Because I’m not going to pretend I can give advice, especially not as my circumstances will be vastly different as my first year was cut short because of corona, but now everyone is dealing with it from the start. Since the world is in widely different stages of having been through corona, this list is mostly unrelated to that.
I’ve made many “mistakes” this first year, but at some point you realize you just didn’t have the knowledge to make the better decisions at the time. But I have accomplished the things I was most worried about not being able to going into university, especially as a queer woman in a high-percetage male STEM program that is physics; to get a good group of friends. And we have reflected on and discussed our first year a lot. So here’s me summing up the conclusions we’ve arrived at for hopefully someone else to find some use of, or at the very least I will as I go into my second year.
1. Expect to do everything perfectly, already in the first semester you will achieve absolute balance
It just won’t happen. I’ve not talked to one person that’s got their whole life together and means it, you always feel lacking in one area or another. Think about what you need in your life to function, then what you would like to achieve and then whatever extra you could do to improve your life. You might have achieved really good grades in high school, but recognize that you need to find friends or another form of support network (or both) to be able to get through a whole uni programme. You might be neurodivergent or disabled or have mental health issues that you should dedicate time to get acommodation for or get a new doctor/hospital doctor/therapist/contact at disability office and figuring all that will take its toll and new coping strategies. New routines! Making food! It’s not as stressful if you go into it mentally prepared and not already overwhelmed.
What you can do; go into the first semester very aware of your priorities, observe how much time everything takes in a week, reconsider your plan & priorities the second semester. Understand it’s a learning process and about personal growth. Have compassion with yourself.
2. Change who you are to fit in or fit with an idea you have an uni student of X program
I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Because I and many others realize that we got the chance to reinvent ourselves going into uni. But the whole dark academia aesthetics reminds me that some first years come into physics ready to “fake it ‘til they make it” in shaping their life and style and persona and I would advice – no matter how much you love the idea of academia or any other aesthetic – to let that aesthetic/goal compliment you as a person instead of trying to show yourself off as some (WRONG and honestly toxic) idea of a physics student/professor. This goes for any area of study. Don’t change ur clothes, dress more modest in every setting, hide questioning of sexual orientation or gender, not ask dumb questions, pretend you’re more introverted or extroverted, change ‘not mainstream’ interests or shame people for anything like this just to fit into this perception of an aesthetic necessary for success. I’ve seen all of those happen this year. Most common one is to drink to feel less socially awkward; it’s not worth it! Do it because you want to, not feel pressured into it.
3. Hang on to only the first people you meet and not spend time with a wider array of people.
This particularly includes starting to date someone the first week/month and not attending any social gatherings. I’ve seen people do this and reappear three months into the year or more being like ‘oops I got a boyfriend’ and having to reintroduce themselves only to disappear again. Take into consideration how dependant you’re going to be on your partner (or bff really) for a while as it might be your only friend, and whether they’re also spending time with friends and creating a network or if you’re spending all free-time together. It’s okay to state those concerns out loud to someone before you two getting involved at all.
The new people I find easiest to talk to is a smaller friend-group that is trying to be inclusive because the flow of a conversation, teasing and topics of interests are already known. But where I come from people usually all move to the same place, as a friendgroup, and never learn to really include others that way because they don’t need to and it’s a sad thing because so many potential people you might love to talk to and you’re basically shutting them all out before they get a chance. If I hear one more ‘so hard to date’ I will punch them bc the problem is so obvious, they only know other people from back home.
What you can do; wait to date and state concerns or remember to spend time with possible new friends as well, maybe especially in a group with the potential partner if that’s natural. don’t hang on to one person, but try to decide to split up and find potential friends to introduce to each other or go make friends together.
4. Believe that you’re going to find your eternal friend group the first week.
Maybe you had a good group in high school, maybe you’re finally ready to discuss interesting things with like-minded, interesting people. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out as quickly as hoped.
What you can do; see it as a way to get to learn to speak with many different types of people, seeing who you vibe the best with. Become casual friends with a couple people only increases the chances of having a familiar face in a lecture or someone to ask for help when stuck or simply study side by side in a room.
5. To shame people hooking up. Or who dress less or more revealing than you. And to not keep an eye out for others experiencing unwanted sexual advances.
And of course most of all, should go without saying; never make unwanted advances when someone is saying no or clearly uncomfortable or too drunk. Actually, even if you think of yourself as a good person, get a very clear ‘yes’ to any sexual advances. If it’s one thing I’ve learned it is that you should never underestimate the trauma a person can already be carrying with them around sex (and then how they react in certain situaitons), and so thread carefully and be on the safe side.
It’s a time for people to start experimenting in all aspects of their identity, keep your judgement to yourself pls. I heard a guy make a critical comment on an older female student’s low neckline and I wanted both to kick him and it struck me how much it just emphasizes my idea of him as insecure, no matter if that is true. Don’t be that person.
