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5 (Non-Cliché) Lessons I Learned from My Undergrad

Ok, before you start groaning about the clichés you’re probably expecting, give me a chance. I’m pretty much done my fourth and final year of undergrad at Western University, and I’ve realized a lot in this time. And since we’re in the midst of a global pandemic, and social distancing, and all that fun stuff, I’ve had even more reflection time.

I really believe that some of what I’ve learned, at least, is different than the usual university lessons and to-dos. Don’t get me wrong here: I think the clichés like drink water and eat healthily and sleep enough and do your readings are important. But I’ve also learned some more significant lessons that I wasn’t expecting to, and I hope at least one of them will surprise you too.

Finally, before I start, I want to say that these lessons may have been learned in university, and I may be writing this post to pass them on to other university students. However, I will carry their teachings for the rest of my life, and so they may be valuable for other readers as well – regardless of what stage you’re in.

Here goes…

1. You need a passion (or two, or three) to get through your undergrad.

Or at least, you need a passion to get through university and not hate your life. This could be anything from the usual painting or drawing, to joining clubs with mandates of fulfilling goals that you care about. A passion doesn’t have to be a ‘hobby’ or a ‘job’ per se. It’s just anything that (warning: cliché) sets your soul on fire. A university passion should be something that keeps you going when school is dreary, you lack motivation, and life just doesn’t seem so great. It should get you excited and make you want to get out of bed in the morning. Also, if you meet other people that share your passion, there’s a good chance you’ll also gain lifelong friends.

For me, this passion was channelled into specific clubs that I joined throughout my undergrad. I loved the people I was working with, the events we planned, and giving back to my campus through those avenues. I can honestly say that without these extracurriculars, my university experience would be wildly different (read: really boring and purely academic). Also, you may start with a few less intense passions in first year as you explore new opportunities. Usually, by fourth year, these become a select few, and the fire for one or two burns brighter than you could’ve imagined.

Two more quick things: first, clubbing, drinking, and drugs do not count as a passion. Second, if your passion can make you money, that’s even better!

2. Advocate for yourself. Aggressively.

Advocating for yourself can be a scary thing, I know. But as you move through your university career, you will get better at it. And you will find people that want to help you stay well, do well, and accomplish your goals. But they do not know what you need to be successful unless you tell them.

Ok, I’ll admit that another thing I’ll say about this is a cliché: there’s no harm in trying. Whether it’s asking for an extension from a professor, seeking out mental health supports, or joining a club on campus, you will never know unless you ask. Be kind, be humble, and be honest, but always ask. The worst you can get is a no, or them telling you to try later.

When you go through any university system, it can also seem like there is no flexibility with any of your academics, or bureaucratic processes, or even the opportunities available to you on campus. Often, it can feel like asking multiple people questions or even sending an email or two makes you an annoyance to whoever it is that you’re asking things of.

But the reality of it is this: you are probably one of dozens of students who are trying to accomplish something. The rigidity that you perceive is perhaps just a general rule of thumb. The people you are asking are probably busy and dealing with way more than what’s in their paygrade. Sometimes, they need you to be a little bit persistent so they can get to you. They need you to ask how flexible those rules are (no matter the size of your university, there probably is some flex). Again, be kind, humble, and honest, but do it, for your own good.

In general, one thing I have found useful when self-advocating is to demonstrate that you 1) genuinely care about what you’re asking for or your cause, 2) have taken some action to try and remedy the situation already, and 3) have a plan that stands even if the person cannot do what it is you’re asking of them. Point 4 should just be what you need from them. If you hit all three of these points, you’re likely to get a kind and understanding response, even if they can’t help. It makes you seem competent, proactive, and like you’re asking for a favour because there is nothing more to be done on your part.

3. Understand that your priorities will shift on a daily basis.

At the end of first year, I was having coffee with a friend who was a bit older than me. She was helping with a campaign that I was running, and once we wrapped up our discussion on that, we moved on to more general undergrad/friend/life advice. While I cannot remember the exact wording she used, I will never forget what she told me about university that day. It was something like:

“You may think that you have a list of priorities. And you do. But for the years that you’re here, they’ll change. One day it’ll be you, one day it’ll be school, one day it’ll be family, one day it’ll be friends, one day it’ll be your extracurriculars. And you probably, at points, have to drop all of them for one. Or neglect a few for the sake of a few others. Your priorities will keep shifting. It’s all ok. That’s normal.”

To this day, those words about priorities remain the most insightful and reassuring advice I have gotten about university life. Not only because everything she said has proven itself to be right over my last three years, but also because when I thought I was off track in life, I took solace in knowing that these shifts were normal. There were days when all I would do is spend time with friends, and I would be beating myself up about work that I hadn’t done. But then I would think, “yesterday school was #1, and tomorrow it will be #1 too. So today, it’s ok if school is #2, or 3, or 4”. The same goes for anything else. You are complex, and the university experience is complicated. It’s ok if your list of to-dos is as well.

