As I begin my second year of studying/living away at university, I’ve been reflecting a lot on how my first year unraveled. There are a few things I wish I’d done differently, and a few things I think I did just right.
For the record, I hated my first year of university. I also loved it. It challenged me in a lot of ways I was not comfortable with – not necessarily academically, but in a lot of other ways. I learned a lot about myself and grew substantially as a result.
Note: This post is geared toward those who are attending a relatively large post-secondary institution for the first time and who are living in dorms, away from home for the first time. However, much of what I’m about to say can apply to those in similar but different situations.
Here we go, in no particular order:
1. Keep an open mind.
Okay, I know, it’s a cliché. But have an open mind about this one, alright? First year exposes you to different kinds of people, values, lifestyles, and environments you’ve never seen before, as well as things you probably have preconceived notions about. Leave those preconceived notions at home. Allow yourself to be vulnerably open to changing your mind about everything you know about the world and about yourself.
2. Do not compromise your right to a safe and comfortable living space.
Living in dorms can be tough at times. If you have roommates or neighbours who are rude/loud/creepy or just plain make you feel uncomfortable, then do something about it right away. Familiarize yourself with your options early on. Your dorm may never feel quite like “home sweet home” but it should always feel like a safe and comfortable space.
3. Take a philosophy course.
No matter what you’re studying — be it biochemistry or engineering – take a philosophy course, and take it seriously. I took one last year, and most of the time I absolutely hated it. It made me question everything I believed in — about myself, about religion, about what it means to exist. And I’m so glad I did. A lot of us live behind ignorance-is-bliss-coloured blankets, but we owe it to ourselves and each other to see what’s outside.
4. Know and question your values.
University will expose you to values you do and don’t agree with. There’s hook-up culture, drug-abuse culture, relationship expectations, and the list goes on. Honestly, it can be difficult to navigate yourself through the pressures of it all. What is incredibly helpful though, is knowing your values, and thinking about them objectively before you’re confronted with situations that contest them.
Is hooking up something you’re okay doing? Are you ready to be in an intimate relationship or lose your virginity? Is alcohol something you want to try? What are your limits? Ask yourself questions like these and think long and hard about where you stand. You are in control of your actions and you’re allowed to deviate from the norm. I got through my first year with lots of friends and fun experiences without consuming a single drop of alcohol all eight months because that was something I valued. It’s possible. (Whether I still have this value or not is for me to know and you to wonder)
5. Be healthy, get healthy, and stay healthy.
There’s a reason there’s something called the “Freshman Fifteen”. University and dorm-style living can really change your eating, exercising, and general lifestyle habits. I didn’t think I was doing anything differently in my first year and yet I somehow lost 10 pounds. A friend of a friend gained 28. Monitor your health, from your body to your mood, on a regular basis, and do what you need to do to stay healthy. People often get sick more often living in dorms given the close proximity to so many people, so stay on top of your health to avoid and manage this.
6. Always ask “why”.
Always strive to know why you do the things you do. Why are you studying what you’re studying? Why are you even at university? Why are you friends with the people you’re friends with? Ask yourself until you find a satisfying answer, and know that it’s okay to sometimes not know why, so long as you’re okay not knowing, or are doing what you can to find out.
7. Don’t take inter-faculty rivalry too seriously.
“Arts is a useless faculty”. “Engineers are arrogant and anti-social”. “Business students are selfish and don’t care about the world”. “English majors are just confused”. You’ll hear it all and you’ll hear it a lot, but don’t listen to it. When it comes down to it, we all need all of the different disciplines to live and progress as a society, and just because you choose one faculty does not mean you can’t appreciate and even feel a part of the others, too. Be kind to each other.
8. Show the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy who’s boss.
Picture this scenario: I tell you that when you get to university, your grades will drop by 10% no matter what you do. You fully believe what I say, and even expect it to happen. At the end of the year, your grades really are 10% lower than they were in high school. In psychology, this is called the “self-fulfilling prophecy” and it can be very powerful. So take everything people tell you about the university experience, including everything I’m saying in this post (except for this [and this]), with a grain of salt. Your grades won’t necessarily be lower than they were in high school. Mine weren’t, yours don’t have to be, and if they are it’s most certainly not the end of the world.
9. Stay on top of your work.
Or at least try your best to. Staying on top of your work will help you avoid unnecessary stress and will help you learn purposefully.
10. Go to your professors’ office hours.
Do it. Ask them questions. Ask them about life, tell them you enjoy their lectures if you enjoy their lectures, tell them what you think they could do to improve, or even ask them what inspired them to grow that swirly moustache because you think it’s really cool. I went to my professors’ office hours pretty often last year, and to my utmost surprise, one of them asked me to be his research assistant this year! Good things come out of going to office hours, and it can be really helpful and fun. Don’t be another face in the crowd.
11. Spend time doing things you can’t put on your resumé.
Society often pressures us to build ourselves to look great on paper and the university atmosphere is no exception. So go ahead and spend time doing things you’re passionate about in capacities that can be used for your resumé. But never expect to spend all of your time doing things that can benefit you in this way. Be a great, dependable friend. Prepare healthy meals for yourself. Have a social life. Get enough rest. I wouldn’t recommend putting any of those things on your resume but I think they’re some of the most important things of all.
12. Know what grounds you.
So, university will probably stress you out sometimes. What can you turn to for stress relief? Identify a few of these things, so that if you can’t depend on one all of a sudden, you still have something to turn to. For example, last year I used to go for runs for fun, exercise, and ultimately to de-stress. When I injured myself and could no longer run, you can imagine just how much more stressed I became. But there were other things to turn to… singing, friends, playing guitar (poorly but surely). What are your outlets? How will you integrate them into your daily life?
13. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
On the topic of stress, it happens. Know that you can turn to those around you for help. Ask your friends, call your family, and if it’s something a little more tricky or even if it’s not, know that most universities and residences have free counseling services that exist for you and your well being. So tap into these resources whenever you need to. Asking for help displays weakness only as much as it displays strength.
14. Get out of your comfort zone.
If you’re always comfortable and never nervous or afraid, you’re probably not getting out of your comfort zone enough. Great things happen outside of our comfort zones, as they are places where we often learn the most about ourselves. Try something new. Instead of calling your dad to kill a spider, put it on a piece of paper and take it outside by yourself. Meet new people, even people with completely different personalities than your own. Say hi to strangers when you’re walking on campus. Do whatever it takes (as long as it’s safe) to get out of your comfort zone.
15. Be able to forgive yourself.
You’re probably going to make some mistakes. Being in new environments can make this more likely. Don’t dwell on your mistakes forever, though. No one is perfect and we all need to forgive ourselves sometimes to be able to move forward.
16. Don’t lose your creativity.
Something universities are often bad at doing is helping us stay creative. “Ace this exam by doing this, this, and this”, they say. “You’ll get an A+ on your paper if you mention x, y, and z” they say. It’s easy to become a content-regurgitating, uncritical student, just doing what the professor tells you so that you can get your shiny gold star. Sometimes first year courses will expect you to memorize and regurgitate a lot of information, and sometimes that is really what we have to do when subscribing to the expectations of this kind of academic environment. But whenever you can, remember there’s a box you’re allowed and encouraged to think outside of. Instead of letting school squeeze the creativity out of you, channel it in such a way that forces you to be even more creative than before.
So there you have it. Again, please take all of my words with a grain of salt. Hopefully this is helpful for you in some way. I’m in no way an expert on this kind of thing, but if you have any questions or comments, I’d be happy to respond to them below. I sincerely wish you all the best with your first year of university/college and/or whatever else it is you’ll be up to this year. Thanks for reading!