5 Things I've Learned This Year

This Thursday, I will sit down and write the last exam of my fourth year of university. Before you take out your wallet to send me fistfuls of congratulatory graduation cash, settle down - I might have completed a bachelor's degree worth of courses, but since I changed my program halfway through, I've got one more year to go. Some might call this the 'five year plan' method of getting through university. If you're not into borrowing terms from communist dictators, you can call it the 'scenic route' through university. Either way, the point is that I've now completed many years of school.

Don't worry, I've been studying diligently the whole time. 

So at the end of this year, after 8 months of school, 10 courses, $7000 in tuition, countless nights of exploring the dark depths of the internet when I should have been studying and some of the best memories I've ever had, you might be surprised to hear that I think I might have learned something. In fact, I learned a few things, and I happen to be just kind enough to share them. 

So if you have no desire to trace my exact steps through the past year to learn what I've learned, try to appreciate these five pieces of immense wisdom:

1. Turns out the people from Orientation were right.

If you've ever been to or considered going to university, you know that your first year always starts with a multi-day festival of enthusiasm, matching shirts and chanting known as 'orientation'. These days are the university's one and only chance to show you around and impart you with all the knowledge that you're too lazy to Google for yourself. If you follow all their advice, they claim, you can successfully adjust to university and avoid lapsing into wide-eyed, shoelace-eating lunacy the first time a professor hands you a homework assignment.

If you've been to university, you remember this feeling.

But the biggest thing that you'll hear at orientation - over and over again - is to join clubs. Get involved on campus. Volunteer. Don't just pick one thing; if you're even slightly interested in a student club and you can physically attend their meetings, you need to check it out. Join everything and anything, up until the stress of balancing schoolwork and extracurricular starts to cause brain hemorrhaging.

That doesn't look so bad. Stick a Band-Aid on it and get back to debate club.

To an incoming student, this advice sounds insane. For one thing, you have your image to consider. Hearing 'join the chess club, school newspaper and debate team' in high school might as well have been 'go pick out which toilet you'd like to have your head flushed in from now on'. Plus, you have to consider your schedule. From the time you were old enough to wrap your chubby little fists around a crayon, your teachers and parents have been scaring you with stories about the academic gulag conditions that exist within the average college. Your whole life, you were told to expect 28-hour studying days, professors who fail you for wearing their least favourite brand of socks, and a new-found dependency on your roommate's Adderall. Who has the time for clubs?

Pictured: you, not having time for any of that shit.

And so all through my first years of university, I didn't join anything. I went to school, attended class, and came home. My friends were all people I knew in high school and the occasional person I mustered up the nerve to speak to in class. It was fine - I enjoyed my classes and spent some time with friends - but it was a far cry from the non-stop adventure onslaught I'd been promised by an endless stream of terrible college movies. So at the start of this year, I decided to take my orientation leader's long-lost advice and sign up for a few clubs.

I considered joining the Frontal Lobe Concussion Club, but then I decided I want to be able to read when I'm 50.

I hate to admit it when a total stranger's advice turns out to be better than my own careless, haphazard decisions, but getting involved on campus was probably the best thing I've done since starting university. I've made dozens of new friends and gone on all those adventures I'd been hoping for since the start. 

Seriously, I think we're going to get drunk and release goats into the ventilation systems sometime. Join clubs, kids. 

2. It really does get easier. 

First year sucks. The homework sucks, midterms suck, exams suck, your grades suck, people suck, and your inevitable pizza-and-beer-based gastric distress sucks. It's easy to see why most students come away from their first year of university feeling frustrated and disenchanted, ready to turn their backs on academia altogether and launch successful careers as strippers and meth empire kingpins.

Exhibit A: you as a first-year student, struggling to remember how books work.

My first year wasn't nearly as dramatic as that of the average student I've encountered, but it was hardly thrilling. My grades were good, but not great. Most of my classes were okay, but the courses I was taking in my major were less than inspiring. I made a few friends and casual acquaintances, but no one close enough to keep in touch with over the summer. 

