The Ten Things I Learned in University

Well, folks, it's all over.

After five years of classes, homework, papers, exams, all-nighters and ill-advised experimentation with alcohol and eyeliner, I finally earned the right combination of credits to finish my degree. In just over a week, I will walk across the stage at the Jubilee Auditorium and collect my Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Psychology from the University of Alberta.

This place.

Now, I'm not one to use the "everything I learned in the classroom was forgettable and meaningless; I learned the real lessons outside of school" cliche. In a couple of years, I'm going to be diagnosing and treating patients based on the information I learned in class, so the world had better hope that I remember that shit. But the fact is, I did learn a lot of great things outside the classroom, and a list of the top ten things I learned inside the classroom wouldn't be terribly interesting to anyone but undergraduate psych students.

And, let's face it, we psychology students aren't exactly known for our reading.

And so after five great years, the ten most important things I learned were:

1. Learn From Shitty Teachers

In high school, you didn't get a hell of a lot of choice about who your teachers would be. Whether you ended up the class of a celebrated, passionate educator or a criminally unsupervised sex offender came down to luck and whether your high school's hiring committee had stopped coming to work sober yet. If, like most children, you were thrown into the open sewer known as "public school", you weren't paying a lot for school fees, and the teachers were sometimes very much a "get what you pay for" thing.

I would be stunned if even half the teachers at my high school were legally allowed to be near children.

But university costs a soul-crushing amount of money, and students demand the absolute best for their parents' hard-earned dollars. Which is a real shame, because the average university considers 'teaching ability' to be roughly as important as 'hair colour' when it comes to hiring professors. And so we have websites like RateMyProf, where students can search for potential teachers and read testimonials from multiple years' worth of disgruntled and sexually frustrated students. With a little luck, you can use sites like this to build a schedule completely free of bad teachers. Hell, if you get on the right side of some sort of scheduling deity, you can put together a roster of teachers known for their great attitudes, easy grading, and bammin', slammin' bootylicious looks. 

And that's a terrible thing.

The contents of my thesis supervisor's Rate My Prof page make me want to take multiple showers.

I have had a lot of shitty professors in my time at university. Neither of my introductory English professors spoke English as a first, or even a second, language. My second-year statistics professor wrote notes on the board like he was trying to draw Salvadore Dali's math-class nightmares. My sociology professor boiled down complex problems into meaningless, simplified multiple choice questions like she'd been born with a Scantron in her hand. My favourite psychology professor was let go by the department for being unspecifiable terrible. There are classes on my transcript whose course materials could have been more competently and effectively delivered if they were spelled out in fucking Morse code by a riverdancer. 

Still a better way to teach intro biochemistry.

But you know what? Life is full of shitty teachers. From now until the day I have my consciousness uploaded onto the servers of our robot overlords, I am going to have to take instructions from people who have no idea what they're doing. And I need to be prepared. Any idiot can succeed when they have goddamn Gandalf at the head of the class. Succeeding when you're being taught by a fossilized relic of a human being who can't quite wrap his mind around the fact that none of his students were alive to see the moon landing is a frigging accomplishment. Instead of absorbing brilliant lectures, you'll have to learn how to teach an entire course to yourself with nothing but a textbook, a smartphone, and the archives of Yahoo Answers. And instead of completing well-explained assignments, you'll scream into your laptop and pray to the Old Ones that your 2,000 word literary hurricane of "therefore"s and "as such"s meets your professor's secret criterion for "essay due Friday".

And when you get out into the real world and realize that it's made up of nothing but idiots who don't know what they want, you'll be grateful for every moment of it.

2. Ditch Your Friends

Okay, this one needs a little context. Obviously, I'm not telling you to ditch your friends on the side of the highway at 2am as a hilarious prank; not only will you quickly not have any friends left, but that's a fantastic way to get yourself charged with criminally negligent homicide. But when you first stumble out of high school, still wide-eyed and blinking into the sun, you should take a look around at what your friends are doing.

And then you should absolutely ditch them.

Later, bitches.

When I started this whole post-secondary thing, most of my high school friends and I went to the University of Alberta, one town over from the bedroom community where we grew up. To make sure that the high school umbilical cord would remain safely uncut, we coordinated our schedules to take the same classes, and we wanted to be similar things when we graduated - scientists, lawyers, doctors, programmers and vampire hunters. And that would have all been well and fine, if we had been several cloned copies of the same person. But as it turned out, that just wasn't the case.

Above: high school.

