"It took me a while to realize that it was wrong, that there is no right way or wrong way to jump into adulthood. There is only you and the world coexisting with each other in an everlasting battle to survive. Don’t let anyone convince you you’re doing it wrong just because you’re doing it differently."
— Abbigale Kernya
I have recently finished my first year of university. Something I always dreamed of but never imagined actually happening. During my time in high school, I had all of these expectations about what university would be like, and how the ‘university experience’ would feel. It is safe to say all my expectations were thrown out the window on my first day - and it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I learned so much about myself: who I am as a person and where I fit in an academic environment. There were highs and lows that shaped me in ways I never would have believed. I know everyone talks about this life-altering change once you’re free of high school, and I know it sounds silly, but they were right. Before heading to university, I never had any connections with university students. In a way, I was going in completely blind, and I wish I had someone to give me advice and help guide me through the chaos.
So for anyone heading to post-secondary in the fall, here are some things I wish someone told me.
First off: yes, everybody is just as scared as you. Your trembling hands and shaky breath is normal, everyone else is trying just as hard to hide it too. This is the first time in everyone’s life where they are thrown into a new environment completely alone and foreign from anything before. Some people are lucky enough to thrive, but like me, some have a difficult time adjusting. Know that the first two months will go by in a blur. With parties, new friends, and new places to see, it will be winter before you know it. For me, the winter meant isolation and quiet evenings catching up on readings. My new friends came and went, and for the first time since fall, I was left alone to face this new person I’d become. Now granted, I did not live in residence so my experience is different from others, but I will never forget the loneliness that followed me everywhere that winter. It was cold and dark and midterms were in full swing. I convinced myself I stayed home because there was just too much work to do, which was partially true. But in reality, life was moving too fast and I couldn’t keep up. I realized the ‘university experience’ I saw in movies wasn’t true, at least not for me. Some part of me felt like I was failing because I didn’t have many friends and wasn’t going out every weekend. Instead, my university experience was quiet seminars where everyone was silently wishing someone would say ‘hi’, parking tickets, anxiety, and long nights alone in the library. Everything was new and scary and it took me a while to adjust. This comparison to live out my new freedom like some Hollywood movie was a pressure that made the adjustment even harder. It took me a while to realize that it was wrong, that there is no right way or wrong way to jump into adulthood. There is only you and the world coexisting with each other in an everlasting battle to survive. Don’t let anyone convince you you’re doing it wrong just because you’re doing it differently.
"Our transition into post-secondary looks different than past generations. The pandemic changed so much about the end of our high school years. Many of us (myself included) were robbed of prom and graduation. It made me feel like I just woke up one day in this strange environment with no explanation."
Things got better in the spring. The arrival of the new semester was refreshing. Now I knew my way around campus, I had better time management skills, and I was growing more confident in this new environment. I made casual friends and started getting invited to study dates. I realized afterwards that I had to go through the loneliness to grow comfortable with who I am as an individual. For the first time in my life I was learning how to love myself for everything I am, and everything I’m not. It gave me time to reflect on my values: what kind of relationships I want, the relationships to stay away from, and my place within my major. Don’t get me wrong, it was awful trying to navigate this new world completely alone, but find comfort in knowing there is solace in the loneliness; everyone else feels it too.
Our transition into post-secondary looks different than past generations. The pandemic changed so much about the end of our high school years. Many of us (myself included) were robbed of prom and graduation. It made me feel like I just woke up one day in this strange environment with no explanation. I found myself mourning the time I lost. It felt like a piece of me was still sitting in my homeroom waiting for the bell to ring, not on some big campus trying to find my lecture hall. It took me a while to place this sense of grief, and even longer to accept it and begin to move on. Though I don’t have all the answers to moving past this cataclysm of a pandemic, knowing that we are allowed to feel sad and angry about the past was comforting.
The academic aspect of university was almost easier for me than the social aspect. Granted, I am lucky enough to be passionate without a doubt in my major, but that is not always the case. First-year is essentially the time to make mistakes. It is the time to realize maybe you don't want to study biology or maybe you do want to work with kids. I knew students who changed their major three times within the year trying to figure out where their passion lies - and that is completely okay. I even changed my thoughts on a minor after realizing that it wasn’t for me. The point of first-year is to try everything and discover where you want to take your career. Do not feel embarrassed or ashamed if you decide your original plan doesn’t work for you anymore, that is the point of first-year.
My first semester, academically speaking, was absolutely insane. There was so much work with so little time and sleep. I felt defeated if I missed a lecture or didn’t finish a reading because there was just so much to do. After talking to some other students, I realized that (at least my university) does this on purpose. Typically, the first semester of your first year is the hardest. As difficult as it was, it was necessary as I learned crucial time management skills and study routines as fast as possible to keep on top of my work. It also taught me that post-secondary is all about finding a balance between work and play. If you lean too much on one side, the other will suffer. I knew students who partied too hard and fell behind, but then there were students like me who studied too much and fell into a pit of loneliness. If you can find what balance works for you, then you will be alright. Time is sacred in post-secondary, but so is your mental health. That balance that awaits for you to discover will help make everything so much easier.
"If you’re going into post-secondary without a clue about a future career, that is okay. Despite what high school might have taught you, you don’t actually need to have all of the answers yet. It is enough, in the beginning, to study your interests because you’re interested in them - not because of a career plan."
You may come to realize that the sheer volume of readings borderlines on cruel. But believe me, you will feel so much more confident in seminars if you’ve read the readings. Not to mention the sacred time you will save in exam season if you already have notes on the readings. Make the time, because I guarantee you it is not fun trying to give an opinion on a reading you know nothing about. Additionally, take advantage of extensions. Even if you don’t feel like you need it, take them anyway if they’re offered because you never know what life might throw at you. It's better to have an abundance of time than not enough.
Lastly, it’s okay if you don’t have everything figured out yet. If you’re going into post-secondary without a clue about a future career, that is okay. Despite what high school might have taught you, you don’t actually need to have all of the answers yet. It is enough, in the beginning, to study your interests because you’re interested in them - not because of a career plan. In fact, it is also normal within your second and third year to not have a solid career plan. Some people know right away where their university path might take them, but others take longer to figure it out; both of which are completely okay and normal. You will figure everything out with time.
Don’t forget to make mistakes and have fun.