This baby basically sums it up.

I kept going through university, because I love school more than I have loved anything and because I should in no way be trusted with any of the powertools or heavy machinery involved in a career in the trades. I expected to get through my degree with pretty good grades, have a pretty good time and wind up in a pretty good job at the end. 

That didn't happen. 

Because if you stick with university, it becomes awesome

It's like Hogwarts, except you can't do magic and none of your teachers are harboring three-decade-long crushes on your dead mother.

No matter where you go to school, you spend your first year or two as undergraduate livestock, shuffling along with the herd to your uninteresting introductory courses, sitting in gigantic classrooms with professors who dislike all of you, filling in anonymous multiple choice tests with your student number and mooing on command. But once you get past all that, everything is awesome. You get to take great courses, and the more specialized and obscure the topic, the smaller your class will be. Your professors know you and dislike all the specific things that make you a pain in the ass, instead of just hating you for being an idiot first year. As your papers and assignments get longer and more technical, more and more of your professors start to subscribe to the "fuck it, they're all getting As" philosophy. And those tough multiple choice tests go by the wayside, as the university's focus moves from weeding out the dumb kids to securing generous donations from their future alumni. Everything is awesome.

Just look at you now! You're a doctor! And also a woman. It's been quite a decade for you.

So if you're out there struggling with your first year of college or university, anonymous hypothetical reader, put down that baggie of sadness-heroin and pick up a pencil. Things will get much, much better soon.

3. No one knows how many ribs you have. 

I'm serious. Unless you've actually been through some sort of body scan, you can't be certain how many ribs you've got under there. Sure, the average is 24 ribs in total, but why would the human body be consistent with the number of protruding bony things it produces to serve as literally the only barrier between the squishy fluid-sacs that keep you alive and an outside world filled with elbows, fists and various projectiles? Don't be ridiculous.

This is a lie.

Yes, you probably have 12 on each side, like a normal person. But you might have 13 on both sides. Or 13 on one side and 12 on the other. You might even be missing the lowest pair of ribs altogether, leaving you with just 22 ribs and the ability to pull so tight on your corset fastenings that you can lace yourself into unconsciousness without breaking anything. So that's useful.

Apparently arms also interfere with the corset lacing process.

And in case your random and potentially uneven lung-protectors weren't troubling enough, you should also know that sometimes ribs randomly branch into a fork, fuse together, or grow into other fun shapes for no apparent reason. So start chowing down on those burgers, friend - you do not want to be thin enough to see that. 

4. Smartphones are neat. 

Even though I was of a perfectly smartphone-capable age when the world decided that we wanted to be able to make lightsaber noises and farm virtual crops with our phones, I have resisted the smartphone revolution. Up until now, the last time I made a major phone-related technological transition was when I swapped out T9 texting for the smooth gliding action of a full QWERTY keyboard.

Remember these?

And hey, my stubborn refusal to give up my full set of rubber buttons had its advantages. QWERTY phones are tiny little beasts; unlike glass smartphones that shatter when you squish your fat face into them too quickly, QWERTY phones can withstand being dropped, kicked, stepped on and thrown. If you smash them down on the sidewalk, you have a greater chance of impacting the local seismic activity than you do of breaking your phone. 

So it wasn't the death of my phone-shaped brick that prompted my first foray into smartphone ownership. That thing will outlast my puny mortal heart. No, it was my iPod that started to go. I maintain an emotional and spiritual connection to my music player; I listen to music for several hours a day, because it gives me a wonderful excuse to ignore other people, and it helps to drown out all the excess noise in my head. But after four years of faithful service, my iPod was in rough shape. The power button was stuck down. The volume buttons worked sporadically. The top half of my screen had dissolved into flickering white lines, and the bottom half had to be kept at minimum brightness if I wanted more than an hour of battery life. By the time I decided to part with it, was little more than a Franken-Pod held together by tape, tears and a rubber case. When the time finally came to replace it, I did hours of careful research and eventually settled on the only phone that fits comfortably in my tiny child-hands: a gold iPhone 5S.

