As we get into the thick of the new school year, if you’re anything like me, you’re pretty bummed about it. Maybe it’s just the chill in the air that spoils my mood, but I sense a change of pace and attitude in folks at this time of year as everybody buckles down post-summer. I already feel nostalgic about those joyful, sunny days when the sun was still shining at 9 pm. Come back, August!
‘Tis the Season to Own Your Shit.
For me, Fall is a season of self-reckoning. I think that’s the effect of two decades worth of spending it transitioning back to school. As a kid, your life is structured for you into a pattern where for two months you can stop and smell the roses while they’re in bloom, and then you’re thrown right back into school’s rhythms of responsibility, filling agendas with homework again, and sitting quietly in a chair doing what you’re told.
That transition was never easy for me. It always took a few weeks of inattention before I could tune in. Instead, I’d stare out the window at the vacant playground while the teacher taught. I’d watch the pathetic seagulls squawk and wrestle over the best trash from morning recess. It all felt sad.
Eventually, I’d tire of wallowing and come to accept and even enjoy school. But to this day, and even in the few years before I went back to school, in late-August a cloud of dread floats in.
Now that I’m back to being a student, my pattern so far has been to let all this dread and anxiety for the new school year turn into unreasonable expectations of myself. A very bossy part of me sees being back as a mature student as a second chance to finally be perfect in every way. This part of me speaks in commandments, like so:
Thou shalt read every word assigned in your course syllabus on time!
Thou shalt not have any fun between Sunday evenings and Friday afternoons for 8 straight months!
Thou shalt be perfect in every way or consider yourself a failure!”
No surprise I dread school every year. Bossy-me sets up these rules that I don’t really want to follow, and I make no plans to manage the difficulty of making change happen, and I expect myself to simply stop—cold-turkey—that laidback summer lifestyle I’ve been enjoying for months. How am I supposed to succeed?
The truth is, I can’t. It’s a setup. It keeps me in a cycle, in the middle of a perpetual wrestling match with myself. I feel like the head of a 90s sitcom actor, while the tiny devil on my left shoulder and the tiny angel on my right bicker back-and-forth about what’s best for me. Shut up already!
“Be the Cookie Monster you wish to see in the world”
This year, I’m taking inspiration from Cookie Monster.
To be clear, I haven’t decided to once and for all to say, “screw it, I give up!”, drop out and eat infinite cookies. Let me explain. About a month ago, I had a moment of clarity while belly-laughing with my six-year-old nephew. I showed him Youtube clips of Cookie Monster, whom I love passionately. Until then I hadn’t considered why. It occurred to me then that the little blue rascal is timeless, full of life lessons, and everybody seems to just get it without judgement.
This seemed very important at the time. So important that later that night, instead of filling out my student loan application, I mulled over what it is about Cookie Monster that’s so great, so universally charming and so inherently worthy of love. I think it’s because Cookie Monster mirrors the little rascal in all of us. Cookie Monster shows us what the experience of desire is like. Everybody knows it deeply. Every human carries a cookie monster within them.
The average Sesame Street viewers may be preschoolers learning for the first time that they don’t get to do whatever they want whenever they feel like it. But we keep learning that lesson our whole lives.
The Temptation of Cookie Monster
The way Cookie Monster is presented on Sesame Street is cute and innocent. I mean, despite an evident incapacity to self-regulate or to love anything other than the pleasure of a good cookie, everybody still loves Cookie Monster.
If Cookie Monster was an adult human, the story would be a little more sinister. We don’t imagine a fuzzy blue puppet with googly eyes might have a traumatic past. We don’t worry that he’ll face the devastating effects of an all-cookie diet. We don’t witness the pain of having only a cookie to turn to. We don’t wonder if he has a family somewhere that he abandoned for a cheap, lousy cookie. We see an ageless puppet, in a sweet little world, protected from consequence.
It’s certainly not the most authentic characterization but it does give us a safe space to see inner demons in a gentler, judgment-free light. For example, do you notice how every child and adult on Sesame Street welcomes Cookie Monster as a deserving member of their community? How often do you laugh with, sympathize, hug, or spend quality time with your cookie-monster-self in the way that those folks do theirs? I don’t. I tend to roll my eyes at mine, call it selfish, weak, careless, ugly, and I often blame it for holding me back from being awesome.
Why do I do that? It’s pointless! Nothing I tell myself makes the proverbial cookies any less tempting. What if instead, I loved my internal cookie monster in the way the Sesame Street community love theirs? What if I accepted that part of me for what it is? If I appreciated that tenacity, that ability to be in the moment and to feel joy, that unabashed will to get every drop of good vibes out of life and share it, no matter the consequences?
