I was going to be doing all the work for math and physics, and all the calculations and everything related, I wanted it to have some real-world application. So, midway through the first semester in math and physics, I thought, “You know what? I need to do a more applied discipline.” I applied to transfer into Civil Engineering, then finished my first year in math and physics and got into engineering that summer.

Hannah Hermanson (CivE Year 3) swimming the backstroke in competition for the U of T Varsity Blues swim team.

Engineering is known to be rigorous, academically, and you’re also a Varsity athlete. How do you maintain balance with that and keep some sort of personal life?
For swimming it was set up pretty nice – we have 11 practices throughout the week and we need to go to a minimum of six of them.

There’s morning practices and afternoon practices so, depending on your class schedule, you can make your own schedule. Since I’ve been at U of T, I’ve mostly been going to morning practices because I have classes all afternoon.

To make the morning practices, I’d go to bed pretty early; it’s all about time management. I feel like I would finish courses, have two hours to do homework and then I needed to start winding down to go to bed to wake up early enough to go to practices. Usually, I would stop work around 9 p.m. and be asleep by 10 p.m. and then morning practices are usually at 6:30 a.m., sometimes 7 a.m.

In high school, classes started so much earlier than the usual 9 a.m. here at U of T, so I would have to wake up at 4 or 4:15 a.m. for practice. Then, when I came to U of T, I thought, wow, swimming is an enjoyable sport again. I really started to love it again just because of the great atmosphere and the coaches are so much more relaxed. They’re like, “You’re an adult – you can come to practice if you want to. If you don’t, we really don’t care, we have so many other athletes to attend to.” The whole staff is great. Everyone from Byron MacDonald [Head Coach], Linda Keifer [Assistant Head Coach] and Doug Vanderby [Assistant Coach] is simply spectacular.

 You seem very capable of assessing your situation and changing direction on the fly. You went from math and physics to Engineering; you went from swimming, an individual sport, and moved to water polo, a team sport. How very adaptable.
Yes, changing and testing it out. I tend to make the decision and then, deal with the aftermath as it comes. Whether I have doubts, or not, I just deal with it as it comes. But I do definitely feel like I have made some pretty big changes.

It’s amazing to have that kind of confidence, some inner strength. Kudos to you. Now you’ve wrapped up competitive swimming and now you’re doing water polo at U of T. Does it require a different set of skills, because instead of individual events it’s now as part of a team?
It is very different. I’ve only been doing water polo for four weeks. I’m still very new there, so they’re teaching me how to throw, how to hold my hand, how to do the eggbeater kick. I’m still learning the basics. It’s very different from swimming, but super fun.

How does that work now for your schedule and balancing academics, athletics and personal time?
They only have six practices a week and they offer and their practices are from 7 p.m. at night to 9 p.m. On Wednesdays they’re from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. So when I’m usually winding down, they’re just starting. It’s a very,  very different thing for me to get used to. My day has usually been over by 9 p.m., but now it doesn’t really start until then for water polo practices. I get home at 11 and, well, I don’t fall asleep for at least another two hours.

Have you played any matches as it in water polo now, or just been practicing?
No, I’ve just been trying to learn the basics. Their season ended in December, so everything they’re doing right now is just practicing and a few scrimmages.

Do you think having these two very arduous time commitments has kept you very disciplined and structured for the use of your time?
I’m definitely not able to procrastinate assignments, because I just don’t have time to procrastinate them. I feel pretty thankful I’ve always had a time crunch with my schedule. I only ever have an hour or two at a time to work on things, so I can’t put it off till that night. I just don’t have time. It’s what really helped me throughout high school and in general.

You’re in third year right now. Did you go to Camp at the beginning of the year?
I’m actually doing my PEY this year and then I’m planning to do Camp the following summer. 

Are there any professors or other people at the University, and particularly in Engineering, that you think fondly of, or who have made an impact on you? Maybe somebody you want to give a little shoutout to?  
I thoroughly enjoyed the course APS301 – Technology in Society and the Biosphere, taught by Prof. Robert Irish I absolutely loved that course.

Also, Prof. Susan Andrews’s course CIV220 Urban Engineering Ecology, Pedram Mortazavi (CivE PhD candidate) in CIV312 too – Pedram was our instructor for CIV312 last year.

You’re three years in now – did you start first year in person?
Yes, my first year of Engineering at U of T was all in-person classes, until about March 2020 when everything went downhill. I was happy to have one whole year with everyone before we had to spend a year with remote learning.

