It’s September, which means that many of you are gearing up to go back to school (ahh! I know! I shouldn’t be mentioning it!!). But some of you may be experiencing a “back to school” that feels very different: your first year in post-secondary studies.
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Everything is all abuzz
I’m now going into my fifth year of university studies, but I can remember the transition period between high school and university like it was yesterday.
Endless searches online for how to manage your time studying. How to set up your desk so that you can maximize productivity. How to live with roommates for the first time. How to live away from home for the first time. What to bring to your dorm room. What NOT to bring to your dorm room.
Where there’s good food to eat on campus and off campus. Courses that are both interesting and not too difficult. Where to sit in the lecture hall. Tag memes on who would sit where in the lecture hall.
The list goes on and on! I get it – everything is new. With rampant internet access in this day and age, it’s easy to look for 9 to the exponent of 9 articles on the “right things to do in first year”. You likely want to try and streamline your transition by getting some pre-education on college/uni life.
Easily overlooked: complicated emotions you’re feeling about the transition itself
I, just like many of you, tried to mask my emotions quite a bit during my transition period. My parents liked to tell me, “Everyone goes through the transition! Give yourself a few weeks and it’ll be fine”.
They had great intentions, but honestly, I think there could have been a lot more done to prepare myself mental health-wise than to swat away these very normal emotions. Change is difficult, no matter the context.
Here’s the twisted thing: many of us believe that it is easier to pretend we are completely happy than to let ourselves get in tune with all of the emotions we are feeling. However, the more we deny our more challenging emotions, the more they will grow, and the more likely it is that they may peak.
You don’t need to tell the world how you are really feeling (but if you want to, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that as well). Just the practice of noticing how you are feeling, acknowledging your emotions, and self-validating them, are core tenets to good mental health. In an effort to support you in self-reflection about the varied emotions you are experiencing, I will share my personal account of the transition process.
And since one of my core values is authenticity, I’ll post them completely unedited. Save for names.
Past journal entries from my first year
June 22, 2014:
You know, lately I’ve just been feeling so down.
I’m so tired all the time, but I’m too tired to take a nap. Seems paradoxical but essentially I don’t want to do anything that I thought I enjoyed when I have time to enjoy them.
Lately I’ve been insulting myself in my head a lot. Horrible words I say to myself.
September 29, 2014:
It’s been so long since I wrote in this. So much has happened since June that it’s dizzying. I started university. I moved into a residence, met my roommate, and met lots of people. Lots. Of. People.
I kinda regret not documenting each day of Frosh week, but at the same time, it didn’t offer me much in terms of making friends. In fact, it was the week where I felt the most alone in my life.
I guess it’d be interesting to note who I feel closest with right now though. Maybe later on I’ll look back on this and laugh, but I feel so overwhelmed right now… academically, socially, spiritually… and it’s worse because I don’t have close friends to share my concerns with.
You know, I wish I could just fight my fears. Just like Midorin from Toradora. She works multiple jobs, is a softball team captain, and she’s always smiling through life. She said, “being scared doesn’t help. So I choose to fight my fears!”.
Fear, huh? Yeah, that’s a huge part of my life right now.
I’m scared that all the cliques will be formed and I’ll just float around without friends.
I’m scared that my marks will drop really really low and that I will fall into depression and not be able to recover.
I’m scared constantly that I’m not doing enough to learn. That everyday I go to sleep without having accomplished anything.
I’m scared about what I want to do in life as a career. First and foremost I want a family. This is an umbrella over three of my biggest dreams. The first is to find my true love and give him everything I can to make him happy. The second is to have a child with him and raise him or her. The third is to finally be rid of grades and labels. In family, there are no labels. There is only love and a safe haven.
