We Asked Students About Their Biggest Lessons From First Year
‘Don’t leave porn on your laptop before you go into lecture.’
Sierra Bein and Josh Varty | All images courtesy of author.
What you learn in your first year of postsecondary are the lessons that carry you through the next few years of your life. For a lesson to sink in you've got to learn the hard way. Transitioning from high school to university or college is hardly ever smooth, and I could have benefited from someone telling me a thing or two about their mistakes. We spoke to people who have already made it through their first year in one piece, about what lessons they would pass on to the incoming flocks of high school students.
First year at: University of New Brunswick, Business Administration
I always knew I talked in my sleep from time to time, but my first experience sleepwalking was in my first year of university. I’d gone out to a house party with a few people from my residence but had come back before midnight. I said goodnight to my roommate and crawled under the sheets. The next morning, I made my way downstairs to the main lounge. When I walked in, D, a guy who lived downstairs, told me ‘it was nice to see you last night!’ I thought he was joking, since this is the first time I’d seen him in days. He proceeded to tell me I’d barged into his room at 3 AM in my pajamas and crawled into his roommate’s bed and fallen asleep. It wasn’t until an RA came in and told me it was the wrong room that I bolted up, shouted ‘FUCK’ and ran upstairs to my room. It had to be a joke. It was then that the RA on duty came in and cracked a smile, looking in my direction. He told me, word-for-word, the exact same story as D. We eventually surmised that I got up to use the bathroom and for some reason, went downstairs and went to D’s room—which was directly underneath mine—and into his roommate’s bed—on the same side of the room as mine. As far as I know, it was a one-off thing, but I’ve heard of other people in residence doing similar things. As for other sleep stuff, my roommate was a night owl and I was usually in bed by 10 PM, which is pretty vanilla as far as roommate conflicts go.
What did you learn?
Sharing a room can be a new experience for a lot of people, as is living in close contact with close to 100 people. You’ll see a lot of people’s weird habits, so be open and understanding—everyone is weird to somebody. Don’t be afraid to set out clear ground rules for behavior, chores, and money, too. It might feel awkward to make a list of do’s and don’ts but it’ll prevent a lot of stress down the line. In any case, communication is key. “Hoping they get the hint” is a bad strategy at best, which usually ends up with you being filled with passive-aggressive rage and them still being unaware that there’s a problem.
First year at: University of Toronto, History and English double major
When I was in first-year, I was stressed beyond belief. I had a really easy time in high school getting good grades but when I was in first year that dramatically changed and it had been the first time I regularly getting Cs and I couldn’t believe it. One day in lecture I began crying because my grades were not where I wanted them to be. I was so embarrassed about myself. But then not long after, it was exam period and I was in the library studying and I saw someone else who was on their own just sitting doing their work and they started crying. Then, I was in a lecture and my professor started crying. It was because they had read a very emotional poem but just the fact that they were able to be comfortable releasing that emotion in front of everyone made me feel better.
Did you see more people cry?
Oh, all the time! I have seen professors cry a bunch of times, especially because in English we read a lot of poetry, stories that evoke really intense feelings. But even with my friends getting a really bad grade or learning they might need to drop a class is always very emotional.
What did you learn?
I learned that it’s not so much of a big deal to have feelings and be human, you know? Especially because so many people are coming from different places with different experiences. People don’t care what they look like, people will come to class wearing pajamas, with their hair up, people want to be comfortable, it’s not a fashion show. In high school that was a huge thing for me, doing my makeup every morning having a really nice outfit because I wanted to impress everyone. People are way less judgmental, more mature generally and it’s a lot easier to feel comfortable in who you are.
First year at: Concordia University, software engineering
We have a weird house number. It’s 665, so it’s not 666 but it’s almost there. And it’s a cool apartment; I live in a sort of grungy upcoming neighborhood in Montreal. The rent is super cheap. One thing I learned is move to Montreal if you want to pay cheap rent. But my neighbours are kind of shitty, like I don’t know, they’re just really [rude] Quebecois people. They smoke infinite cigarettes, and [use] all the swear words. It’s a strange relationship. We both hate each other secretly. But every time we see each other, we’re like ‘Hey how’s it going.’ One thing that pisses me off is that there’s always dog shit on their side of the balcony and we share a balcony. The dog just always shits there. Whenever I have friends over there’s just a pile of dog shit. There’s this one funny story from when I just moved in, I lived here for about two months and my neighbours had this cat. This cat really liked me and would always come to my side of the balcony to get pet or push her body against me. A month after that, they knock on my door… and they’re like, is my cat inside your house? I was like no? Do you guys think I stole your cat or something?
