By MAGGY LIU
I don’t know about you, but by Year 13, I was completely over high school. I was sick of waking up at 7.30am every morning and spending hours in class rote learning facts and figures in preparation for a never-ending stream of assignments and exams.
It’s no surprise that I spent my free time idealising going off to university, a rite of passage into the ‘real world’ where all my problems would magically disappear. Finally, I wouldn’t have to be told where to be, what to learn and what to wear. Instead, I’d be able to skip lectures when feeling lazy, tailor a course with specific subject areas I’m interested in and turn up to class in shorts that don’t meet the ‘fingertip length rule’ if I wanted to.
Everything will work out perfectly… right?
Having survived my first year of uni, I have had time to reflect on how utterly misplaced some of my expectations were. I have definitely made more than my fair share of ‘fresher mistakes’ because I couldn’t find any relevant and recent information that prepared me for the realities of being a first year undergraduate student in the antipodes.
Since I’m sure I’m not the only one that has or ever will feel this way, I’ve decided to compile a short list of tips and truths about going to university from my own experiences at the University of Melbourne, that can hopefully prepare you for your own orientation.
#1. It’s incredibly easy to meet new people… but you probably won’t become best friends with everyone.
One of my biggest worries before starting university was that I wouldn’t be able to make any new friends. Although the rational part of my brain tried very hard to convince me that I was being ridiculous, it was almost entirely drowned out by the voices of self-doubt.
What if everyone already has friends and isn’t interested in talking to new people? What if I can’t think of anything to talk about? Or worse, what if nobody likes me, full stop?
If you have similar worries even for a second, trust me when I tell you that they’re completely unnecessary. Frankly, there are so many other more legitimate issues to get stressed out about, you really shouldn’t waste your time worrying about meeting people.
I didn’t believe it when I was told this over and over again because I was so shrouded with worry, but it’s true. Let me emphasise that everybody is in the same boat as you.
In the first few weeks, almost everyone will also desperately want to make new friends and all you have to do is to seize the opportunity and talk to as many new people as you can. If you’re shy, socially awkward or a tragic blend of both like myself, never fear, I have found a simple guide that teaches you how to make conversation with strangers. I have tested this out successfully.
All you have to do is identify an anchor for the conversation, reveal then encourage.
- anchor: establish a mutual shared reality
- reveal: expose something personal about yourself
- encourage: pose a question or statement to elicit a response
A personal example is when I was lining up for food the other day with the girl behind me.
Me: Wow, I can’t believe there are so many people in line in this weather, (referring to the rain – anchor) I’ve been told that the food here is worth the wait though (reveal). Have you eaten here before? (encourage)
Keep in mind to speak loudly and make some eye contact as a stranger might not expect you to be talking to them and nine times out of ten, you will be able to ease into a good conversation.
That being said, sometimes your personalities won’t mesh and conversations will be awkward. I have tried to befriend someone I sat next to in an international politics lecture and they threw me off with ‘do I know you?’ That’s probably the worst that can happen, and it’s no big deal!
What I’m trying to say is that it is extremely easy to talk to people in the first few weeks where everyone is looking to make friends, so use that opportunity to build connections where possible. The majority of those connections will fade out because you don’t share any classes or mutual interests, but that’s okay. Hopefully, there will be some other people that will stick around for good.
#2. This is the perfect time to explore new hobbies… but don’t forget your priorities.
I can almost guarantee that at the beginning of the semester, there will be an event at your university where all the clubs will have stalls where you can learn more about them and sign up for what you’re interested in.
I remember spending over $100 joining various clubs, because I was involved in their high school equivalents, saw it as a chance to make new friends, or was just talked into it by convincing upperclassmen. But boy did I regret my decisions as soon as I got home.
You have to remember, amidst the excitement, that you’re still settling down in university and if you sign up for a million different clubs, it’s unlikely you will go to all of them and be able to do well in your subjects. It’s all about balance, right?
Not to mention, this carnival event is not your only opportunity to join the clubs you’re interested in, so try not to get swept into all the hype. Pick a few to join beforehand that you’re really interested in. Be open to others catching your interest on the day, but stick with joining around five at the most. You can always join other groups as the semester progresses.
Sure, you might miss out on some of the ‘freebies’ that you get for joining clubs (after paying a joining fee), but I think my body would have preferred that I refused at least some of the ramen, popcorn and ice cream I consumed. Whoops.
#3. Nobody will hold your hand any longer… but you can take care of yourself.
You know how NCEA is a ridiculously easy educational system? You might not feel that way when you’re firmly within its grasp, but looking at how many resources and opportunities we are provided, it is almost indisputable that we are being coddled and spoon-fed.
At least in my high school, I could almost guarantee that on top of exemplars of assignments my teachers provided, I could easily find more online with one quick search. Any large tasks like a research essay would be broken down into many much smaller checkpoints, where you’d have one-on-one conversations with the teacher on how you’re going.
Tests, on the other hand, had past papers, student answers, as well as practise opportunities readily available. Aside from mocks, if you had the drive to write three practise essays for an English exam, you bet our English teacher would mark them and provide feedback.
University assessments could not be more different. I won’t comment on test-heavy subjects as I have little experience in that realm, but I’d imagine it’s similar to an assignment-dominated course. In both cases, it’s really up to you to do your work and minimal guidance is provided.
If you haven’t built up good work habits over the years, you will suffer. If you’re not pro-active about seeking help when you need it, no one will offer it. Approximate word limits and referencing simply aren’t acceptable any more and if you miss a deadline by even one minute, that’s 10% of your grade detracted.
Ultimately, this is not something that you need to stress over before entering university, but it is something that you should be keeping in mind. Appreciate the time and effort your teachers are putting in, take good advantage of it, and try build up a good work ethic.
The fact of the matter is that you have to and you can take responsibility for your work, even if you don’t instantly get the hang of it (I’m still struggling to this day). Otherwise, your grades will probably suffer.
#4. You’re going to feel out of your depth… but you can just keep swimming.
This was something that I definitely felt. Not only did I have to learn simple tasks like how to do the laundry and buy groceries, university itself was overwhelming in that it made me realise I was no longer a big fish in a small pond. Sometimes I felt like a tiny fish in the giant ocean, struggling to keep up.
My classmates seemed to all be infinitely smarter than I was and I had begun to realise I was no longer studying different subjects as separate and unconnected blocks. Instead, there is complexity and inter-connectedness within different disciplines and the world in general.
Perhaps the most destabilising and humbling experience I’ve had is when I suddenly realised the significance of academia. Until recently, I have always assumed that the purpose of getting a degree was to prepare you for getting a job in the private sector, as that was what I intended to do. Over time, I have begun to realise that there are people, like my professors and tutors, who choose to stay within the academic world despite the difficulties of accessing funding or any other obstacles they face, because they are driven by the desire to contribute to the advancement of human knowledge. They play such a valuable but thankless role in society, by essentially dedicating their lives to the exploration of niche subjects that we might not ever think about in everyday life. After coming to that realisation, I couldn’t help but feel like they were giants walking in the realm of men and I was not even worthy of sharing the same space as them.
Depending on what course you’re taking and what university you go to, you might experience a similar moment when you want to just curl up into a ball and give up. At times like this, I am a firm believer that you just need to find the right mantra to help you get past your problems. Personally, I’ve decided to call on my inner Dory.
At university, there will always be people who are naturally more talented than you are, others that put in more work than you do and even more that have spent years to end up where they are. But we are all part of this ocean and share the same goal of learning more and becoming better, so all we need to do is just keep swimming.
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