Well, that’s it. A few months ago, I did what looked so impossibly far away four years ago: I graduated from University. Applying to graduate school this year has given me a forceful reminder of how I felt this time in 2007, looking in the great unknown that is U of T. I’ve learned so, so much over these years – some of it about U of T, some of it about university, and life, in general. These are the things that every first year should know.
Go to Frosh week.
Commuter or res student, the basis for your social network for the next four years will be built in those few days. No week of your university experience will be as important (or as fun).
And yes, I know it looks terrifying right now. And I know you don’t believe me when I say that. The thoughts that kept running through my head in the days before Frosh week were How could anyone want to be friends with me? I’m such a… nerd… It’s not like what everyone else is afraid of. Trust me. It is. You’ll do fine, you’ll make friends, you’ll remember it fondly for years to come.
School isn’t everything.
Despite what people tell you, school /is/ the real world. You will always have deadlines, stress, friends, enemies, good and bad decisions. Learn to balance them, learn to live a life that makes you happy. Make choices about what is important – which courses matter and which don’t, when your schooling is starting to interfere with your life, and when your life is starting to interfere with your schooling. Adjust when you have to.
Get to know your professors.
There are the standard reasons to get to know your professors: they can help you do better in class, they can write you references, help you network etc., etc. But those are not the important reasons. Your professors are incredible, brilliant people, and it’s their job to share their wisdom with you. The conversations you have with them will change everything.
And yes, they do care. For the most part. If you’re in a class of 50+ people, there is no way, no matter how well intentioned s/he is, for your prof to get to know you. However, I promise, they really do want to know their students. Talk to them after class or during office hours: they will not let you leave until they know your name, program, and interests. At least not the ones worth their salt.
First year? make a short list of what you want to do when you graduate, and pick a few options. Then get a head start on what you need to get there. Want to go to grad school? Look up what your dream grad school looks for (yes, /now/, in first year). Make sure that when you pick courses and summer jobs you choose opportunities that will help you get there. I found my dream grad school in the summer before first year, and made sure all the classes I took in undergrad fit their mandate. I’ll be starting my masters there next year.
Considering a non-academic career? Look up internships, part-time jobs, and extracurriculars that give you the experience employers look for; a friend of mine is currently buildling a career in the Toronto theatre scene, based on her experience in college theatre productions. This is also a good time to visit your career centre – they can help you chart a path, and give you the resources and contacts you need to get started.
None of this is binding of course – you will change your mind about what you want to do 2498739852934 times before you graduate, and if the path you stick with is the one you choose right before you don your cap and gown – or right after it, or 5 years down the road, that’s no biggie. Planning early will simply give you an upper edge to make it easier to get where you think want to go. Having said that, don’t be afraid to do the unexpected.
Take difficult classes, join groups you’re terrified of, try things you never thought you’d be able to do. Going to university, and growing up, is about challenging yourself – don’t cheat yourself of the incredible experience you could be having. Worst comes to worst, it doesn’t work out; the chance of having an incredible experience, of taking yourself in a direction you never dreamed of, is worth it. And trust me, your GPA and your pride grow back.
Make Your Own Experience.
When my grade 12 class was taking the standard tour of U of T campus, one of my classmates had the foresight to ask our guide for the one most improtant piece of advice she had to share with new undergrads. She said “make your own opportunities.” Don’t got with what’s advertised or what the university suggests. Make your own opportunities, and follow your interests. Want to work with a particular professor? Email him/her, and ask them for a job or supervision. Want to learn about something your department doesn’t offer? Take an independent study course. Want to join a course that’s meant for a higher year, or that you don’t have the prerequisites for? Talk to the professor, to your registrar, and the department’s undergraduate co-ordinator.
Universities are terrible at advertising, which means that they’re rife with opportuinities that no one takes. If you’re willing to take the initiative, you can do almost anything you want to with your time at university.
This also goes for life outside the classroom. University can be as huge or as tiny as you make it. Take the initiative to get to know people, make friends, and reach outside of the networks the university sets up for you. There are, believe it or not, human beings outside the walls of your residence, college, and department.
If there is anything you should take away from this, it’s that what you get out of university is completely and entirely up to you.