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How To Find Your Place As A First Year Student

Written by Yasmeen Alkoka

Starting college/university can be terrifying. You’re tossed into a new world after having your hand held all throughout high school. The campus is massive compared to the building where you spent the last four years, and you have no idea what to do (or where to go). So how do you find your place as a first year student lost in the crowd?

Take it from me, someone who pushed through the masses and overcame my insecurities to become a part of my university community.

Here are my tips to help you find your place as a newcomer to post-secondary.

1. Attend Orientation

I know you’ve probably received a thousand emails about various orientation events or frosh activities. Don’t let them intimidate you. Orientation (or O-Week as many institutions call it) is the first place you get to meet other people who are in the same boat as you.

At the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) where I go, O-Week events included things like “Meet Your Profs!” with free lunch provided, and “How to Manage Your Time”. I must say—it was super cool to meet my first university English professor while sharing a free veggie sub. Considering I was just one first year student out of 300 who sat in a huge lecture hall, it definitely made me feel more comfortable to realize that the tiny speck at the front of the room was a person just like me. A Maclean’s article “10 Things I Wish I’d Known In My First Year of University”, lists “Meet Your Professors In Person” as number one.

Now, some O-Week events don’t appear to be terribly exciting at first glance. But it’s exactly at those events where you get to meet people who feel the same way you do.  I went to a free lunch seminar where a speaker gave a talk while we enjoyed a freshly cooked restaurant-quality meal. To be honest, I don’t even remember what the talk was aboutbut that’s besides the point. I ended up sitting at a table with a group of people that I did not know. Each person at the table was a different age, came from a different walk of life, and had completely unique story.

There was, however, one thing we all had common—we were first year students.

Believe it or not, some of the people I met that day ended up becoming my best friends and eventually some of the most important people in my life.

2. Volunteer, Volunteer, Volunteer

A big part of attending orientation includes going to the clubs fair. If you’ve seen the college clubs recruitment scene in Pitch Perfect, then you’re familiar with all the stereotypes about school clubs. It’s not really like that everywhere you go. You don’t see clearly distinct social groups that only accept people of their kind. In fact, at UTM especially, clubs and student societies are diverse and inclusive. Many will be happy to welcome you with open arms, as they are eager for new recruits to carry on their traditions.

I remember putting my name down for a few email lists, but what really got me out there was volunteering to help out where possible. On the first day of classes, while most first year students were wandering around campus with no sense of direction, I was tabling for a cultural organization, helping them advertise for an upcoming BBQ. All I did was stand in the beautiful sun and hand out cupcakes and flyers, but it put me in a position that made me feel like I belonged there. Later, I earned myself an executive volunteer position with the club.

Another thing I volunteered for, which I highly recommend, is the school newspaper. Write up a quick little article, or snap a picture on your way to class, and suddenly you’ve contributed to the conversation of the day as well as got your name published in print.

Don’t hold back from giving up your time in first year. Volunteering on campus is time consuming, for sure. But just be sure not to take on more than you can handle and to weed out the activities that you don’t enjoy. Also be aware that there is a LOT of time in one day. If you can master following your agenda and keeping up with readings, you’ll find your place at college/university in no time.

3. Use Skills You Already Have

You might be thinking, “How am I supposed to volunteer or find my place if I haven’t learned anything yet?” Think again. Even if you don’t believe your current skills are “good enough” to use at an educational institution before you’ve taken your first course, you can still do something with them. Think about it this way: you got accepted into college/university. Clearly, you have skills.

I had writing and photography up my sleeve. I wasn’t sure if my lack of experience would get me anywhere, but the thing about first year is that people actually want you to improve your skills. When I signed up as a volunteer for the school newspaper, I had never written a newspaper article before. The editors sent out emails explaining more than I asked for, and even gave me a step-by-step guide on how to write for their sections. My first article was simply a short update about one of the fields being closed off.

My first published photos were taken with a point-and-shoot camera that I had since the 7th grade. My point is, I had nearly no experience and no professional equipment when I started. But I used the skills I knew I had, and the opportunity helped me to develop my skills.

4. Build Social Connections

With all the volunteering opportunities you’ll be seeking out, don’t forget to make an effort to connect with the people you meet. Making friends is great, but it’s not just about friendships. Even acquaintances count as social connections.

When you build relationships with people around campus, you become part of the community. Before you know it, you’ll be getting friendly smiles and greetings as you walk down the hallways. You’ll get lunch invites that you weren’t expecting. And before you know it, you’ll be invited to house parties and more. The benefits of these connections extend past the social realm and into the academic and professional.

Start with a smile. Simply saying “hello” to the person next to you in class, or introducing yourself to a group of people at an event can go a long way. Show people that you are interested in being there, and that you have good reason to be. In no time, you’ll be well on your way to finding your place.

5. Be Yourself

I don’t mean to sound cliche, but it’s super important to be yourself. Post-secondary is a time for exploration and identity-shaping. So don’t try to be someone you’re not. If you want to find your place, you have to be unique. Show people your true colours. You’ll be surprised by how many people will accept you for who you are.

If everyone was the same, it would be boring. Be YOU. Do everything that makes you who you are. Even if that means carrying a purple water bottle everywhere, or showing up to every event 30 minutes early.

Being your own character allows you to find the places at university that are meant for you. As a first year student, you’re going to feel like an outsider at first. But with the right people and resources, you can feel at home in no time.

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*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Student Life Network or their partners.