Today, I am the only one of my high school friends to finish a four-year university degree. One by one, everyone else realized that there were things they'd rather be doing with their lives. Some of them had kids. One of them went to work with my dad. A few of them work in medical labs. I suspect that at least one of them has the kind of "government" job that requires frequent unexplained trips to Eastern Europe and a hasty change of subject whenever it's mentioned. And that's fine. See, the thing about university - and probably life, but what do I know - is that with every passing year, it gets harder and harder to pretend to give a shit about something that you just don't. It's all well and fine when you and your friends are sitting together in introductory classes that teach you how to write essays that don't defile the English language and do basic math without giving yourself a brain aneurysm, but when your friend wants to take Bio 417: Advanced Squirrel Gonad Anatomy and you'd rather take Econ 382: Escaping Debt With Protection Racketeering, you're going to have problems. 

Especially since you're clearly cooler than your friend.

The moment you arrive at university, stop taking your friends' advice. Don't sign up for classes to be with them, don't declare the same major as them because they tell you to, and don't join clubs just to hang out with them. Your friends may be wonderful people who truly want the best for you, but they're terrible at making life choices for you. They were wrong when they told you that your frosted tips looked good in the seventh grade, they were wrong when they told you to get that My Chemical Romance concert t-shirt two sizes too small, they were wrong when they encouraged you to lose your virginity to a basketball player with a Call of Duty high score instead of a personality, and they are definitely, definitely wrong when they tell you to major in Education "because you get the whole summer off, man". I'm not being heartless. I have friends I would trust with my life. I have friends I wouldn't trust with the safe operation of a plastic spoon. I have friends who fit under both categories. But I don't have any friends who live inside my brain full-time, and so I've learned to make my own decisions.

3. Never Trust Sinks

Sinks are evil.

Satan's crowning achievement.

I don't want to go into any specifics here, but sometimes in university, you find yourself living in dorm buildings with plumbing that hasn't been updated since the Vietnam War. And sometimes, if you happen to not-so-statuesque in build, you'll find yourself needing to climb on that antique plumbing to reach a bafflingly inaccessible shelving unit. And sometimes, just sometimes, that particular series of events leads to an entire sink ripping out of the wall in your hands and shattering on the floor at your feet, causing an impressive amount of damage in the middle of the night, right before an important house event.

Not that that's ever happened to me. 

Sinks are vile, beastly predators encased in porcelain and lies, and you should never go near one. If you find yourself needing to brush your teeth or wash your hands, you should go outside and do so in the nearest river, like nature intended. 

4. Be An Idiot In Public

When I was still writhing in the larval stage of the human life cycle known as the eighth grade, I had a friend who cared a great deal about what other people thought of her. And I don't just mean that she was careful to follow basic social conventions, like wearing pants in public and eating with a fork and refraining from slapping people with a live fish. No, she cared about everything. An offhand comment about her eyeshadow would send her to the drug store for a whole new makeup kit. A sidelong glance from one of the 'cool' girls warranted a three-day analysis. And the one time somebody dared to make a disparaging comment about one of her outfits turned into a week-long whirlwind of completely overhauling her personal identity to fit in. That friendship ground to a screeching halt almost as suddenly as it started, because hanging out with a human Etch-a-Sketch is fucking exhausting.

 "Reminds me a of a Bratz Doll" is not a trait I look for in a friend.

This was around the time that I realized I didn't much care what shithead thirteen-year olds had to say about anything, and to this day, I go out my way to pretend I can't hear them when they're speaking. While I was at it, I decided to stop caring what any other age groups thought of me. I wore what I liked, did what I liked, and listened to all the ear-bleeding pop punk my little heart desired, well past the age when that genre was socially acceptable.

Honestly, things went a little bit weird for a while.

And in university, that was my attitude. Fuck it. Let people stare. And you know what? I had the best time of my life. I spent a lot of time dancing in public places. I wore ridiculous, brightly coloured wigs to fancy restaurants, for no real reason. I got drunk with near-total strangers, slathered myself in paint and tried to abduct a live swan. I spent an inexplicable amount of time walking around in elaborate costumes in public. I wrote and performed incredibly offensive songs in front of several surprisingly receptive audiences. My year at Mount Allison University... happened. I won a stand-up comedy contest I hadn't planned on entering. I befriended whoever I damn well pleased. I joined the debate club because I damn well wanted to, and I proudly hung out with those lunatics in public. I can guarantee that at several points in my university career, total strangers looked upon whatever shenanigans I was up to, and thought "That girl probably needs to be on a leash at all times." And the joke's on you, judgemental strangers, because I was having way more fun than you were. 

Yeah, you wish you could pull this off.

