It’s labour day weekend and classes begin a bit earlier this year than usual. As I prepare myself to address two groups of first-year students – a little over 400 students between New One and IFP – I cast my mind back to my first week of university. Has it really been over 25 years? I remember feeling nervous and excited. I was way too young, only 16, and could probably have benefitted from waiting a while longer. I gave a lecture at an orientation event last week and met a small group of excited first-year students. The class was small enough that we were able to have a nice chat about what they hoped to study and how they felt about the first week. They were clearly ahead of the game by registering for that optional week of orientation before frosh week. I’m sure they’ll all be fine.
My first university was a small, private university, at a small town in Brazil that was close to Araguari, the town where I lived. The university only offered a handful of programs – Law, Accounting, Business are the three I remember. There might have been one more. Most of those attending were the first of their families to attend university. I was only there for a year before my family moved to Rio de Janeiro and I went to a much bigger, more prestigious, publicly-funded university. I hadn’t found what I wanted to do yet so I was not particularly engaged. It was only at the end of my Law degree that I discovered that I wanted to research and teach history. When I went back to school, for yet another undergraduate degree, in another country and in another language, I was a completely different student. I had a purpose, I had an interest, I was engaged. I relate to my students who drift from course to course, feeling that it is all just a big hurdle. I also know, from my second degree, how mind-blowing a first-rate education can be. I wish they had more time. I wish I had words of wisdom for them.
I am keenly aware my students have pressures I did not have. Most of my university education was subsidized. In Brazil, I went mostly to state-funded universities where I never had to pay any fees. In Canada, I was fortunate enough to be a resident of Quebec and pay the highly subsidized rates for Quebec residents at Concordia University. I also paid per credit, which meant I could choose the amount of courses I wanted to take based on how many I could handle at a time. My students at U of T pay the same fees as full-time students regardless of whether they take 4, 5, or 6 courses. So they register for 6 because their tuition is already too high and if they can finish earlier, it has real financial implications. Yet, I stand before them and advise them to take fewer courses in their first year. I also tell them to take their time. I wish they had more time. They put so much pressure on themselves. My IFP students feel they have to make up for their IFP year by taking even more courses. Some of the students feel that one wrong move, one wrong grade, and it can be the end of career dreams. I try to tell them “You are 18. You can still reinvent yourself many times over.” Would I have listened to that at 18? Maybe. I don’t know. In New One we are organizing panels with students, activists, scientists, inspiring individuals who will share their own journeys. Perhaps that will help see how full of twists and turns our paths can be.
Last week, when I spoke to the smaller group of students at orientation, I told them that U of T is big and can feel intimidated. There will be many hurdles on their way. Ask for help. Go to those office hours, talk to your TA, talk to your classmates, talk to your don. Go to the writing centre, the career centre, counselling services. You do not have to figure out everything alone. But who has the time when they are under so much pressure, taking so many classes, perhaps working part-time or commuting? I wish we all had more time. I better get back to writing those welcome addresses.