I hate school. Quite frankly, I don’t find anything related to getting grades interesting. The “grades” portion has always and still is blinding me. I’m always afraid. I never ask questions (it’s not like I can generate any anyways…). I always feel so alone. Some days I wake up and I cry, wishing I could just quit it all. Why can’t I be better? I always ask myself, “Why am I such a potato? Why can’t I ask questions? Why can’t I think? Why can’t I contribute to group discussions? Why can’t I be…confident?”
I’ve always belittled myself. But this month, I’ve been battling with this new term. Potato. I always refer to myself as being a potato. I just feel like a potato amongst all these brilliant people in health sciences. I just don’t feel cut out for this.
I’m scared. Panicked. I want to die sometimes. I never leave my room except for classes or eating on the way back from classes. I often batter myself over every mistake, or every act of omission. Why?
Maybe it would help if I wrote about myself like I was a friend to someone else.
- Nicole Kim (she’s cool I guess. She likes anime and video games. She doesn’t really speak in class. She’s got a nice fashion style, and she spaces out often. She works hard, but she doesn’t express her ideas clearly. She doesn’t seem to judge you.)
meh. Idk. Maybe 4th year I’ll look back on this and laugh. But for now, I am scared out of my mind.
September 30, 2014:
Today was alright. Nothing spectacular. I woke up around 7:50 and ate my leftover omelette (remind me never to get cheese in my omelette if I’m going to be eating it the next day…). My poor roommate had a stomach bug so she was over at her boyfriend’s house overnight. I did work all the way until 12:30, and then I went to psychobio. I went a bit early, and I sat down alone near the lecture entrance, when a girl came and said hi. She seems really kind and non-judgmental.
After that, I met up with a friend and sat with her in cell bio. Today we learned about RNA transcription.
And then I went home to an empty room and worked until 10:40.
I’m just really tired now. I want to go home.
November 14, 2014:
I am. So. Stressed out.
Why are we doing meetings until 3am? Why is there so much passive-aggression amongst our cell bio group members? I thought I was a perfectionist. Nah. Relative to some of these people, I am a lazy ass.
I have to stop doing that. Comparing myself to others. It’s hard not to, though. It feels as though I need to just to make sure that I’m not lagging behind or that people don’t think I’m not doing enough for my groups. I’m not trying to exceed anyone. I was never interested in that sort of thing. I just don’t ever want to be seen as someone who “doesn’t work”, or “brings the group down”.
But it’s really hard to gauge how I’m doing in this kind of group. People are talking behind others’ backs to me. It makes me feel like I’m being talked about as well when my own back is turned. It makes me feel very uncomfortable when some group members exchange “knowing looks” when another member is talking. Honestly, it makes me want to just NEVER talk. If people might give each other looks like that while I’m talking, why would I even want to talk?
Honestly I don’t even care as much about grades as I did in high school. I would be totally okay with 11s. But clearly, others do not share my goal. There are no guidelines for what is enough to get that 12, which means that everyone is just doing as much as they physically are able to do. Healthy or not. I hate it. I feel like I haven’t slept well in forever. Transitioning to university is hard enough without having to deal with ridiculous expectations and drama in research projects. I’m doing the best I can, and I’m 100% sure that every single person in this group IS. Doing their BEST.
Everyone came into this program with an above 90% average. Realistically speaking, most people probably came in with a similar average to mine: 98.83%. Obviously we know what we’re doing.
Is this program even comparable to high school? What I’m saying is…most people probably have that drive to push themselves and to succeed. Why all this passive-aggression about who is working harder than other people? It makes no sense to me. I didn’t think that such bright individuals could be so toxic. This group is no safe haven.
What themes did you see?
I could probably go on and on with these entries, but I think these examples cover a lot of ground in terms of emotions I was facing during my transition to university. I want to touch on some of them, but before I do, I want to put out the disclaimer that everyone’s transition experience is personal to them. I cannot pretend to be some secondary to post-secondary transition guru who knows the perfect method of acclimating to new environments.
But I do know that there will be some people who may experience similar emotions, thoughts, and struggles. So you can consider the following to be some of the lessons I’ve learned from my own (very rocky) transition.
