Try Not to Panic: Sage Advice from a First-Year Student

 

Upon my arrival to Toronto at the beginning of September, suffice to say, I was a wreck.  With classes looming on the near horizon, I was already pondering whether I should start my readings, what classes I should drop, and why I ever thought moving to Toronto was a good idea in the first place.  Further to my horror, my frosh leaders thronged my car and led me the basement of Whitney Hall, which strikingly resembles the set of a crime show murder scene.

Frosh Week passed in a blur of brightly-coloured t-shirts, face-paint, bandanas, gratuitous cheers, and new faces, many of which I would never recognize again.  For the first half of the week, I attempted to convince myself to cheer and attend all the activities on the schedule, intent that the first one I missed would be the best one, which bonded everyone unshakably and exclusively for the next four years.

This brings me to my first piece of sage wisdom: Everyone should give frosh week a chance.  If you are into cheering, spirit, jazz-hands, etc., this week may in fact be “the highlight of your U of T experience”, as your frosh leaders will tell you it will be.  For those of you like me, however, who tend towards a more composed temperament, I recommend giving Frosh Week a chance to entertain you; and if/when it doesn’t, don’t be afraid to do your own thing. People will still want to make friends after Frosh Week.  I can promise you that no activity will live up to the hype if none has by the middle of the week for you.  They will continue to all follow the same pattern of running around Toronto, cheering (despite that you are out of breath from running around Toronto), and being generally unsure of your objective.

Still mildly suffering from a pep hangover, but with many new friends, I trudged to my first classes the week after Frosh Week, with the feeling of a soldier on their first day in the field.  That is, a mixture of excited anticipation, along with recognition that I was approaching the inferno.

My first lecture was History 103.  I was told by my friends in second-year not to bring a laptop.  As one of my friends commented to me with a hint of exasperation, “No one brings their computers to the first week of classes.”  Not wanting to break the status quo, I went to class equipped with just a notebook and a pen.

It is true that there are some classes for which a computer is not necessary the first week (especially if you never take notes by computer).  However, if you are like me, and have handwriting that resembles that of a left-handed two-year-old writing with his right hand, then I strongly recommend you break the social chains that bind you and bring your laptop to your first week of classes.  Some professors will just provide preliminary information, but others, like my history professor, will give a full-blown lecture – one for which you will never, ever, ever be able to decipher the hieroglyphs within which your notes are clandestinely encoded.

The next night, I went to my Economics 105 lecture.  I knew this one was going to be problematic, considering that my knowledge of math is very limited (hence, arts student).  I went in anticipating the worst – that was my first mistake.  My second mistake was mentally signing out after about fifteen minutes of lecture.  My professor began with some preliminary comments, to the effect of, ‘there will be math in this course but it will only be basic calculus’.  I didn’t realize calculus came in a “basic” form!  I knew then I was dropping the course.

I don’t doubt that dropping economics was the right course of action for me.  However, I regret not listening more intently in the first class, and not making a better effort to understand the professor.  You signed up for the classes you did for a reason, and each class deserves your focused attention in that first week, not only to provide you with important information, but to help you determine whether you are truly vested in the subject.  There is no shame in dropping a course, but there is a degree of shame in dropping a course without truly giving it a shot.

The bottom line is that the first week of classes is overwhelming.  I know, I am astounding you with my revolutionary comments.  It may not sound like a particularly earth-shattering statement, but it’s the unadulterated truth.  The best advice I can give to anyone in their first week of classes is to go to each one with whatever it is you need to listen and learn best, be it laptop, notebook, or nothing, and to listen in those critical first lectures for the themes of the course, to determine if that course is right for you.  Like the soldier on their first day in the field, it’s an exciting and horrifying experience.  March forward, be it among over 1,000 students in Convocation Hall or 25 first-years in a seminar, and take comfort in the knowledge that almost everyone in the classroom is a soldier just like you, and the majority of you will survive of the week largely unscathed.

As a final note, here is some assorted advice I can offer to first-years in their first week of classes:

  • If bringing a laptop to class, you may want to be considerate of your computer background. I received some odd looks for mine, a close up of Zach Galiafinakis’s face in its bearded glory, with a yellow post-it on his forehead that read, “The Dude”.  I think it’s awesome, but in retrospect, this may have earned me some confused expressions and whispered comments.
  • If you miss your first lecture in a class of over 100 students, consider NOT using Portal to email everyone asking for lecture notes. Not only are you spamming everyone, but you will receive too many sets of notes anyway.  Just ask the people around you in your next lecture to exchange emails and get the notes from them. Whenever I receive a request for lecture notes in my classes in Convocation Hall, the sheer knowledge that you sent this email to 1200 plus other students makes me cringe.
  • Wait to buy your books until after your first lecture. This applies especially if you are buying your books used, because, as happened to my friend in Sociology this year, you may find out (after you’ve bought the old edition) that you will “fail the course” without the new edition.
  • Make 100 percent sure you know where your class is.  When deciding how early to leave for class, account not only for walking to the building, but also for finding your class. In some buildings, it’s going to take you time to find your room number. (I’m talking about you, basement of UC.)
  • Classes don’t actually start at the time scheduled on ROSI – all classes start at ten minutes after the hour.
  • It is a great idea to introduce yourself to your professors, and since it is such a great idea, a lot of people are going to try and do it in the first lecture. Professors generally do not like to be approached prior to lecture, and probably aren’t all too thrilled to talk to hundreds of eager students after lecturing either, especially in the first week when everyone is rushing the podium the second they are dismissed. Consider listening for office hours, and visiting the professor then.  This time is designated for this purpose, and you will likely have more of an opportunity to make a strong impression.
  • Start reading now. As much as you can, do every reading and assignment as you are notified about it. The work will get ahead of you if you allow it to. First week is tiring and overwhelming, but second week will be as well if you start slacking now.

This post is the first in a series I will be writing this year for blogUT, on the topic of being a first-year student at the University of Toronto.  If there is any topic you would like me to write about this year, or you have any pearls of wisdom of your own to share on the topic of the first week of university, or other comments, please share your ideas in the comments section.

2 comments for “Try Not to Panic: Sage Advice from a First-Year Student

  1. October 13, 2010 at 9:32 pm

    You’re a very entertaining writer! I was chuckling throughout this post… alone by myself at the library.

  2. Jack Shinder
    October 13, 2010 at 10:34 pm

    Reminds me of MANY years ago, trying to keep Kosher on a hotplate in the basement of Sir Dans (before it went co-ed). Love the fear and trembling!!

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