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I’m Officially Done My First Year of University — Here Are Some Things I Learned Along The Way

It’s now the middle of April, which used to mean just another month of never-ending classes, but at last, the end is in sight. It’s been an absolutely thrilling road, full of twists and turns I never expected. Looking back on my first impressions is just hilarious; in just eight months, I have learned so many lessons about university and life itself.

I know what you’re thinking: how much can a person really grow during a remote first year? To answer this question, yes, I know I’d probably have a much different (and perhaps even better) experience had classes been held in person. But nevertheless, I took what I could get and headed to residence this year, where I learned most of the insights I’m about to share (or “spill,” shall I say). Thanks to this experience, I feel like a different person than I was in September.

However, even though these lessons are so prevalent to me now, nobody seems to talk about them. We all just seem to learn on our own and proceed to move on without any talk of how we came to these realizations and what they mean — but I’d rather take some time to reflect on these key life lessons I’ve learned throughout my first year of university.

[bf_image id="pqhpv84tqf8twqtv6s5fwvf"] Branching out and being friendly are two key ingredients to success in a new environment. 

This lesson works in both in-person interactions as well as online, and I’ll explain why.

Last summer, I remember asking my wise sister Julia for some pre-university advice. The first thing she said became the most important piece of advice she’s ever given me: “Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself. Be extra friendly; don’t be afraid to just go up to someone and start a conversation.” She told me that it would almost certainly be awkward at first, which is okay, but to never let that stop a possible new connection from forming. And, my friends, this completely changed my experience, especially coming to a school where I knew nobody. 

My first day, I kept repeating her advice in my head: Be friendly, Abby; start conversations. So, when we all sat down in our first residence-wide meeting, I turned to the girl sitting next to me and started talking to her. I’ll be honest with you — it was awkward. But, wouldn’t you know it, she quickly became one of my best friends here. After that, I continued putting in effort to meet others and ended up connecting with people I’ll keep in touch with for a long time. This is something you should keep in mind whenever you’re in a new kind of environment; everyone likes making friends, so why not introduce yourself to some new people and see where the conversation takes you?

This strategy can also work without being in person. I will say, though, that it’s much more nerve-wracking when you’re face-to-face — anyone can send a text, but going up to someone and conversing IRL is much more daunting. Regardless, reaching out to people in my program was another beneficial decision that I made this year. It started out as needing help on an assignment, since nobody in my building was in my program. I reached out to a random person in my class through Microsoft Teams, and we ended up becoming friends and study buddies! I can safely say that I wouldn’t have gotten through two brutal Computer Science classes without her, and I am also glad to now have a friend in my program. 

Even though it was scary at first, entering residence alone was the best decision I made because it was the sole reason why I pushed myself to make friends. Had I gone in with a friend, a part of my comfort zone would have remained, and I wouldn’t have grown the way I did.

So, even in a remote learning environment, it’s easy to meet new people as long as you just build up enough courage to introduce yourself!

[bf_image id="qqhxs9gk7xk4spfbc45npctg"] High school and university are two completely different ball games.

I don’t think it’s possible to truly understand this concept without actually experiencing the change. In basically every facet, high school and university are different — so much so that I find it increasingly harder to relate to some of my friends who are still in high school. 

First of all, the workload is steep; this is by no means a shocker. Grade 12 is hard, but in most university classes, not only do professors give you a lot of work, but there is practically no extra slack when it comes to unsatisfactory work and due dates — that’s just how the real world works. Also, your professor likely has no idea who you are; this was a hard adjustment for me, because I was so used to my high school teachers knowing me well. You have to make an effort in order for your profs to get to know you; this includes going to office hours and sending emails when necessary. 

Another way in which university and high school differ is in grades. Let me preface this point by saying that everyone at my high school joked that any mark below 80% is a “fail” — people (including myself) would be absolutely destroyed if they got a 75% on anything. But in university, getting a 75% is often above average; in many cases, professors will give a 75% to demonstrate great work. When I got my first “fail” (AKA less than 80%) in university, I was incredibly upset — I’ve always been extremely hard on myself and expect nothing less than A’s. But I later realized that this is just how university works — it’s all about learning and improving. High school was so focused on getting acceptable grades to get into university, but university is (or at least, it should be) about learning new information and becoming more knowledgeable in your field of interest.

