Leaning into the unknown during your undergrad and beyond.

So you are graduating post-secondary this year. Or you have just entered your first year. Maybe you’re in the middle of your degree and it feels as though it’s never going to end (it does), or like it’s going by way too fast (it does). If any of these academic phases apply to you, congratulations are in order! It’s hard work.

Having experienced each of these stages, I have found that the strongest similarity among them is a feeling of uncertainty and curiosity. It’s a transitional feeling, often accompanied by overwhelming doubt and/or eager anticipation. I spent a lot of time in transition this summer (traveling, moving, experiencing various existential crises), and it got me thinking about curiosity, expectation, and motivation in all their forms—whether they come from ourselves, are derived from others, or seem altogether nonexistent.

Then I considered my impending law school applications this fall and graduation this spring, and I decided to turn all of this academic angst into a feature article. I wanted to share some advice and wisdom with all of you who are experiencing this crazy world of post-secondary education along with me. However, I'm certainly not an authority on this. So, I reached out to some people in my world whom I admire for their academic prowess, passion, and overall ability to be incredible human beings. Here are their insights:

Sara, B.A. in English, currently pursuing a bachelor's in elementary education at UBCO.

“In my first year of university, I felt like there was a very specific path that I must take. I wish I had known that changing your mind was not reckless, but rather it meant that you were growing, evolving and developing your self. I wish I had known that learning was uncomfortable, and when experiencing that discomfort you would find solace in those beside you experiencing those same feelings. My grad year self was very stressed. It is a very strange place to be in when things are ending and beginning at the same time. I felt like I needed to have everything figured out, and I did not always trust in my self. Lean on each other, and let yourself stumble.”

“Ask for help, and ask for help early. Even if you apply and get in, do not feel pressured to say yes. And in the same breath, if you apply and do not get that letter, please keep trying. You have a whole life ahead of you and one year may seem like an infinity right now, but it will fly by faster than you know.”

“I did not always deal with the unknown well. The unknown was terrifying. But in that scary ‘what if’ space, I made the best discoveries about myself and the people around me, and I was able to take paths I didn’t know existed. I would have never guessed I would be in the place I am in now during my first year. I am in a different province, seven years out of high school, about to begin my second degree, and still reminding myself to find comfort in the discomfort of change.”

Cameron, management degree, pursuing a career in special events.

“I wish I had known how many resources I had at my disposal. [In first year] I thought attending university meant having to go through things alone. Later on, I realized there were so many different places I could have reached out to for help.”

“Just because university is over, doesn’t mean your life is or that there is no more learning to do. Go to seminars, cooking classes, exercise groups, or networking events. There are so many opportunities to take advantage of.”

“I applied to ten American universities thinking, ‘one of these places will change my life,’ and then I somehow ended up at a university on the West Coast of Canada. I was only supposed to be at UBCO for four months and leave for a different university in the spring, [but] I took a leap of faith and decided to take a less traditional route and study internationally for four years. Not to mention, the original degree I applied to school for was Early Education and now I’m in the Special Events industry. All of this goes to show that the best laid plans, at least in my experience, have been thwarted by the unknown. I embraced it. If you don’t dive in then you aren’t challenging yourself, which I feel is the whole point of being at university and how you become the person you’re supposed to be.”

Tatum, B.A. in cultural studies with a minor in anthropology, currently pursuing an M.A. in sociology at the University of Lethbridge.

“Go talk to your professors. It may seem intimidating, but the relationships and knowledge you will gain will give you reassurance in your first few semesters. And make sure you are constantly scrutinizing your degree navigator and checking in with your academic advisor. Many people get to the last semester of their degree and realize they have missed a list requirement. Don’t be this person!”

“Applying for grad school is equal amounts grades, skill, and dumb luck. It is imperative you have a supervisor locked down prior to submitting your application. This not only helps to set you apart from other applicants, but also gives you the peace of mind of knowing someone inside the department is advocating for your application. As well, only submit supervisor requests to professors who have research in the area you wish to study.”

“My undergraduate degree brought a multitude of unknowns. Your life significantly changes in 4-5 years, especially in an environment that fosters learning and growth. The personal, physical, and educational highs can be exhilarating while the lows can prove the exact opposite. Ride the wave and make use of campus resources, whether it be the health & wellness centre or just joining a campus club. It sounds lame but trust me, it makes all the difference.”

Noelle, B.A. in English and political science with honours, currently pursuing an M.A. in English at NYU

“Just go to office hours, you won’t regret it. UBCO is relatively small, and this is an incredible advantage. There are so many opportunities that you might not get at a larger university if you just look around. Run for student office, start the club, apply for the job, enrol in honours. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

“For the grad school application process I would absolutely say go talk to your professors. Talk to them early. You will need letters of recommendation and professors get a lot of requests. Build your relationships with your professors early so they actually know who you are when you ask for a letter. It will make the letter and your application stronger if they truly know you and your abilities as a student. Ask your friends for help. Revise, and take it seriously. It is also time consuming, so start as early as you can.”

“I dealt with the unknown by taking advantage of it. Even if you have a plan, and it’s a good plan, make sure you aren’t closing yourself off to change and new possibilities. Keep yourself open and anything can happen in the best way.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the advice I heard the most from these UBCO alumni is the advice I ignored the most at the beginning of my degree: talk to your professors, attend office hours, and get involved in campus life. I only really started taking those three things seriously at the end of my third year, and I cannot emphasize enough how vastly my university experience improved at that point because I didn’t let my fear of the unknown hold me back.

What I appreciate about these four perspectives is their reminder that we’re all going through the same thing together. Everyone on campus is coming from different backgrounds, cities, and lifestyles, with their own stories, stresses, and responsibilities. I’ve met students supporting families, students working on their second or third degree, and students who haven’t been in a classroom for fifteen years. Some of us have never lived on our own before and some of us have been doing it for years. And we’re all here trying to figure out the type of person we want to become in a space where you don’t always know what your next step forward should be.

This not-knowing is exhausting. It could mean you might switch up your living situation, hair colour, or field of study a dozen times over in an effort to figure out what’s best for you. That’s allowed. It’s what makes life awesome. The future is uncertain; leaning into and welcoming that uncertainty is the only way that I’ve found to not let it keep me from working towards the future I want. This isn’t to say it’s easy, but it leaves a lot more room for the unexpectedly awesome.

Make sure to hit save, attend your labs, start your research earlier than the night before, get fresh air, drink water, and ask for help.