What if I didn’t constantly shame myself for my consumption habits and instead did a little bargaining, laughed with myself, listened, took a load off when I need it, and tried to understand what makes this part of me tick? Because—
Truth bomb: it ain’t really about cookies
Heck, beyond just how you treat the cookie monster in yourself, what if the next time you see your friend that’s stuck in a loop and just can’t seem to break out of it, or you see your sibling smoking again after trying to quit for the millionth time, you looked on them with the same degree of love and understanding that we all give Cookie Monster? What if we tried to see the innocence that exists at the start of it all? Life can be so hard and the cookies are aplenty.
This semester I’m going to try my best not to shame myself for succumbing to the occasional “NOM! NOM! NOM!” session. When I do find myself partaking in some unscheduled indulgence, I’ll give my internal cookie monster’s fuzzy blue hair a tussle. I’ll say, “Alright little guy, that was a blast! Thanks for making sure I get to have some fun. Now it’s time to hit the books. We got this!”
Seamus Ogden is a Care Coordinator with Real Campus and a mature student. He has a deep affection for Cookie Monster.
The seasons are changing. The days of layered long-sleeves, sweaters and coats are just around the corner and kids have thrown on their backpacks and headed off to school. I’m not even a student anymore but every year it’s still hard to accept that school’s back in session.
For those who are headed back, adjusting from a summer of doing other things like travel, work or socializing can be challenging. Here are a few tips to help get you back into the swing of school:
1. Rebuild your routine slowly
Start with sleep. If the summer has disrupted your sleep routine, start by spending the first few weeks with a set wake-up and/or bedtime. Consistent and quality sleep will have you recharged and ready for everything the school year throws at you.
2. Make lists
Knowing what you need to do for your classes and extracurriculars is important. When you know what’s coming you can plan for it.
3. Set up a support network
If you’re new, know who you can contact for support on and off-campus. There are often great resources available on-campus for those who look (most student centres or student unions can help you with that information). For those returning to campus, it’s time to get back into the swing of connecting with friends, classmates, and/or student groups. Making sure you have a strong support network will help you get through the midterm and exam seasons.
4. Experiment with your study habits
It’s easy to put off studying in college and university because no one’s there to tell you to get down to it. The best antidote is to get to know your study style. Do you have certain productive hours in the day? What kind of space do you need to study in? Are you a snacker? What kind of learner are you? Contact your school’s learning/academic support center, they can help you learn to study effectively and efficiently.
5. Create a self-care plan
What nourishes and recharges you? Get to know what you need: for some, it might mean regular trips to the gym, daily meditation, or 3 square meals a day, for others it may mean cutting back on work hours, or 2 days off each week for rest. Regardless, have a sense of your unique needs and try your best to meet them so you’re recharged for the more stressful periods.
Remember that adjustments take time. Give yourself some time to get used to the hustle and bustle of campus in September.
I wish you all a wonderful school year. Happy studies!
“So, here you are. Too foreign for home. Too foreign for here, never enough for both”. The first time I read this quote, feelings of sadness and confusion splashed over me and I suddenly felt like I didn’t belong. At that time, it would’ve been my second year since I had left my home country, where I now felt like a visitor. It took over four years to find my own place, that happy medium that combined elements from my native culture and from the new culture that I’m still trying to call my “home”. Feeling out of place was one the most challenging experiences I’ve had to endure but it certainty taught me some valuable lessons along the way.
If you’re someone who recently left home in pursuit of bigger and better opportunities and struggling to find your place, here are some things to consider to help you cope with feelings of loss:
Recognize the symptoms. Is it loneliness? Homesickness? Sadness? Nostalgia? Recognizing and naming your symptoms can help you understand where these feelings are coming from and allow you to have control over how they affect your daily functioning. It’s important to understand that feeling sad doesn’t necessarily mean you’re depressed. Recognize that this feeling can be situational and doesn’t have to impact the rest of your day. It’s okay to feel sad and nostalgic when thinking about your past life; in fact, it’s expected. However, know that you can also move past it.
Be present. Oftentimes, you may find yourself daydreaming about your old life and won’t realize how much we’re missing out. It’s true that going back in time brings us a sense of comfort and induces a familiar feeling but it also keeps us from enjoying our new surroundings. Practice living in the moment and keep an open mind. Rather than fearing the differences, welcome them and think of much you can grow. As someone who enjoys the routine and isn’t particularly fond of change, this was a challenge for me as I had to train myself to live in the present. It’s incredible the things you learn when you allow yourself to step out of your comfort zone.
