Home Editorial Letter to a first-year: overcoming obstacles

Letter to a first-year: overcoming obstacles

Your path isn’t set in stone and post-secondary is just one of many starting points

by Bree Duwyn
(Scott Webb/ Unsplash).

I could sit here and detail how to be a good student: take notes, attend all your classes, study hard and push yourself. Or, I could stress how important it is to take this time to care for yourself: enjoy time out with friends, go on adventures, spend what you can on great experiences. These are all true to one extent or another, but I have faith that you’re beginning to come to these conclusions on your own. 

As we break for reading week, I want you to take this opportunity  to ponder what you hope to gain from your time in university. You’ll realize now that there is no clear answer — there is no set way for anyone to meander through coursework and network to build connections. We all tackle the world differently. 

Perhaps your outlook on university has already been altered in the span of your first few weeks of studies. So take advantage of this brief hiatus we get once a semester to pause and reflect on what we have accomplished, both as individuals and with those we have made connections with thus far. Have your nerves settled from the anxious beginning? Are you anticipating your return to classes? The first month of school has suddenly flown by and you’re left contemplating the change that has already begun. 

Your time will go by quickly, each year melting away faster than the one before. The growth we face in post-secondary education is immeasurable, as we come to learn about ourselves as individuals and what it means to explore beyond the pre-existing notions we harbour. 

Take my experience, for example. I came from a small town on the coast of Lake Erie. Living in a rural area for all of my life and then coming to Toronto to study journalism at Ryerson University, also known as X University, brought on a surge of culture shock. I can only imagine how this feeling would be tenfold for international students coming to a new country.

For others who might share a similar experience, know that more likely than not, those you meet will be just as eager to make friends as you are. Now that we are well underway in the fall semester, you may have reached the point where you are growing close with the peers on your floor in residence, or going out to the Oakham Café for brunch. 

On my first day on campus, I had just finished unpacking my life into a small Pitman Hall dorm and shared an emotional farewell with my parents. I remember sitting on my bed, extremely aware of how many people were just outside the door and down the hall — complete strangers with whom I had to co-exist. My expectations were low; I didn’t want to have an unrealistic idea of residence living or get my hopes up for how I would go about making friends. 

I spent the next few hours in my room, going over my orientation packet, alphabetizing my books, too overwhelmed to meet anyone right off the bat. I quickly came to realize that I had nothing to be afraid of. Later that same day, I met a bunch of great people who lived right across from me. That night we ordered food, put on some good tunes and played dozens of rounds of Cards Against Humanity. There was an instant click. I felt like I had suddenly been welcomed at a door I was too hesitant to knock on.

This is considered establishing a community. No matter the size of your friend groups, you belong to something outside of yourself. I recall staying up most nights until 4 a.m. in my common room, hanging out with friends that I grew incredibly close to within a matter of two weeks. I still talk to most of them nearly every day.

Those little things — like eating dinner together in a buzzing cafeteria, going on afternoon strolls to Kensington Market or studying at the SLC with giant coffees late into the night — not only brought a sense of belonging, but planted roots for the identity I was beginning to explore. By taking the initiative to branch out of my comfort zone, I was able to construct a new piece of myself — of my life.

Coming from a rural farming town, I wasn’t exposed to much more outside of my own bubble. When I came to Toronto, a melting pot of culture, I had the opportunity to explore myself through my friends and through my program; the latter encouraged me to speak to members of the Toronto community and beyond. 

Over the course of my first and second years, my eyes were opened to what I was truly capable of. I have never been one to be sappy, but I appreciate reminiscing on a time that was pivotal to my growth. I also grew as a writer — someone who didn’t even have a newspaper at their high school.  I discovered more about what it means to be an Indigenous person in today’s world and met others with similar adversities to be faced. I also learned to be more assertive when it came to claiming my identity, and not allowing others to dictate who I was based on my appearance or presence.

I will say this. You will meet some of the best people in university, but you will also encounter people that will challenge you the most. You could view it from a perspective of practice for the “real world,” but I’d like to quell what the real world represents. What characteristics determine how real or striking the world is? We are within the real world from the day we are born, and there is no correct way to prepare for life. We take it step by step, just like we did when we learned to walk with our own two feet. It is true that education prepares you for your future, but how you decide to educate yourself does not change the outcome of this. 

Whether we learn from ourselves or each other, from an institution or a mentor, we are all valued by our place in society. The “real world” is knowing our existence is worth something, no matter how insignificant we may feel as we prepare for exams that seem frivolous at the time, or how we’re so consumed by stress that we think there is no end to it.

You’re right there. There is no end to the extent of what we must do, but there will always be a sense of fulfilment and accomplishment for a job well done. Even if it is, in some cases, simply existing.

Sometimes, when we feel like we have everything figured out, a universal shift compels us towards a new path, moving our current plans to make room for new ones. It seemed as soon as I was coming to terms with myself as an individual, the COVID-19 pandemic swept all normality away, rapidly and unexpectedly. 

Persevering through a worldwide pandemic while attending school is a feat none of us could have imagined. I commend those of you who pursued schooling during this twisted reality of Zoom classes and time spent sitting in your living room instead of a classroom. We realize that the future is often unknown, yet we plan for it anyway in hopes of making it to that point.

My plans for the future have drastically changed from my first year, and that is normal. It’s also normal for your plans to stay the same throughout your educational career. If the idea of your future excites you, then you are doing what is in your best interest.

I will admit, my experience with first year is drastically different from what you are experiencing. I acknowledge that my perspective on the pandemic will clash with the next person’s perspective, but I choose to recognize in what ways the pandemic changed my life for the better: time spent in quarantine, varying opportunities, living on my own. The past two years were never something my first-year self could have imagined. The same goes for many of us. At least I know we have that in common.

Allow yourself to plan for your future, but remember that if your path changes, let it take you far. Don’t restrain yourself because of other people — or for the sake of your degree — but live as if a worldwide pandemic is approaching.

This article may have been created with the use of AI software such as Google Docs, Grammarly, and/or Otter.ai for transcription.

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