What did you learn?
We both don’t really like each other just because we live beside each other. It’s going to be harder to change the person than it is to find a new apartment.
First year at: University of Waterloo, bachelor of applied science in computer engineering
For me, high school was sort of a competition to not care about things. That lead to a lot of people fucking around and not taking things seriously, in my first year of university I had core group of friends and we ran into this issue where we carried that mentality forward, we wouldn’t study, we wouldn’t go to class, we would drink during the weeks and stuff like that. And it ended up with one third of our group failing that semester and dropping out of university. It caused myself especially to take a minute to reflect on why we were at university and why we wanted to be there, or even if we wanted to be there. And I looked around and realized all the people I admired in my life got to where they were through working hard. Even in terms of each class that you skip, it’s essentially $70 that you paid for, that you’re missing out on. And looking at things that way helped ground me.
Did you ever strike that balance?
Yeah, for the first two semesters after there was very little partying. Maybe at the start or in between semesters, but during the school year it was really head-down. We hung out in the library if we hung out at all. But towards the end of university things sort of let up and I think I got more of a balanced experience out of it. So in a certain sense I did get it out of my system. For one of my friends, he didn’t come to the same understanding. Maybe even not having him around changed my outlook on some of those things.
What did you learn?
My lessons I think would be that any accomplishment, anything you want to get done in your life, that is of any value, is going to take hard work, and it’s going to take putting yourself through discomfort and you can’t coast your way to the finish line. If you want to get somewhere and you want to excel at something, it doesn’t come naturally. The more distractions you have around you the harder it will be to focus. And the people who are surrounding you are definitely going to have some impact on what you value and what you focus on.
First year at: Ryerson University, Bachelor of Journalism
I was taking sociology in first year and I sat in the very front row with my friend just because she wanted to. [The prof] was setting up his laptop to the power point and all of a sudden there was a naked lady on the screen and everyone kind of gasped for a second and I don’t think he realized until we were like what the fuck and he quickly swept it away and stuttered. I was kind of confused like, did that just happen? And the thing is it was a sociology class so we were like… was that supposed to be there? The following week he sent out an email and before class he formally apologized, like I’m so sorry I hope that didn’t offend anyone and if you want to complain or you want to go to student services or get help after this traumatizing event you can. I don’t think I need help now, but thank you. It was just really funny. I came from a Catholic high school so we didn’t really talk about pornography or anything like that kind of stuff and all of a sudden it was on the screen, like what the fuck! We were all about Jesus, so I was like oh my God it’s the devil on the screen.
OMG. What else was a shock in particular with the transition from a Catholic school to a university?
I had to wear a uniform so that was one big thing for me. I actually had to choose what to wear. My closet was very minimal in high school like I had a couple pairs or sweats and most of the time when I came home from school I would wear my uniform when I went to bed anyway because I was too lazy to change. You’d even get in trouble if you wore your uniform wrong. I’d get in trouble if I wore colorful socks. I don’t know if this makes me feel like an adult, but I remember [a prof in university] swore at me once because I was talking while he was talking. The profs are more chill and they want to be called by their first name so that took some getting used to. Like, oh, are we friends now? You have a PhD but I’m calling you Dan.
What did you learn from all this?
This is a lesson more for that teacher than the students but don’t leave porn on your laptop before you go into lecture. The biggest lesson I learned was not to raise your hand and ask a prof if you can go to the bathroom. He kind of gave me a weird like, ‘Uh yeah of course you can I don’t care, you can do whatever you want.’ And I realized like, wow OK, I can do whatever I want. Moving from high school to university and having that independence, even just being able to go to the bathroom on your own, it’s a little thing but it also shows how independent you are now and how you really have control over your bladder now so it’s pretty cool.