Find a purpose. Setting daily goals will help shift your focus and enhance feelings of productivity. These can be anything that will make you feel like you’re working towards something. For me, it was choosing to focus on my health and incorporating a daily workout routine while tracking and monitoring my results. Did it help me fall in love with the new environment? Probably not but it was a reason for me to get out of bed every morning and distract myself from negative thoughts.
Get involved. Definitely easier said than done. Personally, this is something I dreaded. I kept being told to involve myself in social events and improve my network but what does that even mean? Do I show up at random places and initiate a conversation? Do I connect with someone on LinkedIn and hope for the best? It took me months before I had the courage to sign up for an event I had found on the internet. Did I make new friends and kept in touch? Not really but I saw it as a personal achievement back then and overtime, attending events and talking to people had become a less torturous task. If you’re someone who doesn’t naturally blend in well with people, it’s okay. Don’t let that be a reason to keep you away from new opportunities and instead see it as a way to challenge yourself and get out of your comfort zone; even if that means forcing yourself to attend an event at least once every two months.
Keep familiar things around you. As we integrate into the new environment, we may find ourselves slowly stepping away from our cultural roots. That’s totally normal! If you’re ever feeling homesick, do something that reminds you of home (i.e. listen to music, eat your favorite meal). As you make new friends, try introducing your favorite foods to them to strengthen the connection between familiar sources of comfort and new sources of emotional support.
Allow times to take its course. Be patient. You’re not expected to adapt right away and it may take you a few months to a few years to find your place. In the meantime, try to enjoy the differences and accept the hardships. Allow yourself to grow and recognize the changes you’re making. Remember that change also means growth.
If there’s one thing to take away from this blog post, it’s realizing that finding your place is a combination of time and hard work rather than one or the other.
I’m about to head into a big career and life transition. It’s something I’ve been working towards for many years and now it’s finally happening.
Full disclosure: it has something to do with becoming a brand new therapist here at Real Campus, after being a clinical social worker with a bunch of organizations!
I figure, who better to riff on new beginnings than someone who has found herself smack dab in the middle of one?
I’m not someone you might think would fear change. I love novelty and adventure but over the years I’ve found that no matter how adventurous your spirit, change can still hit hard. While humans are complex and we all respond to situations differently, we’re mostly wired to feel safe in what is familiar and predictable – even when it’s not “good” for us.
I find because of my love for adventure, I often underestimate the impact that a drastic change in my life will have on me. Over the years, I’ve learned to slow down and surrender to the process—to radically accept that I’m not immune to the difficulty that change can be for a species that craves familiarity.
Here’s a road map for navigating change. It can be applied to starting a new job or going to a new school, to moving in with a partner or to have a child. All types of change deserve your attention.
Grieve the loss of what you are leaving behind
This often gets overlooked. Especially when we are moving towards a change we are excited about, or when leaving a situation that isn’t healthy for us. It’s easy to brush aside grief in our excitement or relief. But even if we’re leaving a situation we weren’t happy with, it is inevitably something that took up a lot of space in our lives. And especially if it was challenging, we likely learned things about ourselves and our resilience that are integral to who we are today.
Maybe we found our voice to speak up against crummy conditions. Maybe we learned about our strength and capacity to stretch ourselves. Maybe we learned how to affirm our worth by saying goodbye. Almost every situation has value, even if it wasn’t pleasant to experience. Regardless of the conditions I leave, I know that bypassing grief only to focus on excitement has always made my transition more difficult.
To tap into your grief, try writing a goodbye letter to the situation you’re leaving. It doesn’t have to be all sunshine and kittens. If you have harsh truths to voice, voice them. Give voice to your whole experience. If you’re happy to be saying goodbye, say why. Towards the end of the letter, explain what the situation taught you and why you might be grateful that it happened. After you’re done, rip it up or find a safe way to destroy it. Letting go is important.
If you’re leaving behind a situation that was lovely but you outgrew it, then in addition to the letter, you might want to find a happy way to honour it. Try making a memory book of your favourite pictures to honour your memorable moments. Share your memories with the people you love and trust.
The important thing is to give space to grief. No matter what the situation was like for you, it played a role in making you who you are today and it deserves a forum. By no means will one letter or memory book rid you of all your grief but it’s a starting point and a reminder that your feelings are valid.
Adjusting to something new takes time. You won’t have all the answers right away. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll say the wrong thing. You’ll feel scared. You’ll feel uncomfortable. The good news is that this means you are a human being and not a robot! It’s important that you are kind to yourself as you navigate this new situation.
