Things I Would Tell My First-Year Self: ITR Series (Part III)
Updated: Aug 12, 2021
In many ways, first-year is to university what sixth grade is to school. I don’t know why—it just is. The disorientation we face in first year can be overwhelming and thus any sort of decision-making can be incapacitating and anxiety-inducing. But to all first-years: you have been awesome this year! The term was probably nothing like anyone imagined but I hope you managed to get some footing during this horror show of a year. The end of first-year means picking a program for your ITR and I hope you have some idea of what's up in that department (get it?). Since ITR ends in six days, I thought it might be beneficial to close ITR season with a list of things I would tell my first-year self—things I still have to tell myself in my fourth year—hoping it would be of value to any first-years out there. So, here's the insight I would give nineteen-year-old me:
1. You can’t expect yourself to know things before you can know them.
In the limbo that exists between two school terms, I often feel like I have been rebooted and don’t know how to function in the world anymore because I imagine I should have level-upped to be worthy of the new school year. While that is partially true, I think it’s more that we have to level-up after the school year ends rather than before it even begins. For instance, when I was beginning first-year, I was scared I won’t perform well at university because I still had my limited high school brain. But then I learned things during my first year that made me see that first-year is for acquiring the university mindset. And then when I finished first-year having learned first-year things, I was scared I wasn’t up for second-year. But then in my second year, I learned the things I could only have known within that year. Thus, I eventually did level-up from first-year to second-year, but only after finishing second-year. So I should have spent less time worrying about how I am going to perform each year before the term had even begun because such futile anxiety builds false expectations of perfection and de-emphasizes learning—which is what we are all here for.
2. You will not know what the paper is really about until you write it.
Please just get words on the page. A thesis is this unstable thing that mutates with every paper and thus I always need to see words on the page that somewhat relate to each other to actually understand what ties them together. Some people work with outlines instead of drafts—but either way, you will need to write and see those words to make something of them. So start your draft early and find your way to a thesis because there really is no successful formula for sprouting a thesis—it is going to be whatever your paper needs it to be and that's why it's important to have something to work with.
3. Talk to your professors.
It has been very important to me to talk to all my professors. And I mean ALL of them. I don’t think I would have had any success as a student if I hadn’t. This might not work for everyone because I realize I’ve had the good fortune to have learned from amazing professors so far. But I have made every office hour that I could make it to, sometimes simply to chat because professors are funny, knowledgeable people and a wonderful resource and support system for that reason. They guide you and encourage you in ways only they can so try to talk to your professors outside the class—if only for the good vibes. I do think that building such affinity with my professors has been crucial in me having a valuable and enlightening university experience. And if I could, I would do it all over again!
4. Yes, asking questions is scary. Yes, you still have to ask them.
One thing that has really helped me navigate university, especially as an international student, is asking questions. Lots of them—to the point where you wonder if you are being a bother (most likely not, but varies with whom you are asking). Ever since I arrived here, I have been asking questions about everything—from street directions to course content—because really, asking is the only way to get answers (an obvious conclusion, I guess, but still scary). My favourite people to go to for answers are, of course, my professors who have been nothing but accommodating and understanding throughout my university career. That being said, asking questions can feel weird because it is an admission of lack of knowledge, but, again, it’s important to admit to yourself you don’t know things just so you can know them. So remind yourself that no question is a bad question (as long as one is willing to learn) and ask away!
5. It gets better from here.
First-year is hard. It can get lonely, confusing, unsettling, and challenging—both academically and socially. But in my experience, it does get better from there as we start to come into our own—form helpful friendships, find professors and courses that we love, and develop our sense of purpose. So don’t put too much pressure on yourself to have the perfectly sorted-out first year that is the thing of myths and movies. Just hang on, ask questions, make time for something that truly makes you happy (yes, for Netflix), and seek help if you find yourself struggling too much. Things tend to fall into place as school progresses and before you know it, you will have some confidence in yourself and the things you set out to do. So yes, you will eventually have some inkling of what you want to do and those words you put down in your ITR will start making a lot of sense (and actually become very meaningful to you) as time goes on. You got this!