First year at: Humber College, film and television
(Also: George Brown for sign language and deaf studies, and first year at McMaster University for social work)
The first time I went to school was because I wanted to go the same university as my mom. And I was like oh my God, I’m going to go to McMaster like my mom and I’m going to get a degree and I kind of felt pressure. It wasn’t my mother’s fault. But that’s why I went to university first. Society says you’re not smart unless you go for a degree. So I went to McMaster, hated it. Then I went to George Brown because I was like, this will get me money. Which again, is not the right reason to go to school. Then finally I applied to media foundations [at Humber], which its funny, media foundations was the other program I was thinking about going into before I got accepted to McMaster. I had to fail there and then I had to fail at George Brown to realize like, you know what I should be going to school for what I want to do and for what I like rather than something that’s money-based, or something society says that you should have. And now I love school.
It’s pretty cool to have done so many first years though.
I do think it is unique, when I dropped out of McMaster I felt so bad. It put me into a depression. I felt like I was an idiot. And then I applied to George Brown and the same thing happened. But I don’t regret it at all now. I feel like if I had gone to Humber first I might not have appreciated it as much. For a while, I actually resented dropping out. Because so many people would be like, ‘what are you in school for?’ Like, oh, I dropped out twice. It’s funny because now a lot of my friends have actually gone through the same thing.
What did you learn in your three years as a first year?
Do it for yourself. And don’t stop trying if you do fail because it’s all part of the journey. It’s hard. But I feel like a lot of people have to learn it. Oh and just because you don’t go to university doesn’t mean you’re in idiot. I don’t know if I’m just bragging, but I literally went from dropping at two different schools and I just got an academic award this year. I was the top of my class in the program and I was like woah! I never thought I’d get an academic award. Like, that’s cool. Fuck you, all my haters. How bow dat. I’m using the money to get a camera.
First year at: Carleton University, bachelor of commerce in accounting
It all started on literally my first day. I was on rez for probably 15 minutes into the night, I was just drinking a Busch, there were a bunch of people playing beer pong. All of a sudden a big group of campus security walked in and they write everyone up. I didn’t think much of it, but after two weeks I got called in and I had to talk to this lady about why I was drinking. I had to complete this online alcohol assessment which is a test to see if you’re dependent on alcohol or not and I had to write about it. Probably like, my second week on rez we were smoking in our room. We got a knock on the door and it was campus security again. We were trying to bullshit it, but at the same time I feel like they knew. My roommate got a little baggie with some weed in it and he gave it to them. But we actually had way more. We had to go in for another meeting with the same lady, and this time we had to complete this weed thing. It was a website that educates you about weed so I had to do this whole assessment about weed this time.
How many times did this happen?
It escalated to the point where I was going to get kicked off rez. I had to write out a fucking like, five-page thing arguing why I should be allowed to stay. Two of the times we got booked we hadn’t actually been smoking in our rooms. It was just bullshit. One of the times, I wasn’t even in Ottawa. Me and my roommate were both in Markham and somehow we got written up while we were in Markham for “smoking weed in Ottawa.” It was the stupidest thing ever. There was another time one of the security guards had his ear pressed against my door listening to what we were talking about. When he did knock on our door he was like, oh I heard you guys talking about a scale. No one in the room was talking about a scale.
What did you learn?
Live it up, but campus security are assholes, and they don’t want you to have a good time. Eventually we realized that at a certain time they get off so we would just wait until then and do all our smoking and whatnot. Residence isn’t as party-friendly as you think it is when you’re in high school. If I could do it again I would just go in a lot more cautious. I would probably go in more like alright we’re going to party but we’re going to be sneaky about it.
First year at: University of Ottawa, international studies and modern languages
I was trying to go out grocery shopping and my card got declined and I was like oh well... I’ll put this back. And then it got declined again and I was like OK, I need to step aside before I embarrass myself. And I figured out how much money I had and got the basics I needed and basically spend my last dollar. I was like man, this is so stupid how did this happen? And then I looked up and I saw there were three empty 1.75 liters of Smirnoff sitting on top of my dresser, and I was like that’s probably why I’m eating plain lettuce for dinner tonight. My mom was out of the country or something so I couldn’t ask her for money, so it was the moment I was like oh my god I’m really super alone and the realization that this is my life, that I have to support right now, really did help smarten me up and in the second half the semester, I got a lot less vodka.
How did you get to that point?
