Here’s some wisdom from a 32-year-old on a second round as a university student:
It’s really hard.
Not exactly a revelation, I know, but hear me out. Completing assignments, keeping up with readings, and managing time – we all know how challenging this can be. What I want to highlight instead is that the hard work isn’t always the hardest part. For me, trying to figure out how to get to bed early enough, how to wake up and make it to class on time, how to keep my bedroom from looking like a junkyard, and how to resist daily temptations is really hard. While others seem to be worrying about making time for self-care between classes and work, I’m sprinting to class only to find I forgot my notebook. Sometimes it’s the stuff that is supposed to be simple that ends up being really— you guessed it— hard.
It can feel like there isn’t much sympathy out there for those of us who struggle with the day-to-day stuff. If someone hasn’t done laundry in two weeks, it’s easier for people to judge and label them lazy than it is to try to understand why they find it difficult. We’re all guilty of passing quick judgment – and this has its consequences. In my case, people often presume I’m either carefree or careless. A friend told me years back that it seemed like I have no passion. It felt awful to be seen that way. For a decade I almost believed that story about myself. I often felt like a let down, both to myself and to the world. I worried I’d never grow up to be someone I could respect. None of that was true.
The First Round
With that mindset, completing my first degree somehow seemed like both a miracle and barely an accomplishment. I didn’t find the schoolwork very difficult. I loved learning, I made it to class, I paid attention, and for the most part, I got good grades. But I spent the majority of my six years as an undergrad (that’s right, six) procrastinating. I wish I could say I spent all my time partying and enjoying myself. Mostly I agonized about how much work I had to do instead of just doing it, or I beat myself up because I didn’t feel I was trying hard enough. I knew what I needed to do, I just couldn’t seem to do it. I always felt like I could do better, or like I never gave it all I had. At graduation I knew I was smart enough to be handed that degree but somehow I felt like I hadn’t earned it. Now upon reflection, I see I gave it everything I had at the time. I earned that degree Sinatra-style— I did it my way.
We rarely hear this sort of student story. Ever notice in the movies how college students always look like they’re having the greatest time of their lives? They’re winning trophies, getting laid, and going on spring break holidays. How do they make time to have all this fun? They’re never studying, working their asses off to afford tuition, or staying in because they can’t afford to party. The message is that our college years are supposed to be all fun all the time. I’ve done it twice now, and I call bullshit! If you can relate, you’re not alone. I’d say we’re the silent majority.
The Second Round
This time it’s different. The same simple stuff I found difficult ten years ago is still hard and it probably won’t ever be easy for me. I have grown though. I’ve slowly adopted some better life skills (so much more to go), a lot of patience with myself, and the pièce de résistance, I’ve developed a who-gives-a-shit swagger – a gift of confidence that seemed to arrive right around the time I turned 30. Much to my partner’s chagrin, my room is still a pig stye, and I still struggle to hand papers in on time. But my world isn’t collapsing around me. I’m imperfect, and that’s fine. There are a lot of us!
These days I juggle a job, classes and a co-op position. I never thought I’d be able to do that much at once. For the first time in my adult life, people say, “Wow! That must be so hard to manage!” about my life. The irony is, in a lot of ways, it used to be harder. It’s harder to wake up in the morning when you have three or four chapters to read on your own time, two assignments due in a week, and instead of doing any homework the night before, you smoked a joint with your roommate and stayed up watching cartoons. That is stressful. That life is never free from the anxiety of having too much shit to do. Now, waking up groggy to get to my co-op placement after a late night at work is easy in comparison. It would be even easier if I could just decide to go to bed earlier, but at least I have a better excuse for being late.
Each of us struggles with different aspects of the transition into adulthood. Moving toward my mid-30s now, I realize that the development period is actually never finished. You never wake up to find you’re all done building yourself. But you do get better at it.
I wanted to write all this because I wish people had recognized and acknowledged ten years ago that even when I didn’t look like it, I really cared. To everyone living in that eternal awkward phase, I’m right there with you. I know you care. Keep at it and take all the time you need.
The truth is simple. Post-secondary life can be wonderful but it can also be challenging. And you can’t do it alone.
Whether you’ve moved out on your own, you’re living in residence, or commuting from home, adjusting to university or college can be difficult. You’re also expected to balance school work, a personal life, possibly a job or volunteering. Throw in a club or sports team and it’s amazing you have time to brush your teeth. (You are still brushing your teeth, right?).