I have achieved White Girl nirvana.

Up until my new phone was in my hands, I was still dubious of smartphones. They're essentially expensive toys that the unwashed zombie masses of society rely on to prevent themselves from getting bored on the toilet.

Never have I been so wrong.

Smartphones are magical toys made of microchips, glass, and the whispered hopes and dreams of every child who grew up watching Star Trek. I can check my email, listen to music, watch a YouTube video, take in a TED talk, check my grades, get directions and play a myriad of increasingly frustrating 99 cent 8-bit games all at the same time. I can photograph absolutely everything I encounter in my daily life in stunning 8MP resolution - my expensive point-and-shoot and the family DSLR camera be damned - and when I get a burning desire to find out the capital of Luxembourg while I'm on the go (it's Luxembourg City - duh), I can look it up without having to live with the pain of not knowing until I can get home to my wifi.

And best of all, I'll never be bored on the toilet again.

5. Do what you want. 

When I graduated from high school, I decided I wanted to go into computer science. It's a highly employable field, the pay is great, and the working conditions are comfortable. There are lots of different paths that a person can explore in the computer science field - I was personally interested in Artificial Intelligence - and once you give up your childhood dream of working for a large video game company, every one of those paths is almost equally rewarding. There were some fields of computing science out there that would accommodate my 'stay up until 4am whether you have to or not' sleep schedule, and best of all, since I'm a woman, any company would snap me up like an Affirmative Action unicorn.

Plus I'd get my pick of the computer science men. Ladies, control your swooning.

The only problem with this master plan is that I didn't actually want to be a computer scientist. I was okay at the classes, and I was a competent programmer and troubleshooter - to this day I can fix a corrupted registry file like a champion - but I wasn't exactly brimming with joy at the thought of spending the rest of my life parked in front of a screen filled with C++. What I really wanted to get into was psychology and writing; the only problem was, those were far more competitive than my safe computer science track. I knew I'd need to get absolutely top grade if I was to have any hope of continuing on to a graduate program, and even then, there'd be no guarantees. Psychology is one of the single most popular majors in North America, and there are very few PhD's and Freudian therapy couches to go around.

How the average psychology degree holder pays back their student loans.

But in the end, I decided to go for it. I have the grades for it and then some, and I figure that I stand as good a chance as anyone. And now that I'm taking classes I actually care about, my situation keeps getting better. Yes, I have to work harder to stand out, and yes, I'm up against an awful lot of stiff competition, but at least I've given myself a chance at doing something I enjoy for a living - if it doesn't work out, there will always be other options. And that's probably the most important lesson I've learned this year. Don't force yourself to do something you don't want to if there are better options you're too afraid to try. Find a thing that you're great at, and do that thing.

Even if that thing is underwater scuba fencing. No, especially if that thing is underwater scuba fencing.

It's your time, your money, your energy and your one and only adventure on this big beautiful blue rock. Do what you want with it.


  1. This list is wildly accurate. I've only been in college for a year, but I completely agree with everything you just wrote. I just wrote my own "things I've learned this year" post if you want to check it out, but yours is completely on point. It took a semester to learn to get involved in everything.
    Freshman year is not for picking and choosing. Freshman year is for doing everything, and then later, you can decide which activities fit you best.
    Thanks so much for all your insight!

  2. Oh... friggin... wow. I laughed out loud for most of this, and was forced to try desperately to downgrade guffaws to strangled snorts and giggles since it's almost two in the morning, and my one-room bachelorette pad has really thin walls (and is sandwiched between two rather unforgiving neighbors).
    I agree with that first comment - wildly accurate, to the point of damn uncanny, and hilarious from start to finish. I'm going into my third and last year of university (been going all year round to finish it early... frig, but do I miss actually having summer vacations), and every bit of this awesomely spot-on! Clearly (for all it's worth, coming from this random internet reader) you made the right call in switching to writing/psychology! Thanks for this laugh :)
    ...now back to homework for the summer courses (#&@*$#*!!!).


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