On that note, the other big (and perhaps the best) difference between high school and university is being able to zone in on the subjects you want to learn about. In high school, it’s annoying having to choose from a small selection of classes that don’t have to do with the subjects you love. Don’t get me wrong — you’ll definitely have to take classes you don’t enjoy in university — but I found it refreshing being able to learn about specific subjects I love alongside people who are just as passionate as I am. There’s no better feeling than taking a class and just knowing you belong in your program. [bf_image id="hntb29q83gj46mqtp94nv9qb"] Keeping in touch with old friends is hard.  

Real talk: this is probably the most upsetting part of going to a different university than your friends. As great as it is to make new friends, during the first month of school, I spent a lot of time missing my high school friends; there is something so comforting about being around people who know you so well. But as time goes on, your university friends begin to know you just as well — if not better — than your high school friends. And it’s a weird feeling.

In high school, I was always the person who didn’t have a best friend; I instead had a larger group of close friends. This, along with disliking social media, made it much more difficult for me to keep in touch with my high school friends this year. I found myself becoming increasingly disconnected with friends that I had previously referred to as my “people,” and it was especially sad because I do love my high school friends. The truth is, though, that university teaches you who your real friends are. You learn which friendships are most important to both you and the other person; in other words, you realize which friendships extend beyond your high school walls.

Unfortunately, in some cases, I tried putting in effort toward keeping in touch with friends and it just wasn’t reciprocated. Everyone is constantly busy and preoccupied, so university is where you realize that it takes work to keep up long-distance friendships. And the friendships that stick are the ones where both people prioritize each other; this means calling and texting frequently to check up on each other, and giving updates about any major life events. My favourite thing I do to keep in touch with one of my close groups of friends is a weekly FaceTime call. This way, we have a concrete way to keep in touch, and I’m happy to report that we haven’t missed a single week since September!

As much as I’m sad to have lost touch with a few friends, I’m elated that some of us are still just as close as we were in high school. In some ways, I appreciate them even more now, because I know that they appreciate my friendship as much as I do theirs. It’s one thing to be friends when you live in the same city and are practically forced to see each other every day, but it’s a completely separate thing to keep up those friendships when you can’t see each other often (or at all — thanks, COVID). 

[bf_image id="txhh4rjqkpsq5kb99kk9cbr7"] The real world is messy; there are some things you just can’t control.

This is one of the lessons I hadn’t been told before coming to university, and I had to learn it the hard way. I know that it sounds like I’m talking about COVID here, but for the most part, that’s not quite how I learned this lesson.

You see, COVID did ruin a whole part of my first-year experience and introduced frustrating restrictions that inhibited my ability to socialize. This did teach me that some things are beyond my control. But I didn’t think to apply this lesson to any other part of my life.

I’d like to think I’m a pretty drama-free person; in high school, I never had conflicts with friends and let me tell you, it was nice to never have to worry about any of the classic girl drama that other friend groups endured. I just assumed that university would be the same way: I’d find nice, unproblematic, drama-free friends, and the word “beef” wouldn’t mean anything more to me than a piece of steak. I truly thought that was what would happen — I couldn’t think of any reason why I wouldn’t be able to fulfil this expectation. 

But unfortunately, I was wrong. This year, I learned the hard way that it’s common to encounter disagreements, and that university can be just like high school in some ways. I learned what it’s like to feel gaslighted, hurt, and put down in ways you can’t imagine. And, most importantly, I learned to stand strong when these conflicts do come. There will be naysayers; there will be difficult times and hours where you feel like you can’t do it. But you just have to get back up and shake it off. You can’t control what others do — you can only control how you deal with the situations that come your way. I really do wish I didn’t have to learn this lesson in such a hurtful manner. 

With time and distance, I have realized how important it was that I learned these lessons now — I just hope to pass them onto you so that you can learn quicker than I did. Overall, despite any bumps along the way, I did have a successful first year. I’m excited to continue learning and growing as time proceeds!  

Hey! I'm a third-year Global Business & Digital Arts student at the University of Waterloo, a National Writer for Her Campus, and the Editor-in-Chief for HC Waterloo. When I'm not writing, you'll probably find me reading the newest Taylor Jenkins Reid book, watching The Office, or eating pizza.
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