Navigating the fear/anxiety of making mistakes (asking/answering questions)
First of all, it is okay if you are feeling fear or anxiety about making mistakes. It is understandable, given that it is a new environment and you want to portray yourself and be yourself in the best way you can. The aim is never to get rid of fear or anxiety, but to become better at noticing when it is happening, and working toward becoming more open to uncertainty.
In addition, if you have bouts of performance anxiety (one possible facet of social anxiety), then it may be difficult not to take mistakes personally. To be clear, everyone experiences anxiety. The degree to which anxiety exists in a given situation and the extent to which it affects your life is what differentiates, say, social anxiety from social anxiety disorder. So when a student is feeling anxious about making mistakes, it is often a common emotion.
I believe that one prominent root of the fear or anxiety of making mistakes is having a “fixed mindset”. I could write an essay on Carol Dweck’s “fixed vs. growth mindset” (1). In fact, I did. In third year. Here’s the gist. Many, many students (others too, but especially students) have the fixed mindset:
Intelligence and talents are static. People are born naturally smart, or naturally good at certain things. If you’re not amongst them, then tough luck.
If it takes a lot of effort for me to attain high grades, then it means I am not intelligent or talented. I feel ashamed when I need to work hard to get a grade I want.
When I make mistakes, I feel ashamed and sweep them away quickly instead of trying to learn from them. I pretend that the mistake never happened.
In contrast, a student with the growth mindset would believe:
Intelligence and talents are not static. I can become better at something through effortful practice. If I am struggling, I can improve through effort.
When I attain a high grade, it is because of my high level of effort.
When I make mistakes, I use them as an opportunity to learn. I bring them to the forefront of my mind in order to work through the mistake. This helps me do my best to make sure I do not make a similar mistake in the future.
If you identify more with the fixed mindset (and it’s okay to admit that you do), please know that it is not your fault. At least in Western society as well as my own Korean culture, the tendency is for praise to come out in this fashion:
You got an A+ on that test?? Wow, you’re so SMART!
You did a piano recital last week? You’re so TALENTED!
You solved that difficult problem in the math contest? You’re so INTELLIGENT!
Everyone means well. But the consequence of giving praise based on smarts/intelligence or talent is perpetuating the notion that somehow, some people are statically less smart, intelligent, or talented than others. And that this means that if you never get As, or you don’t know how to play an instrument, or if you don’t do so well on a math contest, you never will.
This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, effort is the key player here. Not some arbitrary natural talent or intelligence. It is effort. Not everyone can become Einstein or Beethoven, but we simply cannot know our own potential from some fixed, static trait. Who knows what continued effort could bring to the table?
In the fixed mindset, individuals engage in activities to continuously prove to themselves and others that they are intelligent. This means that they will avoid challenging activities and seek easier, more familiar ones. In the growth mindset, challenge is embraced. Loved, even. This is because the individual sees them as learning opportunities.
I had a fixed mindset for most of my life, so please don’t feel ashamed if you identify with the fixed mindset! Now that you are aware, you can begin to rewire your brain circuitry. There are so many amazing resources on how you can do this, including Carol Dweck’s own book, “Mindset”. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants more information about the fixed vs. growth mindset in different contexts, including school, relationships, business, and parenting!
She also has a TED talk called “The Power of Believing That You Can Improve” that can get you started wherever you are!
Navigating cognitive distortions – especially “fortune-telling”.
I’ve written more extensively on cognitive distortions on this blog, especially as they pertain to students. However, as you might have seen from my journal entries, “fortune-telling”, or making unreasonable predictions about the future (2), was rampant.
First of all, I want to emphasize that everyone experiences cognitively distorted thoughts. The aim is not to be rid of them completely, but to strive for gaining more awareness about when you are thinking this way.