I wanted the ability to focus on that transition into university life so I worked three part-time jobs during the summer before to save up what I thought was going to be enough money to get me through the eight months of school. But I was also having way too much fun in rez to do that. I wasn’t used to having savings and a large amount of money in my bank account. So I would look at my statement and be like omg there’s so much money here. Swipe swipe swipe. Then I wouldn’t look at it for weeks and weeks. And because I wasn’t working there was no new money coming in except for birthday and Christmas money which is nothing. You should never bank on that.
What did you learn?
I learned how to budget. That’s a good one. There were enough times where I was like oh my god there is 75 cents in my bank account or like, oh my god there are minus 200 dollars in my bank account and that’s not the worst thing, I think that’s important for someone to go through in their life. To be like I have a cup of rice and three tubs of peanut butter and a bag of marshmallows how can I make a meal out of this? If you’re in that situation and you go out for drinks… order a Caesar, the celery stick is a good snack. That’s the other one. I don’t want to be pessimistic… it doesn’t get better, you’re still going to see shiny shit on the shelf and not have the money for it. I think I might go to the store after this.
First year at: University of Waterloo, Geology
In high school I never kept my phone for longer than a month. I maybe went through 15 blackberries, two androids, five iPhones. For the first week I went to a party but I had been hella crunk I guess and I had my phone plugged into the music. I fell asleep at the party, it was a friends place, so it wasn’t me at some random person’s place sleeping. When I woke up I was like oh the music’s not playing, where is my phone? Literally like maybe 20 minutes ago I fell asleep. It turns out someone had stolen my phone. I took my entire year after graduating off just so I could fuck around essentially, I thought my first year of university I was going to be responsible. Finally I got another iPhone and I’ve had this phone for a few years now.
I guess you can’t really trust people at parties, or you just have to expect the unexpected.
We’ve had a few parties at our house but we’ve never had issue because the people we invite are just people we know. My friends don’t steal things. But they bring really random shit to parties. This one time they brought an octopus to a party. Like from a store. I think it was dead, I don’t think it was alive. But they filled the bathtub and put it in there. Yeah they do weird shit. They’ve done some other shit too… I think they took a bite out of all the apples in the house. I don’t fucking know. But they do shit like that, so be careful who you invite [to your house] because they might do really random shit and you won’t know how to deal with it the next day.
What else did you learn from these parties?
If you’re like me and you lose your phone all the time, literally just glue it to you somewhere. Don’t be like hey can I play some music? It’s fucking stupid. Everyone isn’t as connected as they were in high school. I want to say that some people are assholes, but a lot of the times when I went out people were just great people.
First year at: University of British Columbia, bachelor of science (marine biology)
I was like I need to get out of my house, I just need to like, be a big girl and get the fuck out and move out as far as I can. And to me, that was BC and I had this ideal picture of Vancouver in my head and then I showed up in like, East Hastings. I don’t think I ever fully adjusted to be honest, because I came back [home] for my mental health. My big thing that kind of makes them laugh is to be honest, my mind erased most of first year because I was so fucking depressed it was awful. Clinical depression runs in my family and it was totally exasperated when I was so far away from home. BC is super different from Toronto. Definitely even just living on campus. There’s like a nudist beach on campus too. There’s this guy named Ninja and he’d come around and sell acid and shrooms chocolate at like 12 PM. He’d just be sitting on the beach smoking a bong and come up and be like, do you need anything? He had a ninja sword I don’t know why.
So you kind of romanticized it?
I totally did. I was like oh everyone is going to be super chill, and smoking weed in Vancouver and it’s going to be great and green. But it rains all the time… when it’s a sunny day you’re like holy fuck the city is beautiful. And when it rains you’re like holy shit this is depressing. I completely didn’t take into account half the things that people were telling me to take into account. Living in a dorm for me was hellish because you have to listen to people having sex and listening to people being idiots. I was like this guy isn’t going to last more than five minutes but then 20 minutes in I was like just stop. It took me forever to fall asleep, so to finally fall asleep and be woken up by some guy grunting and hitting a headboard like… no. There was one girl that somehow managed to get her period blood all over the [bathroom] and she would wash out her dirty panties in the sink. Like, once I went to bathroom to brush my teeth and she was washing out her panties in the sink. Like the blood out of her panties. Maybe it would have been funny if I wasn’t extremely depressed.
What did you learn?
Just don’t run out of the house because you think you’re going to have your own.
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*Name has been changed.