So are you are you glad to see in-person classes come back, even though there’s been some, restrictions on gatherings and you have to wear mask?
Yeah, I definitely think so. Last year I was in Hawaii for most of it. There’s a six-hour time difference, so I was doing a lot of my 9 a.m. Toronto time classes by waking up at 4 a.m., depending on daylight savings. I would just be sitting there at my desk at home and nobody else was awake but me. That part I really don’t miss.

I did like when you could watch lectures at your leisure and rewatching lectures was super useful, but I definitely prefer in person. As well, seeing my friends and going to lectures together just helps build this sense of community. I feel like it’s such a big part of helping you get through Engineering. Sure, the courses are hard, but the people make it better.

During the pandemic you made the decision to go back home to your parents in Hawaii.
I went home in March 2020 and then I came back the following fall because training for swimming was happening, and we were hoping things would open up. So I came back with high hopes. But then, around Thanksgiving, it kind of just shut down and then it just got more closed from there on. I went back and stayed home for the whole next semester.

Now you’re back to classes and Varsity sports full time.
I live right along Bloor, 10 minutes from campus, with three other swimmers and two track athletes. It’s a house of six girls, all athletes, so they train a lot in the AC [Athletic Centre] too. It only takes about 10 minutes to get ready in the morning – we leave exactly seven minutes before we have to be at the pool. We have it down to a science and we all convene in the hallway at 6:07 a.m. – we never leave on an even number. Then we get to the pool exactly when we need to be there, not a minute wasted.

Do you have any places on campus that you say this is my go-to spot on campus or maybe an off-campus place you go?
I go to Sid Smith quite a bit, since it’s so close to the pool. If I finish practice and have an odd hour between when classes start, I would just go to Sid Smith. And New College – the lounge in New College is where swimmers just end up doing work after or before practices, as it’s so close to the AC.

Is there any other place, even off campus, where you seek out a familiar or comforting dish? Perhaps something that tastes like home?
No. I’ve tried a few poke bowls here, but they hardly compare to the ones back home. I’d say Zaad, this Mediterranean place on Bloor me and my roommates go there all the time.

I guess it’s been pretty short term for you living in Canada really, but is there anything that you found here that you go, oh, we just don’t have that at home?
Definitely ice skating in my first year – I really took advantage of the family skate times on Sundays. That was super fun. I bought my first pair of skates, as I was really thinking I’d need to embrace the Canadian side of me. So, I’ve been trying to learn how to skate, and every time I go home to Hawaii, I think, oh, I wish we had skating rinks here to cool off.

Is there any food here that is unique. To hear that you found that you go oh, shoot when you don’t have that in Hawaii.
I absolutely love poutine. I’ve had to make that a couple of times at home just because it’s so good. And Timbits every time. We’ve come to Canada before, as I have relatives in Alberta, and every time we come I always get Timbits. It’s a running joke inside my family that every time you go to Canada, Hannah needs to get Timbits. So Tim Horton’s and poutine, the most stereotypical Canadian snacks.

Do you have an unusual or a different kind of a hobby, or some other talent that somebody may not know about, except that we’re asking you here now?
I do quite a few other sports outside. When I was 12, my dad taught my sister and I to kite surf, so every time I’m in Hawaii we kite surf quite a bit. There was a pretty big learning curve there for that. I love rock climbing, and snowboarding.

And I’m kind of a grandma in some ways, as I really like to knit and crochet.

Your next step, as you already said, is you’re going to do a PEY. Can you say where you’re going to go work this summer?
I’m going out to Calgary, Alberta – as I said most of my family is in Alberta – and I just loved snowboarding. I thought the mountains are there, my family is there, it’s cheaper to live there and I like the job. So, I’ll be in Calgary for 12 months with Enbridge. It’s an enterprise asset management position.

Can you give us some updates on the PEY Co-op Position? (added after the original interview)
It’s a super-great environment. The first couple of weeks it felt like I was drinking from a fire hose, because there was so much information to learn in a very short period of time. Now that it has been a couple of months I am much more in the groove of things.

It’s a very self-directed position, so I have a lot of freedom to explore different areas in the company and talk to people about what they do. I’ve been going on a lot of coffee chats to see all the different career paths that other engineers have taken. It’s fascinating how many turns people take and changes they make in their careers.

Calgary has been wonderful, I’ve tried to go to the mountains as much as possible, camping, hiking, I even got a day of summer skiing in on the July long weekend. It’s also nice being near family, they’ve made the transition much easier.


By Phill Snel