About eight years ago today, I was asking myself the same question. Having completed my first year at the University of Alberta studying general science, I found myself somewhat underwhelmed. University wasn’t the big life-changing experience I had thought it would be. Looking back now, I can tell that this was indeed an important time in my life, and that the seeds of significant change in the form of personal growth had been planted. At the time, though, I was too busy simply living life to notice.
I can often pick up on certain unrealistic expectations that students have in their early post-secondary years, partly because I shared the same perspective when I was in school. These expectations vary in a bunch of ways, but the common thread seems to be a misinformed view of what things will be like upon graduation. In my own work, this is usually expressed as a belief that by the time students complete their degree (and simply by virtue of the fact that they have completed it), they will be totally prepared to enter into a specific career.
As I mentioned, I studied sciences in my early years at university. There was no specific goal in mind—I was just under the impression that it was “better” to get a science degree than an arts degree, because a sciences major was harder to get into. I had no idea what that degree would lead to, but figured it didn’t matter yet, because my senior coursework would pretty much be the same stuff I’d be doing in a work environment (ha!).
I later discovered that I didn’t really care enough about what I was studying to justify the work I was doing. As much as linear algebra, Newtonian relativity and electron probabilities are interesting (well okay, linear algebra’s not really interesting at all), I learned that I wasn’t willing to make the sacrifices necessary to succeed if I continued to take those kinds of courses. For others, the sacrifice is totally worth it—my fiancée’s grapple with nursing school comes to mind, because she has a clear goal of becoming a registered nurse (and a great one, I should add).
While I still had no idea what things would look like at the end of my degree, I had an important decision to make after my first year. Would I stick it out in sciences, hoping that something I cared about was around the next academic corner, or would I switch to an area (psychology) I had really only just discovered, but was already totally interested in?
While it would be easy for me to look back and say that I made the better choice in going on to major in psychology and graduate with an arts degree, what I’ve come to realize is that it wasn’t the actual choice of one path or the other that was important. I believe that I could have studied other things and been fine—who knows, maybe I’d be even happier doing something completely different? But that’s not the point.
The point is, I starting asking myself questions. I reflected on what I was doing and whether it was what I wanted to continue doing. I allowed myself to be influenced by my experiences, and took stock of those influences and how they changed the landscape of my burgeoning academic life. The process took a few weeks, if not months—it’s not as if I sat down one day and said to myself, “It’s time to reflect.” That might have been helpful, but what worked for me was to allow these thoughts to emerge over time. Eventually, I came to a very easy conclusion after realizing that I had been scared to change my path, to take a risk. It seems silly, because in hindsight it wasn’t a risk at all, but change has a funny way of distorting people’s thinking sometimes.
So, to answer the question posed in the title of this article: reflect. Though it’s been a long first year, it probably went by really fast and you experienced a lot. So how did all those experiences change you, and what does that mean for you going forward?