Annie Clark says playing a student on the series Degrassi: Next Generation came easily to her, but actually being one? That’s a different story.
Clark, who portrayed Fiona Coyne on the teen drama for four years, says the confidence she possessed while starring on the show didn’t initially carry over into the classroom at the University of Toronto, where she pursued a bachelor of arts.
"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."
But Clark was able to overcome these fears and other challenges she encountered along the way to completing her degree. She graduates this spring putting a cap on a 10-year academic journey in which she split her time between Toronto and Los Angeles to pursue acting projects.
"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."
Clark has been charting her own path ever since high school, when she opted to continue acting on Degrassi instead of following the majority of her classmates to university. She was on the show during her last two years of high school and what would have been her first two years of university.
Annie Clark on set at her Degrassi graduation episode
When her time on the show wrapped up in 2012, Clark came to a crossroads.
"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 University of Toronto that year, but didn’t give up on acting. Balancing the life of an actor with the demands of university wasn’t easy, she says. She recalls meeting with an academic advisor, who helped her manage her priorities. "She made me feel like it was okay to make the choice to put school on pause," she says.
After a hiatus during which she landed TV and movie roles, including a starring role in the 2013 thriller Solo, she returned to university 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."
At University of Toronto, Clark chose to register for courses on topics that interested her rather than pursuing a major where her courses would be mapped out for 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, eventually discovering that the American studies program was the best fit.
"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, juggling assignments and auditions was tough for Clark, especially since she continued to divide her time between Toronto and L.A., spending the fall semester at University of Toronto while living in California from January to June. "That’s why it ended up taking me so long," she says.
She took another break from her studies and moved to L.A. full-time in January 2020 - just weeks before the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic swept over North America. When the film and TV industries came to a sudden halt, she returned to Toronto to be with family.
Clark resumed her studies again when University of Toronto moved to remote learning - a format that ended up playing to her strengths as a student. She found it easier to focus leading her grades to skyrocket - and confidence, too.
"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 still has a passion for acting and is auditioning for future projects while wrapping up her latest film, Love Hacks, in which she plays the lead role.
"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."