I used to joke I’d love to go back in time to my first year at Western – and tell myself to study way, way less.
Hours and hours of course readings in bed? Skip ’em. Second, third and fourth copy edits of final essays? Nah. Nights spent studying for exams at Weldon library? Just do one cram session per exam. Or, hey, maybe don’t even do that. You’ll be fine, kid!
This whole thought process of mine came from being quite a few years out from school, long removed from those all-consuming first year university stresses which now, by comparison, seem rather trivial. Perhaps I should’ve spent more time relaxing on the emerald grass of UC Hill or bar-hopping on Richmond Row, rather than fretting about grades people would never see again. (My first-year roommate was even more intense, disappearing to the library for what seemed like weeks at a time during exam season and shutting the door during floor parties to study.)
Looking back, university was merely a training ground for adult life, not the real thing. Why did we ever worry?
Since then, I’ve settled into a very adult-like, post-graduate routine – or so I like to think – which involves pressures far beyond anything I faced back then. I spend three times as much on rent as I did in my London days. I have bills to pay. I have a real-world job (read: not working at Masonville Mall after class) and real-world obligations. I have career goals and a boss to impress. I swapped my RESP for an RRSP. I own plants and I try not to kill them.
These are the things I think about. Adult things. Real things.
But school was real, too. I was reminded of this fact when I started teaching a first-year Journalism course in the fall. As 30 pairs of eyes stared at me during the first class, I suddenly recalled my anxious excitement upon walking into lecture halls and tutorials for the first time. That’s the look they had on their faces, too.
As my course went on, my students became more than a room full of eyeballs. Some days, a few would stay after class, tossing around story ideas and asking for advice. We’d chat about their proposals for the final project – one worth 35 per cent of their grade – and how it was coming along. Other days, my inbox would fill up with questions. How long should the first essay be? What style of citations should I use? Can you, just, take a look at this paragraph and let me know how it sounds? Those sorts of things.
There was a darker side as well. Students confided in me about health issues, family tension and other stresses beyond their control – things that threatened to pull them away from their studies, and in several instances, actually did. It broke my heart. Because, for all of them, the goal was to do well – to study hard, to produce great work, to feel a sense of pride. These are qualities and goals that will serve them well, whatever they end up doing after graduation.
The funny thing about university is, despite the pressure to do well, in so many ways it’s not really about your grades. No one will ask you what mark you got on a first-year English essay or how you fared on your final Chemistry exam. Sure, acing your course load – particularly in the final two years – is the key to entering med school or law school or getting a master’s degree, but if your goal is simply to walk away with a piece of paper, you can cram for exams and rush through essays and things will likely work out fine.
But I’m glad my students didn’t do that. And I’m glad I didn’t do that.
University is a microcosm of the real world, in so many ways. Being an adult is like racing around a busy city on your bike; undergrad is learning how to ride with training wheels. There’s pressure and expectations, of course, but it’s all coupled with a safety net. It’s a place where you learn how to work hard, how to pour hours of your life into something you’re passionate about, and how to dust yourself off when you inevitably fail.
Would it matter now if I’d studied a bit less for my first year final exams, or cobbled together essays? From a grade perspective, not really – I can’t even recall my freshman average or a single essay topic. From the perspective of being a well-rounded adult who can handle workplace pressure and juggle different stresses – I suppose it does matter, quite a lot.
If I could go back in time to my first year at Western, I’d tell myself to keep it up – to keep caring, to keep learning, to keep studying.
And a decade later, I told my first-year students to do the same.
Lauren Pelley, BA’10, MA’11, is a Toronto-based multimedia journalist and reporter at the Toronto Star.
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