So go be an idiot in public. Seriously. 

5. Go Grocery Shopping If You Need To

When I moved out and went to live in university residence in my third year, like most students in residence, I decided to save myself a lot of time and effort by getting a school meal plan. Instead of struggling to cook barely-nutritious meals in our communal biohazard of a kitchen, I could just walk across campus and eat barely-nutritious meals in our slightly-less-biohazardous meal hall. And for the first couple of weeks, meal hall is awesome. At ours, we could have pizza, Belgian waffles, grilled cheese sandwiches, ice cream, cereal and triple coronary heart attacks anytime we wanted, plus a variety of daily meals that ranged from 'tater tot casserole crafted by the gods themselves' to 'unidentifiable microwaved kitchen refuse'. It was great. We could have Lucky Charms for dinner every single night if we wanted to. And in fact, that's exactly what we did.

Do you know how quickly 'Lucky Charms for dinner' gets old?

They're after me Lucky Charms! And my digestive health!

When my roommates and I showed up for dinner one night and found a steel tray filled with unidentifiable grey animal parts labelled "meat", we decided to seriously reconsider our stance on cooking our own meals. That doesn't mean we actually gained the skills, motivation and basic foresight needed to plan and prepare meals. It just means that we showed up in our shared kitchen and made a valiant effort. No nineteen-year-old kid thinks to slip a spatula into their suitcase before flying across the country to university, and so between my two closest roommates and I, we owned three plastic bowls, four Tupperware containers, three plastic cups, a set of mismatched forks and spoons that we might have borrowed from meal hall, a mixing bowl, a kettle, a wooden spoon, a pot that might have been stolen from the residence's official adult, and a frying pan that was almost certainly stolen from the house's resident adult.

Fun Fact: I can prepare Kraft Dinner in a kettle. 
Even More Fun Fact: It's horrible. Don't fucking do it.

At the time, we were living in the kind of small town that you can sneeze across, but when you live in a place with dollhouse proportions, anything beyond "leaving your bedroom" starts to feel like a long walk. So we didn't. And holy shit, was that a mistake. Most of the time, the only food we had on hand was pasta, ketchup, margarine and dill pickles, for reasons that my adult self cannot even begin to fathom, and goddamn it, we tried to make entire meals out of those ingredients. There are a lot of things that I remember about my year in residence, and every single one of those memories is tinged with a recollection of the searing heartburn that ravaged my insides for eight consecutive months.

So the next time you get hungry, and you're staring forlornly into the gaping, noxious pit that is your refrigerator, wondering if you can whip together an edible casserole with nothing but mustard, lunch meat, and questionable leftover Chinese food, shut the door and go put your coat on. Go buy some fucking groceries. You'll thank me for it.

6. Don't Take Shit Seriously

In my first year, I screwed up and got a D+ in intro calculus. In my second year, I withdrew from a degree-required course, had a complete mental breakdown and left my program. In my third year, I caused an impressive amount of damage to a university building and realized I had no hope of graduating on time. In my fourth year, I bombed a final exam and had my first grant application rejected. In my fifth year, I managed to get rejected by every single Canadian graduate school program I applied to.

And by the end of my fifth year, I got a scholarship to do my master's degree at Columbia University.

Suck on that, literally everyone who has ever wronged me.

You're going to fuck up sometimes. It'll happen in university, and the rest of your life. Sometimes it's your fault. Sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's a bit of both. You'll make little mistakes, and you'll occasionally have big, catastrophic, life-altering, women-and-children-into-the-lifeboats fuck-ups. It happens. Maybe you forgot all about a midterm and ended up tanking your class grade. Maybe you agreed to a date with the cute boy from your sociology class, only to discover that he's the sort of fellow who collects dead squirrels and insists that other people call him 'Blade'. Maybe you woke up on a stranger's bathroom floor with the remnants of a stale burrito clutched in one hand and what you sincerely hope is only an unconscious prostitute clutched in the other.

Or as I like to call it, 'Tuesday'.

It doesn't matter what kind of dumb shit you got yourself into. Most mistakes can be fixed. Mistakes that can't be fixed can be lived with. Unless you are currently being mauled to death by a tiger - in which case I commend you for your incredibly reading comprehension at this time - you're going to be okay, on some level. When I was (hypothetically) staring down at the shattered remains of the (hypothetical) sink that I had (hypothetically) just ripped from the wall, I was fairly certain that I was going to have to sneak aboard the next freight train that came through town and live out the rest of my life in rural Manitoba under an assumed identity. Now I have a stand-up comedy sketch based on the incident, because in hindsight, it's probably one of the funniest things that ever happened to me.