I was telling myself that I will receive extremely poor grades, fall into depression, and never be able to come out of it. Well, I did eventually become diagnosed with depression in third year, but it definitely was not because of poor grades. And clearly I have risen (many times) from depression.
I told myself that I wouldn’t be able to find a social circle. Well, I definitely did. It just took some time to find people that I clicked with. And even then, I have had one very close best friend throughout uni, and never felt the need to develop a social “group”. I definitely talked with some amazing, lovely people (especially in my child health specialization), and we had some crazy deep life chats throughout the years. But at the end of the day, the connection I have with my best friend is incomparable. Bottom line: you will find people you click with.
The feeling that you are “running in place” – not doing enough.
I think that this came from a place of disconnect with myself. I didn’t start practicing mindfulness seriously until third year during my mental health break. When you do not take time to reflect on what is happening in the current moment, it is difficult to keep track of the growth you are undergoing.
Luckily, my program involves many, many, many submitted reflections. But in other cases, it is up to you to find the time to do so for yourself. If ever you notice that you are self-berating for “running in place”, challenge yourself.
Are you really only running in place?
Where are you right now? Who are you with? What are you doing? How are you feeling? What are you thinking?
What have you learned recently? From classes? About yourself? About your life? Your goals? About working with other people, or about how to study on your own?
What experiences have you had so far in college/university? What pivotal decisions have you made? Where will you go from here?
I think you will find quickly that you are growing. That there is no possible way that you are running in place, because no matter what, your experiences are teaching you something. Even if it doesn’t seem like it at the time!
Comparing to your peers.
Have you ever heard that quote about being the biggest fish in a small pond, and then being chucked into the ocean? Well, that is what it can feel like to move from high school to college/university. You are likely used to being at the top. After all, you were accepted into a post-secondary institution! (If you haven’t yet patted yourself on the shoulder for that, then I invite you to do it now.)
But then you’re here in college and university. Suddenly, everyone around you is used to being at the top. They came in with similar averages. Some may even stand out for their amazing involvement in the community on top of their grades.
You might feel like small fry.
And you probably won’t like it.
And this is normal.
Comparing to others is such a normal, common human practice. It never makes sense to compare, but it is understandable that it happens often. I wrote all about making comparisons in the school context, but for now I want to tell you that it is okay to feel uncomfortable with this shift.
Many of us come into college/university carrying the identity of being “smart”, “talented”, and “uniquely gifted”. When this identity is threatened because there are suddenly so many around you with similar educational successes, of course it’s gonna feel uncomfortable to some extent.
I invite you to revisit the idea of the growth mindset here. Those with a growth mindset feel inspired by the successes of others, as opposed to threatened by them. I want to tell you that this is something to strive toward, but never to expect yourself to perfectly follow. Allow yourself to feel the discomfort that you are feeling. You are entering a stage of your life where your self-concept will likely shift and change.
This is all okay. This is all normal. It is understandable that you are feeling discomfort. This is what all of your peers are also going through.
And I say this not to undermine what you are going through, but to remind you that you are not alone. I certainly felt it. So did several others who confided in me in first year. Again, everyone’s thoughts and emotions regarding changes in self-image are equally valid.
Above all, remember to love.
I am a broken record on this blog for one particular message, and that is to please be compassionate toward yourself. Transitioning to college/university is a big, big change in your life. There is plenty to be excited about, but there is also plenty of challenging emotions and thoughts that may be whirling around.
All of these thoughts and emotions are valid. Just because “everyone else is going through the same thing” doesn’t mean that your own thoughts and emotions are not valid. Give yourself the time to settle in. Let yourself feel what you are feeling. Validate your own emotions.
It is okay to be feeling any way you are feeling.
Always remember to love (ARTL),
Books Referenced in this Post:
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Dweck CS. Mindset: the new psychology of success. Ballantine Books trade pbk. ed. New York: Ballantine Books; 2008. 277 p.
Branch R, Willson R. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy For Dummies, 2e. John Wiley & Sons; 2010.