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10 Things University Taught Me in My First Year

I thought I had prepared myself for what university would be like. I made lists, joined Facebook groups, researched everything I could think of about university, and made more lists. I surprised even myself when I wasn’t the least bit nervous on move-in day.

But I had absolutely no idea what the next eight months had in store for me, and I quickly learned that I was not prepared at all. Even so, I made it through. Here are the top ten things that university taught me in my first year that I wish someone had told me, instead of having to learn it all on my own.

1.     It’s okay to cry.

Before coming to university, I was not what people would call an “emotional person.” However, in the first few months of university, all of a sudden, nearly anything could bring me to tears, no matter how insignificant. I’m not even sure why I had this drastic change; perhaps because I was in a new place full of strangers and it seemed like everything was out of my control, so why not cry about it? I cried so much over the littlest things that I started to get on my own nerves. But, after many sessions with a counsellor and countless phone calls to my mom, I realized that it is okay to cry. It doesn’t make me weak; it just makes me human. I wish I hadn’t spent so much time being sad, but I understand why I had to do it.

2.     Life can’t be learned from a textbook.

I am a firm believer in this idea, which may seem odd, considering I’m writing this article from my university dorm room while I study for my final exams. But I have always been practical and logical, and that is what university is and this is where I personally need to be right now. However, I can’t help but think that I would learn so much more about life from experiencing the world rather than reading about it in a lecture hall. I can’t help but daydream about studying art in Paris, cooking in Sicily, dancing in Rio, sailing in Greece, poetry in Vienna, love in Amsterdam instead of writing essays about topics that I’m not passionate about. Don’t get me wrong, I think there is some value in going to university but, contrary to what I always believed, I don’t necessarily believe that university is where you find out who you’re supposed to be.

3.     Family is important.

This one may seem obvious to some people, but I never realized how much I took my family for granted before moving five hundred kilometres away. I was so focused on myself and getting away from the people in my small town that I never gave myself a chance to think about all the important people I was leaving behind. I told myself that it was hitting me harder than normal because of all the big things that I was missing from new babies to hockey playoffs to funerals. But I quickly realized that it was the ordinary, everyday things that I missed the most. I found that calling my mom almost every day and going home for the weekend at least once a month made things harder in the beginning – it was like leaving them all over again each time – but, gradually, leaving got easier and I learned to appreciate my time with them, something I’d never done before. University isn’t about leaving everything you’ve ever known behind; it’s about starting your own life, while the people you love sit at home, reminding you that they’re always in your corner.

4.     You are never the “only one.”

I know it may seem like the opposite (I know I felt this for months, even after countless people told me otherwise), but it is true. I’ve always been shy and only had a few close friends, and coming to a new place where I knew absolutely no one was a huge change that I could have never anticipated. I would look around and it seemed like everyone was settling in and finding their place, while I was scared and lonely all the time. But when I finally forced myself to go out and meet people, I found that there were so many people who were feeling the exact same way. It may take what seems like forever but, eventually, you will find someone else who is having a hard time too, and you’ll be able to comfort each other and laugh together about how you ever felt alone.

5.     You don’t magically transform into a new person.

This was a hard one for me to accept because I had such big plans for who I was going to be in university. I could finally start over and become everything I wanted to be in high school. Though I tried to get out of my comfort zone at first, I finally allowed myself to admit that I didn’t like parties in high school and I still don’t like them now. I’ve said this once and I’ll say it again: you do not have to be someone you’re not in order to fit in. You will find the right people at the right time who will love and accept you for exactly who you are. Just be patient, which is something I was not very good at!

6.     Small towns aren’t so bad.

I can’t believe I’m even saying this, but I’ve found it to be true. While I could logically comprehend the enormity of moving to a school whose student population was twice the size of my entire town (and be excited by this fact!), I quickly learned that it’s not all it’s made out to be. While I thought I would enjoy being anonymous in a big city, I know now that I like having the option to be able to walk across town if need be and not have to figure out how to navigate the bus system. I am so grateful every day that I chose a school that was only a seven-hour train ride from home rather than a seven-hour plane ride like I had originally wanted.

7.     There are so many different kinds of people out there.

This is another one that may seem obvious, and I thought that I was “worldly” – which I was, for the record, in my hometown – but coming to university has opened my eyes to so many things that I had never experienced before. If for nothing else, I love university for the new cultures and traditions and opinions that it has presented to me. I love that there is always some kind of event or celebration going on that teaches me about people that I never knew of or had very little knowledge on. Coming from a Catholic school in a small town, I never realized how little diversity there was in my friend group, which is something I’ve loved getting the opportunity to change at university. My point is university has taught me just as much, if not more, outside the classroom than it ever will inside of it.

8.     There’s only so much one can prepare for.

As a self-proclaimed neat freak and obsessive planner, this realization was a tough one to swallow. I thought that I had prepared for everything – I researched and shopped all summer, reaching out to so many different people for advice – but all that preparation flew out the window almost as soon as I set foot on campus. I quickly realized that I was going to have to become someone who “goes with the flow” because most people were not as organized as I was. This was nerve-wracking at first, but I’ve gotten to experience so much more by spontaneously deciding to go to poetry slams and carnivals and movie nights than I would have if I had planned everything out. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still pretty obsessive about my planner and I like to know where I’m going to be throughout the day, but I’ve opened myself up to last-minute university experiences and those have turned into some of my favourite memories.

9.     University isn’t for everyone.

I thought I was one of these people for the majority of my first year at university (and I’m still not one hundred percent sure that I’m not!), but I’m just trying to navigate my way through this world one step at a time, finding out where I fit in. I sometimes wish I had taken a year off between high school and university, or I think about what would’ve happened if I hadn’t gone at all and, while I don’t know that either of those options would have been right for me, I can understand the appeal for other people. Whether or not you go to university does not define the success of your life; even people who do go to university today are not guaranteed to be successful like they might have been twenty or thirty years ago. Success comes in infinitely different forms and it is up to every individual person to decide whether or not university is going to factor into their plan.

10.  It does get better.

I absolutely hated this phrase for my first few months of university, probably because I heard it ALL THE TIME. It frustrated me to no end to explain what I was going through to people, only to have them tell me, “just wait it out; it’ll get better.” I wanted a solution to fix how I was feeling right that second and it seemed like torture for me (as not the most patient person on the planet) to just sit around waiting for the universe to magically make my life better. But now, finishing my first year, I have to concede. Slowly but surely, without me even realizing what was happening until it had already happened, it did get better. Gradually, I was making plans for dinner with friends and getting down a routine for classes and assignments and, before I knew it, it had been a week since I’d last called my mom, whereas two months before I couldn’t go a day without talking to her.

I thought that I knew who I was and who I wanted to be back in September, but I see how much I’ve grown and learned in such a short amount of time, and I like who I’ve become and who I’m still becoming. I never would have thought it would feel bittersweet to be moving out of residence, to be the outgoing frosh, but I’ve been finding myself feeling nostalgic about memories from the past year, and I’m excited (and nervous!) to find out what the next three years will teach me. Stay tuned.


I am a freshmen at the University of Western Ontario in the Arts and Humanities program. I think I am going to major in English Literature, and after I complete my undergrad, I am hoping to go to Law School. Books have always been my safe place, my escape from the real world - I have always been more of a reader, but with this new phase of my life starting, I decided to try my hand at writing. I guess we're about to find out how that goes.
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