Claude Guillemette has done a lot of things in his life. He’s been a hairstylist, a team manager and he even auditioned for Canadian Idol. And now, thanks to advice from his long-time karaoke partner, he will be a software engineer.
On June 18, Guillemette joins more than 328,000 Western alumni living around the world as a newly minted graduate and member of the Western Class of 2021.
Guillemette’s path to Western started when his career at a bank ended through a massive, company-wide restructuring.
“It was tough,” Guillemette said, “but it gave me the opportunity to start something new and really think about what I wanted to accomplish. I had always been into computers and computer games and had ideas of wanting to make something creative, fun and cool. But I didn’t know where to start.”
He shared his thoughts with long-time friend and singing sidekick, Whitney Barrett, who recalls telling him, “Well that sounds an awful lot like engineering.”
Guillemette trusted Barrett’s instincts. After all, the now Western associate ombudsperson was then a graduate officer in Western’s faculty of Engineering.
Guillemette’s acceptance into the program came with one condition, requiring him to earn three high school credits in physics, chemistry and calculus.
“At that point it had been about 17 years since I’d been in high school, so it was pretty intense,” Guillemette said. “I’d get started early in the morning and go until late at night just trying to wrap my head around these things I hadn’t done in so long. It took a lot of focus, but I got through and made my way into Western.”
Barrett watched as “Claude worked his tail off. It was so impressive seeing him do that after being out of school for so long,” she said.
Guillemette had to temper his tenacity when he first arrived at Western.
“I think it’s challenging anywhere you go as a mature student, being in a different life stage,” Guillemette said. “On early group projects, I had the mindset of ‘let’s start, let’s do this,’ forgetting sometimes younger people’s priorities are elsewhere. I learned to chill out and approach things a little more relaxed.”
Guillemette threw himself into every extracurricular opportunity, taking part in summer research programs and making the most of something he missed the first time around.
“When I was in my 20s, I did one semester of postsecondary for musical theatre as a vocal major. I was unable to finish, because of ‘life,’ and the need to earn money. I had to leave that passion of mine behind,” Guillemette said.
But he rekindled it performing in the Western Engineering Musical, and later serving as its executive producer.
“It was a fun way to get to know people, connect and build relationships with a generation I wouldn’t normally have been in contact with,” he said. “It gave me the university experience I wasn’t able to have in my 20s, and it helped me approach it not as just a task to be done, but as something to enjoy.”
Guillemette was also an advocate within the LBGTQ+ engineering community and found an acceptance across Western’s campus that eluded him in his early years.
“I remember being back in school in Northern Ontario. It was bad. Things were different, people didn’t get it. But now, the world is so different, and it is because these young people are taking charge and saying, ‘Hey, this is okay, everyone is valid.’”
“I’m just really inspired by a lot of my cohort,” he continued. “They’re just amazing. I’m so impressed with how brilliant they all are and how most of them are willing to get to work. It really was great to see that in the younger generation.”
Guillemette has been working as a software developer at J.D. Power in London, Ont., since the beginning of May. The internship he completed with the company during his third year not only helped him land his current job but enhance his learning.
“When I first started the internship based on what I knew in the classes, it all made sense as it translated through to what I was working on,” he said. “Putting it all together and seeing the full picture of what I was learning and how my different classes spoke to each other helped me approach fourth year with a more cohesive view.”
Guillemette credits his husband, John Venezia, for supporting him and having lots of patience as he completed his high school credits and his Western degree. Venezia himself is a mature student at Western and graduating from the BMOS program.
“We did this at the same time, which I think is probably crazy,” Guillemette said. “But that’s how we roll. The fact our relationship is still going is a testament to each of our patience.”
Guillemette is also grateful for Barrett. As he sent out news of his graduation, she topped the list.
“Out of the blue I got this beautiful card in the mail, and I teared up immediately,” Barrett said.
On the back of his graduation picture Guillemette wrote a note, thanking her for “the very best advice ever.”