In short, each day is different, and each day requires a distinct focus on the many moving parts of your life. Just because your daily priorities are always shifting, it doesn’t mean your life priorities are out of order or being negated. And if they are, that’s fine too. Part of university is growing and learning, and that may result in your larger value system changing alongside you.

Your priorities will change, and the world will not end.

4. Appreciate and be mindful of the people around you, and always be yourself.

In university, you are exposed to a whole new set of people with whole new perspectives. I’m talking about anybody from friends, to peers, to professors. Appreciate them. Appreciate the people who challenge you, who support you, who make time for you, who are there for you. Appreciate the people who make you realize things, the people who make you feel something, and the people who expose you to new realms of life. Appreciate the people who are kind because they want to be, and who choose to love you. The reality of university is this: nobody has to give you the time of day. So take the time to show people that you’re thankful they chose to invest time and effort into you. Take the time to do the little things, like grab somebody a coffee or send a text to check in with them. Just appreciate them.

By the same token, it’s vital to remain mindful of the people you surround yourself with. In university, you meet all kinds of souls. Many people are wonderful and positive and benevolent, but there are always a few who aren’t. Be conscious of the people that you become friends with, and their intentions, habits, and personalities. Don’t be unkind or unforgiving, but always remember when or if somebody hurts you or somebody you know. There is a quote going around that “you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with,” and I firmly believe it ( Every once and awhile, think about the five people you spend your time with. Do you want to become them?

I say and always be yourself because, at the end of the day, university is for you. It’s great to be part of friend groups and get to know new people, but make sure you stay true to who you are & what you believe in. The reality is that in a couple of years, after graduation, you may or may not know these people. Chances are, you have a gut feeling about whether or not they’ll stay in your life. Follow it.

Finally, throughout university, you will likely develop a support system, and best friends, and people that are important in your life. It is vital to have that support and community, but don’t lose sight of the fact that you are in university to get yourself a degree. Don’t depend on others to make you happy, and don’t blame them for your failures. One of the most defining factors of the university experience is the independence it affords you: make this a good thing, don’t let it become a bad one. Live your life the way you want to live it for these few years in undergrad. But make sure it all comes back to you because you’re the only one responsible for your own life.

5. Look at the bigger picture.

Ok, don’t shoot me. I know saying “look at the bigger picture” is ending things off on a cliché note, but I swear this one will be different…

To start, I know it’s easier said than done. But there are ways to do this productively. There will be days when school is overwhelming, your relationships become draining, or you just feel like you’re not doing enough. Or, you might have it all together, but there will be days when some shit will hit the fan. Or, for whatever reason, you feel like the world is closing in around you. These days, it’s essential to take a step back and look at the scale of what you’re dealing with.

The first possible way to do this is playing out the hypothetical worst-case scenario, in your head or on paper. I know this doesn’t inspire confidence at first read, but the key to this tactic is not letting yourself spiral into unrealistic ‘but what ifs’ when you do it. Instead, think logically about next steps, or consequences that may come from the action or scenario you’re stressed about. “If I do this, this will probably happen, and then this… which will, at its worst, result in…” In my experience, imagining the worst-case scenario allows you to prepare for what may come, while also realizing the scale of the issue. And it’s usually smaller than you think.

The second way to look at the bigger picture is to ask yourself, “How will this matter in five years? What about ten?” This one is pretty self-explanatory. One bad grade on a 10% essay may seem like doom in the present, but it will likely have no relevance to your future self. Framing challenges you face in this way usually makes you realize that regardless of the outcome, it’s not worth stressing over if it doesn’t have a substantial impact on your life as a whole. It is also a fantastic way to make life decisions.

If the first two methods don’t work for you, another final way I can offer is this: think about the stage of life that you’re in. Think about what this time period means to you, what your current goals and values are, and the things, places, and people that you love. And then, ask yourself: “What do I want to remember from this time in my life?”

I know it sounds abstract, so I’ll try to solidify this one with an example. I only really started doing this in my fourth year, but whenever I was faced with a decision, I would ask myself: “What do I want to remember once I leave Western?” If I was given a choice to study at home, by myself, versus studying on campus with friends, I would choose the latter. Despite being introverted and more comfortable at home, I knew that my chances to study with friends casually had a time limit. Similarly, I took courses that I was passionate about because I knew that I might not remember ten boring classes, but I would never forget the one that I loved. I always chose the thing that I wanted to remember from my undergrad. And now that I’m done, I’m so happy I made decisions in that way.

Well, there you have it: five things I learned from my university experience. Of course, there are endless others, which will probably come to me as my days of social distancing go by. Until then, stay safe, stay healthy, and think of the bigger picture.