6. Forget the due date for signing up for lab partners or times.
Ours was at 7 am the only free day we got! The first two weeks our schedule was insane because we didn’t have normal lectures yet, so my program the day before went from 8 am to 8 pm, I have to make dinner and am deeply tired getting to know roommates and go to sleep at 1 am, then remembering I need a lab partner for the day afterwards. I sent so many texts at 1:30 am, waking up at 6:30 to see if anyone had responded. A lab partner you know don’t matter that much, but it truly was good to have one I didn’t know, but knew I could at least be civil with. This year it was the same damn thing only we had to choose the people of our corona-friendly groups to be with the whole year, without warning. It was one stressful hour.
7. Feel like you need to participate in all aspects of student culture or be on your own. Or go the other way and think you need to focus too much on studies the first month, which is very busy.
Clubs! Interest groups! Sports! Volunteering! Each uni program’s society. I don’t know what your university offers, but you should after the first week! They’re all there to be a support and a place to meet people, spend the first month wisely by trying out which places of the university/college you feel like you are most comfortable and like. But also don’t feel like you need to drink, or that you need to drink to attend parties. It’s okay to be sober in any situation, do you think college drunk people notice your potential higher awkwardness? Mostly not. Personally, I went into the physics programme from the real world being considered someone who liked the occassional party, but not really. But I just don’t like that many people around anyway. The moment someone started talking about physics stuff at an after-party, I was in love with that aspect of the culture. If you find your people, you might find that the ‘parties’ and their conversation is a lot more interesting as well. Or not, and then you might want to do some daytime activities with a club/sports team. And again – you don’t need to drink.
8. Not look for one older, very active student’s name that you write down, (befriend on facebook) and is ready to ask if you got questions which needs to be answered quickly. Or elected student representative.
Often councellors are inaccessible in the beginning of the year and even through they’re supposed to be there every mail seem to go missing. Not to mention the professors. Usually a STEM class will have layers of people with responsibility and even knowing someone to ask who to turn to or where to look it up is truly valuable. Cue me trying to reschedule an obligatory lab time for a Germany trip and not realizing there’s one certain person resposible for all the labs among the many names of ‘lab assistants’. I had time, but if say you’re ill and can’t join – especially in corona times – have that name and a plan ready.
What you can also do: Generally familiarize yourself with what to do if ill or not able to attend obligatory work and the consequences. You think you won’t need it and suddenly you got a fever. Or just need motivation to get your hungover self out of bed and get to that 8 am thing.
9. Feel like you don’t belong in certain rooms.
I have a strange background (school-wise), making me feel like I definitely do not fit in with all these smart people I’m surrounded with. You just have to be uncomfortable sometimes, of course that’s a long way away from unsafe. Looking back there’s certain people I’ve met & gotten help from and actually courses I’ve switched out because I went into those rooms; I once joined a group of guys arguing loudly in a room only to find out that they were discussing how awful matrix calculations are by hand are with older students and I joined in after some truly shy thirty minutes. I joined a party the first day where I wanted to leave the first five minutes, near panic, but a girl took my hand bascially and introduced me – making me take inspiration from that the rest of the year. After a few weeks two older girls, separately, noted that I was the only other girl in the room (kind of like a break-room, but at 1 am and filled with older students, it’s fun & weird) and if that bothered me – at that point I’d gotten enough familiar faces that I was surprised it didn’t. (Like obviously in a working for gender equality kind of way, but not in a personal anxiety level way hahha.)
What you can do; fake a bit of courage if necessary, stay in a room for ten-fifteen minutes before fleeing, don’t do anything that’s actually unsafe, but not let anxiety/self-confidence hold you back. Only you know what you want, only you know where you belong and not let anyone tell you otherwise.
10. Not explore early on what modules/classes you want to take, even if two seem very similar
Here the older student advisor comes into good use. I briefly mentioned how I changed one of my courses the first week, it was a difficult, but good decision. There’s always the ones that take too many classes or have already taken some in high school (an offer I never got??). You don’t need to know what you want to do or which special field you like the first year, but perhaps ask anyone in your major what they would’ve done differently. My physics friends mostly agree on how we should have had one year of pure maths before then going into a physics bachelor course, because it would’ve gone pretty seamlessly at my particular university, but we didn’t know about that possibility. It’s still not something I would recommend randomly, but if you do really care about getting good in a programme, the A4 solution given might not be the best way for everyone. Or it might be a good reason behind the set-up, but now you’ll know.
11. Not go to lectures
This is straight off the press (tongue) of my math major roommate who was ahead of all of us even as first years; “my first advice to new students would be to go to lectures, even if I barely did.” I had a laugh, because if someone was way worse than me to show up; it was him. Give it a good two months’ worth of trying. Even if the lecturer is terrible, you can bond over that with other students and find out a strategy to create some kind of plan together. I didn’t attend lectures at all after the first few times in two courses; first semester’s intro programming course because it was truly annoying to sit through (but I should’ve stayed even if doing something completely different, just to pick up on possible exam questions) and second semester’s wave & fluid mechanics. The second one I had learned my lesson, but I had a weekly appointment I had to go to and it was the only day I could – let’s just say I recently retook the exam and it went better this time :)))
I hope this was useful to someone, it was at the very least useful for me to think through new students arriving! Stay safe in the corona season we are suffering through. Think about the people in the risk groups (like me) that have to be super careful, and will suffer greatly for you not participating in that work of being careful. Wish you the best of luck and please feel free to add something!
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