by Nicole Chanway
Four years ago, on move in day for all residences across UBC’s campus, I sat in the passenger seat of my mom’s car, jittery with nerves. All my things were packed up in the trunk, from my two lava lamps (that’s right) and the books I couldn’t bear to leave behind in White Rock.
As we neared Totem Park, my mom said, “The friends you make in university are often friends you’ll have for the rest of your life.”
I was heartened by this, and the pit in my stomach seemed a little lighter. Leaving my little seaside city for Vancouver, which seemed insurmountably massive to me at the time, was the most frightening thing I had ever been confronted with. My mom’s words soothed me a little, promised me that university was going to be better than high school, that my teenage years were not going to repeat themselves on into infinity.
Though I can’t speak for the rest of my life yet, as a fifth year student, I would say that so far my mom’s assertion has proven correct. As a first year, I had no idea what I was getting into just in general, and I certainly had no idea that over the course of my undergrad, I would meet countless incredible and life-changing individuals.
My academic career has taught me things that I never anticipated learning. Looking back, I have narrowed down the numerous pieces of knowledge I wish I had known entering my first year of university, things that I have since picked up that have been both encouraging and disappointing, but all in all, have never failed to surprise me.
1. Take your time with your degree
My first year was the last time I took a full courseload (5 courses a term). Since then, I’ve done 4 each term (with the exception of 3 per term now, in my last year) and worked on the side. I understand the drive to finish your undergrad in four years when its put in financial terms (getting the degree done in fewer years means less money devoted to paying student fees), but from my perspective, it’s worth it to slow down and stick it out. Five courses is a lot. I have a few friends who have consistently taken five courses a term and graduated in four years, and though my senioritis and I are certainly somewhat envying their freedom from academia, I don’t feel like they’re necessarily better off than me for finishing their degree in less time. One of my closest friends has actually expressed regret at not taking a fifth year.
Taking on too many courses and battling too much responsibility is a surefire way to burn out. At the end of the day, you should still be able to love what you’re studying. Though English Honours sometimes makes me roll my eyes, and my minor in Gender, Race, Sexuality & Social Justice can be an emotionally taxing one due to the subject matter, studying these two topics has always felt right for me throughout the years. After my first year, I vowed never to take five classes a term again, and sticking to this promise was definitely a good idea. Slow down and enjoy the ride.
2. Be aware that time flies
Related to slowing down, I would want my first year self to be cognisant of the fact that those eight months zip right by. There are so many new experiences, so many firsts, and so much learning that first year seemed to be over for me almost as soon as it began. I think my first year self could have benefitted from taking a few quiet moments to reflect on her experiences and appreciate them for what they have been. First year was such a formative time in my life, and if I had known then how formative it would prove to be, I think I would have spent more time processing it and taking it all in.
3. Get a job
That’s right – there are few things I’ve found as helpful throughout my undergrad as working while studying. For many students, myself included, getting a job was never a choice; I am privileged to have been financially supported throughout my first year, but after that, the understanding was that I was to start making an income myself. I was relieved not to have to work in first year, and I still understand why I felt that way; moving out and starting university was already such an adjustment that I didn’t want to take on too much. That being said, when I started working in addition to taking classes in my second year, I wondered how people can go to university without working on the side without losing it. Though getting a job is a necessity for most, myself included, I have also found it extremely beneficial and healthy. Working while being in school has honed my time management skills; when I’m studying, I feel like I have to be all the more productive because I have less time because I also have to work. I’ve also found it helpful to have a pursuit that isn’t academic. A seven hour shift of bussing tables and making lattes can sound like a dream after seemingly endless papers, and it feels good to refocus your energy into something that isn’t academic, and to remember that you have more roles and dimensions than simply being a student. Furthermore, if you’re lucky, you’ll actually really love your coworkers, and work will end up being a pretty fun outlet to boot.
4. Get involved on campus… to an extent
This is a piece of advice that most people suggest, and one that I definitely agree with – as long as you aren’t biting off more than you can chew, particularly right from the get-go in your first year of your undergrad. Getting involved on campus shrinks down the enormous and intimidating world of UBC into a community that you can actually engage with and feel a part of. That being said, a common mistake is to sign up for everything and become a volunteer everywhere only to realize when midterms hit that you’re juggling more than you can handle. There are so many cool initiatives on campus, and I know it’s difficult to narrow your participation in them down to just one or two, but it’s definitely worth it not to spread yourself too thin. You’ll have more time, feel more balanced, and be able to really dedicate yourself to the few extracurriculars that you decide to pursue.
5. Give yourself time to adjust
The intense nervousness I felt driving up to Totem Park with my mom that day did not immediately disappear upon my entering Shuswap House, meeting all of my floormates, and beginning an existence entirely different from everything I had previously known. Instead, the nervousness got worse. At eighteen, I was extremely anxious and strongly self-identified as an introvert. In my eyes, the new people I was living with were endlessly confident, excited to be starting a new chapter in their lives, and not at all homesick. Not only was this not true, as many of my friends have since told me that they were just as terrified as I was, but I did not allow myself any time to adjust to my new life before assuming that it wasn’t right for me.
It took me about a month to settle in. Until that happened, I called home frequently and visited my mom whenever I could. I did a lot of hiding in my room, grateful that I had opted not to have a roommate. I clung desperately to my first friend, a wildly intelligent and gentle girl named Kaymi, who is now one of my current roommates and one of my favourite people in the world (apparently mother does know best). It was around October, though, that I finally began to feel comfortable in my new home and in my new role as a student at UBC. I slowly came out of my shell and found that my floormates were welcoming and nonjudgmental. Over time, I didn’t feel the same amount of dread when I had to speak in class, and I stopped wishing I could move back home. Adjusting from living at home and going to high school to living in residence and attending university was, I can safely say, the most turbulent change I have made so far in my life, but I can also say with equal confidence that it was the most worthwhile.
It takes time to get used to a new life. If you’re finding yourself anxious, stressed, or homesick, please take it from a person who very easily becomes anxious, stressed, and homesick – it will get better from here. There are also loads of great campus resources for when you’re feeling overwhelmed – Speakeasy, UBC Counseling, and the Student Health Service, to name a few (a lovely doctor at the latter option watched me cry in her office with sympathetic eyes for 15 minutes in early September of that year, and it was surprisingly helpful just to let someone in on how much I was struggling). As a fifth year, I wish I could’ve told my eighteen year old self to just hang in there, that I had no idea how happy and vibrant my life would soon be.
Everyone’s first year experience is different, and I’m very lucky to say that mine was life-changing. I met some incredible people, made some unwise choices, learned from said unwise choices, and, at the risk of invoking a cliché, started to actually figure myself out. These pieces of advice are things I wish I’d known back then, but as they say, hindsight is 20/20. And if you don’t feel that first year has been the best experience for you, that is still valid, and totally understandable. After all, there’s always next year, and these things take time.