Often we’re told to take care of ourselves, but it’s equally important to remember that we can’t do it all on our own. Humans by nature are a social species and as such we require the support of others.
To help you navigate all of the ups and downs, here is a helpful guide on social supports. To begin, we’ll review the 5 types of support that are essential to make it through college or university.
From there, we’ll review who in your life offers each type of support, how to best determine what type of support you need, and finally how to ask for more support when needed.
And for added fun, we’ve thrown in a quiz you and your friends can take to figure out the type of support you most often offer others.
All of which can be covered in less than your one hour lecture on organic chemistry. Let’s get started!
The Big Five Kinds of Poeple
There are five major types of social support needed in university or college; emotional, motivational, practical, problem solving, and recreational. Depending on what’s going on in your life you may need more of one than another but all are going to be needed at some point or another.
Person 1: Your Emotional Support
Who they are: This is the person who’s able to listen to how you are feeling without immediately trying to change or stop you from feeling that way. They’re good listeners and you know you can talk openly without being silenced, rushed, made to feel guilty, or that your feelings don’t matter.
Traits: Understanding, accepting, non-judgemental, and patient.
Things you won’t hear: “Ugh, don’t be angry/sad/etc” “Just cheer up” “Get over it”
Things you want to hear:“That sucks” “I’m really sorry that happened to you” “You didn’t deserve that” “I’m not sure what to say right now, I’m just really glad you told me”
Why you need this person: Whenever you are experiencing intense emotions it is helpful to have them validated by someone else. This helps you to feel connected and understood.
Useful tip:most of the time we don’t want someone to solve our problems but rather just offer understanding.
Person 2: Your Motivational Support
Who they are: This is the person who’s able to motivate you whenever you’re feeling discouraged or uninspired. They can remind you of the reasons behind your goals when you’re feeling down. This person truly believes in you and your abilities to accomplish what you’re working towards.
Things you won’t hear: “You can’t do that” “Oh come on, be realistic” “What did you expect?” “You always quit on things” “Just give up, it’s not worth it”
Things you want to hear: “That’s awesome, you’re going to do great!” “That’s exciting, please let me know how I can help” “I know you can do it” “Just keep trying, you’ll figure it out”
Why you need this person: Internal motivation isn’t constant, it comes and goes. As a result, we all have those times when we feel discouraged and want to give up. Having someone that believes in us and can remind us of our motivation can help us to accomplish great things.
Useful tip: Often the way in which the inspiring messages are communicated is just as important as what is said. Think about what truly motivates you as an individual. Do you prefer the boot camp drill sergeant or the positive cheerleader? Not all people respond to the same style of motivational support, it’s important to figure out what works for you.
Person 3: Your Practical Support
Who they are: This is the person who can help in those practical everyday ways. This person can help you unpack from your dorm room, has the spare charger in class when your laptop is dying, or brings over soup when you’re sick in the middle of a snow storm.
Things you won’t hear: “Oh man I totally forgot” “Sorry I have to bail last minute” “You’re on your own”
Things you want to hear: “I can help with that” “I’ll be there” “You can count on me” “I’m ready, what do you need?”
Why you need this person: Even the most independent of people need help from others at times. Having someone you can count on to be there makes certain experiences go a lot easier.
Useful tip: There can be many different types of practical support often linked to resources and skills. E.g. Someone who’s able to take notes for you in your econ class may not be able to drive you to the airport for reading week.
Person 4: Your Problem Solving Support
Who they are: This is the person who can help when you’re stuck and not sure what to do. They offer useful advice and feedback on how to make improvements in your life. They often help you to discover solutions you may otherwise not have been able to think of on your own. Often coming from their own experience, they take the time to understand what’s going on and offer ideas that are useful to your specific situation.
Things you won’t hear: “Oh wow, I have no clue what you can do” “How would I know? Looks like you’re stuck”
Things you want to hear: “I went through something similar, here’s what worked for me” “I wonder if you could try doing this…”
Why you need this person: When experiencing a stressful situation, our own ability to be creative and resourceful can decrease. What’s more, when we’re in university of college we often face situations we’ve never experienced before, and therefore may not automatically know how to fix them.