Remember: no matter how bad things get, at least you don't live in Manitoba. Unless you do. In which case, I'm so sorry.

I'm not going to tell you that failure is the best thing that will ever happen to you, or that mistakes are how you grow, because people who say that kind of obnoxious shit deserve to choke on their self-righteous quinoa. Fucking up something that's important to you really sucks. And every time it happens, you have exactly two options: you can freak out about it, or you can realize that freaking out about it won't change anything, and enjoy all the other awesome things that are still going on in your life. Personally, I recommend the latter. No matter what happens, you still live in a world where the sun rises, cheesecake exists, and people spend their time and energy compiling blogs that consist entirely of photos of North Korean dictators frowning at things. And that's amazing.

7. Know Your Limits

I know I literally just told you not to take shit too seriously, but the world is full of confusing and contradictory information. Get used to it.

I turned eighteen on my very first day of university, which is the legal drinking age here in Canada's favourite ice tundra, as the government of Alberta wants to ensure that everyone gets to have a good time at least once before they are inevitably consumed by bears. So the first time I ever went out to a bar was that very weekend, and it wasn't just one bar. A friend of mine talked me into coming along on a pub crawl to several of Edmonton's drinking/dancing/stabbing hotspots, as part of a recruitment campaign for a sorority I had no intention of joining. At one point in the evening, my friend and I were cornered by a particularly enthusiastic sorority girl, who insisted that joining her sorority would help us learn how to "deal with whatever bitches you meet, because we'll teach you to be even bitchier". I, of course, was dying for her to teach me the Ways of the Bitch right there in the seedy armpit of Edmonton's night life, but at that particular moment, she turned and vomited all over the bar.

It's worth noting that this particular sorority's motto was 'fight the stereotypes'.

That was my first exposure to university drinking, but holy shit, it wasn't even close to my last. I went to all the requisite university parties - toga parties, costume parties, keggers, pub crawls, and gatherings that are closer to group therapy sessions with alcohol than any kind of celebration - and came out mostly unscathed. I woke up one morning with an engagement ring on my finger, fishnets on my legs, and a concerned roommate telling me she'd found me drunkenly attempting to brush my teeth at 5:30 that morning. I went through a phase where I poured cheap alcohol into my breakfast cereal in the morning. At one point in my third year, my water bottle was more likely to contain wine than water, forcing me to convince several people that I was, in fact, the Second Coming of Christ. There's a fine line between 'having fun' and 'in dire need of spending some quality time in a circle of understanding people and plastic chairs in a church basement', and it's best to walk carefully along it.

Thats not the only line you'll need to walk if you keep up that kind of behaviour. 

I know of at least four people who were forced to withdraw from school, partially or completely because of alcohol and drug problems gone awry. And that's fucking tragic. Four smart, capable people aren't able to do what they want in life, because things got out of control. Don't let that be you. Here's an exercise - try being the sober one at a party a few times. Or the mostly-sober one. Hold back your friends' hair when they puke. Help a hopelessly drunk girl pee in approximately the correct location. Wrestle your friend to the ground when you catch him trying to furiously hump the arm of a sofa. Almost get yourself killed in incoming traffic as you swerve wildly across the meridian, distracted by the person vomiting in the passenger seat of your car. Watch the people around you triumphantly gallop far past their limits, and see if you can see the merit of staying within yours.

This is every single one of your friends after six jagerbombs and a shot of tequila.

And seriously, people, it's 2015. Every time you turn into a shambling, drunken mess, you know that shit's going to end up on Facebook. You don't want that. 

8. Wear Converse To Everything

When it really comes down to it, you only need one pair of shoes in this lifetime.

This pair.

Converse are literally the perfect shoe, and there is absolutely no excuse to not wear them at every occasion. I wore them to my junior high school graduation. I wore them to my high school graduation. I will wear them at my university graduation. I can wear them to school, to work, and to any community theatre productions of West Side Story that I happen to be cast in.

Which, I think we can all agree, is an all-too-common occurrence that we often forget to prepare for.

My friends and family have spent years trying to talk me into wearing boots, or wedges, or stripper heels, or sandals, or shoes with any form of discernable arch support, but I will not budge. Converse shoes look great with everything. Fact. Converse shoes are comfortable, and don't leave me pleading to the Gods to just take me now, so that I don't have to walk one more step on my blistered feet. Another fact. Sticking to Converse shoes for the rest of my life frees me from having to know, or care, what is in style at a particular moment. 

Obvious fact.