Write down five things you would say to your best friend if they were navigating this exact situation. Things like “It’s ok, you’re still learning” or “It takes time to adjust” or “I admire your courage”. When you start to feel discouraged, say those things to yourself. If you want greater impact, put your hand on your face or on your heart when you say them. Self-compassion is not just about what you could say but also what to avoid saying: if you wouldn’t say it to your best friend, don’t say it to yourself. Period.
I know it’s tempting to fall into thinking that we have to have everything figured out on day one but that’s impossible and it leads to anxiety. What you have found yourself in is one of the most glorious grace periods in all of adult life – when people expect you not to know anything! When they expect you to ask questions. When saying “Oh I didn’t know that” is actually totally legit. Instead of taking it as a sign of your own inadequacy, enjoy it! It’s a beautiful phase that’s time limited! There will be lots of time to expect yourself to know what’s going on. This ain’t it! And thank goodness. Be a scientist. Be an anthropologist. Study your new environment with genuine interest. That way, when you discover something you didn’t know, you can be fascinated and curious instead of internalizing it as inadequacy.
Be gentle with yourself
Change is tiring. You may find you need more sleep. You may need more downtime. You may need more time listening to Bon Iver with your eyes closed. You may need to spend more time alone. You may need to pack a quick lunch instead of preparing your usual extravagant meal.
But listen, you’re using a lot of energy re-learning things you used to do with your eyes closed. Your energy reserves are going into processing and storing all this new information that will be so totally straightforward soon enough. But for now, everything takes an immense amount of effort. Try to be cool with pulling over to put gas in your tank as often as possible.
We’ve all heard the only constant is change. We don’t have to love it and we don’t have to sugar-coat it, but it certainly helps to be prepared for it. While the world around us spins, it‘s possible to be grounded in kindness and understanding for ourselves. Change will happen regardless, but our attitudes and the way we treat ourselves through it can change our relationship to it.
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.
Are you an international student who’s been struggling to find your place in Canada? Have you been feeling overwhelmed with the changes and have been finding it difficult to adjust?
If so, you’re not alone! Adjusting to change is hard, let alone starting over in a new country.
You’re probably going through different emotions and trying to establish yourself in a place that doesn’t really feel like home. If that’s the case, you’re probably going through stage 2 of your cultural adaptation journey.
Let’s look at these stages in more depth:
Stage 1: The Honeymoon Period
The honeymoon period is sort of like the beginning of any new experience, such as starting a new job or going into a new relationship. You are thrilled about all these exciting changes and are looking at things from a positive lens. You are probably intrigued by both the differences and similarities between the new culture and your home culture and you have lots of interest in learning and motivation to meet new people. You sort of feel like a tourist and can immediately imagine yourself staying here long-term…until stage 2 kicks in.
Stage 2: The Cultural Shock
By now, the excitement would’ve worn off a little and you’re starting to miss your friends and family back home. You’re likely putting a bigger emphasis on the differences between the two cultures and possibly thinking about how much you were taking things for granted when you were still back home. You may be starting to feel irritated and frustrated with having to constantly change your habits to adapt to these new norms. Little do you know, you start to search out your Canadian friends and focus on connecting with people who share the same values, language and probably the same taste in local foods and music. These new friends remind you of home and this becomes your new comfort zone. At least you now have a support system to go back to when you’re out exploring the Canadian context and little do you know, you find yourself in stage 3.
Stage 3: Adjustment
You’re now pretty familiar with the context and although you may still be experiencing the occasional lows, you’re starting to feel little more hopeful and optimistic. Cultural cues are now easier to read and you’re beginning to feel more integrated into the new environment. You may see your sense of humor slowly return and find yourself enjoying activities outside of your comfort zone. Since you’re now past the “emotional stages” of cultural adjustment, you can now enter a stage of “deeper learning” and enhance your understanding of the world. You may even start to question some assumptions resulting from your own culture and begin to look at things from a new perspective. Next thing you know, you’ve reached the final stage.
Stage 4: Acceptance
Welcome to the final stage where the “new” culture is no longer new but is starting to feel like a second home. You are now focused on reaching your full potential and may be thinking of staying here long-term and planting some roots. You probably don’t want to go back home as much anymore and instead, you’re encouraging those back home to come visit you. You’ve finally reached the stage of biculturalism and have found your place between the two cultures.
A Last Thought
Can I share a piece of advice? Don’t rush it. Try to find meaning in every stage and know that each one has its own time. Be cognizant of the different stages and explore where you locate yourself. Know that if you’re feeling “foreign”, it won’t last forever. There’s probably thousands of other international students walking on this same path trying to find their place. And you will soon find yours.
If you missed this week’s webinar “Stranger In A Strange Land” on integrating in a new culture, make sure to watch the rerun here!