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First-year expectations versus reality

Things didn’t exactly go according to plan, and that's okay

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Image Credits: Nancy Chen

Do you remember the first time you realized university wasn’t going to be everything you thought it was? Because I don’t think I do. For me, it was a thousand little things over the course of first year that slowly made me come to the conclusion that TV shows about college got it all wrong. Hopefully some of these realizations resonate with you too.

The lack of community

The first thing that didn’t live up to my expectations was my social life. I was used to seeing my friends every day even if we didn’t have all our classes together. I had no reason to believe university would be any different, but of course it was. I had to make new friends in every class and, if I wanted those friendships to stick all semester, I had to do it in the first week. Even when I knew people in my classes, I was alone on campus more often than not.

The flexibility of my schedule was both a blessing and a curse: I didn’t have class on Fridays, but everyone I knew had radically different schedules.

I realized the only way I was going to make lasting friendships in university was if I joined a club. No matter what program you’re in, it’s highly unlikely your friends will be in all your classes every semester. Sometimes it’s a miracle if you know anyone in a class. If you join a club, you will grow close with people you know you will see every semester. Depending on the club, you can even find people to take a course or two with you. Friendship looks different in university; be willing to adjust.

How do I know what courses to take?

I know a lot of first years worry about this. I know because not only did I go through this, but I give tours to high school kids every week and their most frequently asked questions are about courses. “What should I take?” “If I don’t take a course this semester, can I take it next semester?” and “When do I need to have this requirement done by?” are the most common. It is so understandably stressful coming from a school where courses were literally laid out for you to a university where registration is completely DIY.

Things will get better. You’ll be better.

When I didn’t know what classes to take next, I went and saw an academic advisor. I went in freaking out about how I couldn’t get into one class, how I wasn’t going to graduate on time now, and that my whole plan was thrown off for good (or at least I thought it was). When they asked me what my year and major were — to which I replied “first and I don’t know yet” — I was sure I was in for a speech on how I needed to do better. Instead, the advisor started laughing. It was strangely calming to have someone who knew better than me tell me I was worrying about this stuff way too soon.

Missing out on a class isn’t the end of the world. Taking an extra year (or three) is OK. Most importantly, if you ever feel like you’re falling behind, there are people who can help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.

I have no idea what I’m doing

The worst part of first year for me was how lost I felt academically. I came into SFU a gung-ho intended psychology major who had straight-As all through high school. I still remember the day I realized I hated psychology — and, not-so-coincidentally, the day I got my first C. I had always had a plan of what I wanted to do, and here I was directionless. I couldn’t continue with psychology (who knew it had such a big biology component?) and my other interests felt like a straight shot to becoming a teacher, a.k.a. my own personal nightmare. Then there’s the fact that my grades weren’t living up to my expectations either. Psychology was curved, making it a losing battle for me, and I had gotten a terrible grade in my English class. English was my best subject in high school. How could this be happening? My first semester had me questioning if I had ever actually been good at anything.

Not getting the grades I wanted ended up being a huge motivation for me. High school had been easy for me, and I had forgotten what it was like to try.

I worked harder, I actually paid attention in class, and I started study groups with people in my tutorials. I saw my grades improve dramatically. For some people, trying harder isn’t always enough, and that’s OK too. People learn differently. Lots of my friends went to the Student Learning Commons for help and were able to work through the difficulties they were having. As for my lack of a major, I started taking courses that interested me to see what I liked. I knew I needed extra credits to graduate and I fulfilled the majority of my breadth requirements within my first year. Eventually I found what I loved, but had I quit when things got rough, I don’t know where I’d be today.

University isn’t for everyone, but don’t stop trying just because things aren’t what you expect them to be. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and keep going.

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