9. Do Things

Here is what is required of you at university, in its entirety:

You enroll. You sign up for one to five classes that may or may not actually get you closer to a particular degree. Pay the university a sum of money that you realistically will not be able to pay back until well after you've discovered your first grey hair. Show up. Read your syllabi. Do what they tell you. Attend final exams in a sober to mostly-sober state. Eke out a pass. Occasionally check your email.

Universities send email like grandmothers who've just discovered the Internet.

If you do those things for several years in a row, the university will eventually get tired of looking at your face, and they'll punt you out of there with a degree in hand. And you'll have wasted the greatest opportunity of your life thus far. 

Yeah, you should look ashamed of yourself.

University is the one time in your life when you'll have the time, resources and opportunity to indulge in whatever obscure, batshit insane interests you have. At no other point in your existence will you be able to join a drum circle, a water polo team and a Lord of the Rings fan club on the same day and not have your friends and family assume you're going through a rough divorce. If your particular brand of insanity isn't offered at your university, not to worry! You can start a new club at any time. If you want to spend an hour of your life talking about Marxist themes in My Little Pony each week, all you need are a handful of other equally crazy people to join in, and you're well on your way to building the most confusing resume of all time. 

"My strengths include organization, attention to detail, and commanding the Elements of Harmony."

I try not to turn this blog into a giant boast about how great I am, but that probably went out the window when I decided to name it after myself and fill it with articles about me, so here goes: I did a whole lot of shit during my university career. Sure, I took a whole bunch of classes, but I also played saxophone in a band. I volunteered in a lab, cleaning and reconstructing dinosaur bones from the field. I worked in a peer counselling centre. I travelled the country with the debate team. I worked in the Sex and Violence lab, doing work that was nowhere near as glamorous as it sounded. I took dance classes that were a secret until I wrote about them on my blog just now. I wrote a novel in my spare time. I became a writer for I did a whole bunch of things that were far more interesting than jotting down notes from a lecture delivered by a man who doesn't quite realize the Cold War is over. And that's what made the whole thing worthwhile.

So get off your ass and, y'know, do stuff. Now.

10. Don't Take Life Advice From Online Lists

Although you have just read what is bound to be the greatest online list of life advice you've ever read, and you are no doubt already trying to decide which piece of your body you'll tattoo it on, you should know that I don't believe in taking advice from online lists.

I'm just a basket of contradictions today.

I spend a lot of time staring aimlessly into the dark void of the Internet, and I come across lists like this all the time. 25 Things People Under 25 Need to Know! Top 15 Life Tips I Wish I Knew in College! 8 Great Places to Cry Into a Bowl of Ramen, You Filthy Millennial! I read these ordered lists of garbage from time to time, and I have yet to find a single one that I agree with. Because as it turns out, not everyone is going to find the same advice useful. 

 Clones are bad. We already discussed this.

Sometimes shit just doesn't apply to your circumstances. Everyone should live in New York City at least once. Yeah, okay, check, but the rent on my dollhouse-sized studio apartment in Manhattan costs more than what my parents pay for a three-bedroom family home in Nova Scotia. Even I'm not clueless enough to think that's an affordable option for the average person. Everyone should live abroad for a year after they graduate. I'm a useless, sheltered suburban kid with student loans that can only be described by a violent weeping sound. That's just not going to happen. Everyone should avoid being in a serious relationship until they're 25. I have worse taste in men than a thirteen-year-old girl shrieking at a castrated pop star, but I'm not dumb enough to think that I'll somehow stop being attracted to idiots on September 8, 2017. Likewise, I have friends my own age who are planning to get married, and if their relationship isn't real, I'm going to give up on love entirely and lead a life of celibacy in a shack in the Himalayas. Never try to take on an agitated wolverine by yourself. Fuck you, that is a painful life lesson that I am more than willing to learn with poor judgement and multiple lacerations. 

Stupid online lists... trying to tell me what to do...

I think that learning from terrible teachers is a great thing, but maybe you'll end up with an awful teacher who gives you a failing grade, undermines your self-esteem, steals your car, runs over your dog, and leaves you pregnant and living in a cheap motel room. I don't fucking know. These are just the things I learned during my time at university. Maybe you'll learn something completely different. 

Just get out there and learn something. I know I did. And I've got a lot of things left to learn.

1 comment

  1. Wow, it was such funny article. I remember my life at university dormitory :)
    Iw wa a lot of nice things that I want to return. Especially, when I wasn't ready for my leacture, helped me a lot with my essay. I really want to say that student life teach you how to avoid really difficult things.


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