Useful tip: The most useful advice is offered after the person has a full understanding of your situation, which includes hearing what you’ve already tried or considered and why previous attempts haven’t worked out. Only then, will they be able to offer suggestions that you haven’t tried yet, leading to a less frustrating experience for you both.
Person 5: Recreational Support
Who they are: This is someone you’re able to have fun with. You have shared interests and enjoy each other’s company.
Traits: Fun, Entertaining, Enjoyable, Relaxing
Things you won’t hear: “No that’s boring, let’s not do that”, “I just really don’t like any of the things you want to do”
Things you want to hear:“Hey let’s go out this weekend!” “Want me to come over? We can hang out and watch a movie”
Why you need this person: Post secondary can be a stressful time, it’s important to take time to relax and have fun with others. Finding the people who have shared interests will allow you to make the most of your time at school and enjoy yourself.
Useful tip: There are many opportunities to meet new people at college or university for recreational support. Think of an activity you enjoy doing and find out if there is a club, team, or group on campus where you can meet others who also enjoy that activity. If there isn’t a group yet, consider creating one yourself!
Helpful Tips to Remember
Often people have the desire to be helpful but not always the ability. In order to qualify as a support, one must be both willing and able to offer that support. Recognizing and accepting this fact can prevent a lot of frustration and disappointment.
Getting the wrong type of support can feel rejecting and upsetting. For example your brother may be terrible at offering emotional support but don’t discount the practical support he can provide. Making a point to go to him when you need help moving out of your dorm room will therefore be far more useful than expecting him to have something helpful to say after going through a major breakup.
In addition to close friends and family, don’t forget about the support from paid professionals. A therapist, a professor, your residence advisor, or even an uber driver can all offer valuable support.
People can learn new skills all the time. Before you assume that someone can’t offer a particular type of support just because they haven’t in the past, take the time to talk to them about it. It’s possible that they’ve been trying to be supportive but don’t yet know the right way to support you as an individual. For example, some people find it helpful to be reminded of the silver lining in a bad situation while others find it discounts their experience. Learn specifically what you need in each type of support and try to teach others how they can help you best.
At the beginning of every school year, it’s important that we try hard to increase openness among our friends or peers. Plus, if we’re an orientation leader, it’s important that we work hard to get people wide open!
Today I am going to share three simple, cheap activities that you can to do get your students to open up, be vulnerable, and connect deeply as part of your orientation.
12 Second Gazes Remember musical chairs? This is kind of like that only with staring. In groups (maximum 100ish), have them walk around in a confined space for 30 seconds. During this, have them keep their heads up and try to lock eyes with others as they pass by. Now, at the end of 30 seconds, ask the students to stop and lock eyes with whoever they are closest to silently. Then, and here’s the trippy part, have them keep their gaze locked on that person for 12 seconds. They can blink, but should not make any noise. At the end of 12 seconds, repeat the same process over again with having the students walk around for 30 seconds and then lock eyes with someone else for another 12 seconds. Complete 3-5 rounds of this. For the final gaze, elongate the gaze to 30 seconds. You’ll be amazed at the impact this will have on fostering intimacy.
Fear vs. Hope Purchase a bunch of white fabric and some fabric akin to your school color. Get enough so that you buy about half white and half colored fabric. But make sure you can write on it with a sharpie (so no fleece or velvet). Cut the fabric into strips that are about 8 inches long and 2 inches wide. Punch or cut a hole in one end of them. Now, distribute one white and one colored piece to each student. Ask your students to write their biggest fear about college on one in less than 10 words. On the other ask your students to write their biggest hope about college in less than 10 words. Collect them and using ribbon hang them on two trees on your campus side by side. Leave it as an exhibit that students can visit throughout orientation and perhaps contribute to on an ongoing basis.
High 5 Run Not everything needs to be so serious! Schedule a High 5 Run with your students. This means going for a jog around campus and giving EVERYONE high 5s that they run by. It spreads positivity, obviously, and encourages students to break out of their shells around each other. Bonus points for wearing a ridiculous costume or using large novelty foam hands.
That’s it, that’s all! Give it a shot next time you have to break a group wide open.
The obvious thing to do would be to make this a sales blog. I am not going to do that. Because the truth is that you don’t need us or our programs to get your students to open up. You just need some hacks.