The advice I wish had followed in first year

University dropout-turned-business executive shares some words of wisdom with his younger self

As a small-town kid from a working-class family in Stony Plain, Alberta, Ryan Bowhay, 01’ BCom, had a hard time adjusting to university life. He lacked direction, struggled to focus and – on top of it all – his mom suffered from a serious car accident in his first year. Eventually, he was forced to drop out. 

It took him a year of upgrading while working full-time to get his life back on track. During that time his dad passed away.  He was working and taking care of his mom and his sister.  His back was against the wall so he called the assistant dean of the University of Alberta’s commerce program not once, not twice, but 42 times. When he finally got through to her, she agreed to give him a second chance. 

“She just said, ‘Promise me that if you come back to the university, you'll apply the same amount of persistence that you applied to get into your studies’,” says Bowhay. 

He didn’t let her down. 

Since graduating, he has channeled that same persistence toward a rewarding career at The Crossing Group, an Alberta-based trenchless construction company, where he works as senior vice president. 

Now with more than 20 years of business experience, he shares some hard-won words of wisdom with students – advice he wished he had received in that first year. 

1. Make the most of the time between classes

Bowhay started making new friends as soon as he got his foot back in the door of the university. Friends who have opened up every other door since.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without the relationships I forged at the U of A,” says Bowhay. “It was all those times between classes that really counted – grabbing a coffee in Hub mall or $2 Sol Bombers at the Power Plant.”

One relationship, in particular, changed the trajectory of his life forever – and that was with Ryan MacLean, a fellow business student at the time. Soon after graduating, MacLean invited Bowhay to join him in taking over his family’s business, The Crossing Group, and they’ve been partners ever since. 

“If I was in school today, I would be looking around right now at the group of people within my cohort or in that year, and I'd be asking myself where are some people that I align with?” says Bowhay.

“Grades are important, don’t get me wrong. But they shouldn’t be your sole focus.” 

2. Challenge yourself to confront your blind spots

When trying to navigate a new environment like university, it makes sense that you would gravitate toward the people you’re most familiar with. But Bowhay cautions against this impulse.

“Look for those people who remind you of your blind spots, who make you feel kind of uncomfortable because they're just totally different from you,” says Bowhay. “Because then, in the short term, you can learn from them. And in the long term, if you’re lucky, you might end up becoming business partners.” 

In that sense, Bowhay and MacLean couldn’t be luckier. Over the course of the last two decades, their varying perspectives and different lived experiences have proven to make them strong business partners – not to mention lifelong friends. Together, they’ve managed to transform The Crossing Group from a struggling construction business into an industry leader.

“Even after everything we’ve accomplished, I'm most proud of the fact that we've done a really great job of staying friends after all these years,” says Bowhay. “Who else can say that they want to grab a beer with the same person they’ve been talking to on Teams all week?”

3. Dare to dream beyond the warehouse

Bowhay is keenly aware that if he had not made those 42 calls to the assistant dean, his life would look very different today. 

“I would probably be working at a paving company out in Stony Plain to this day, living in a modest home, divorced with four kids.”

Looking back, he thinks that getting kicked out of university may have been one of the best things that ever happened to him. It was an eye-opening experience that gave him a glimpse into a different kind of future for himself.

“Working at 18 really motivates you to stay in school because it's not as awesome as you think it is. So when I came back to school I had a renewed focus.” 

Bowhay now understands that what makes the U of A unique is that it brings students together from all walks of life, giving them opportunities to connect and to carve their own paths. If he could tell his first-year self anything, it would be to take advantage of those opportunities.

He adds:

“There is always hope and opportunity. Always. Its our decision to capitalize on those things and sometimes we just need a hand seeing that. My friends from the U of A helped me to see that. All we can do is work as hard as we can to live up to our potential regardless of the circumstances .”

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