Life Lessons Learned From… University

It’s graduation season! As students celebrate the end of their studies and get ready to move on to the next phase of their lives, it’s time to reflect back on memories made during their university experience.

After six years at Simon Fraser University, I have quite the rich collection to draw from. Throughout the good and the bad, and the sweet and the challenging, there was always a profound lesson behind everything I encountered along the way to the final stop of this journey.

Before I depart from this post-secondary community and venture off into the real (and daunting) world out there (*gulp*), here are some words of wisdom that I’d like to pass on…

Say hello.

When it comes to meeting new people, introductions are the hardest part. For someone like myself, who identifies as quite the socially awkward penguin, I totally understand how difficult it can be to muster up the courage to make the first move (and hope that the first impression you give is a good one!) But chances are, others are feeling just as nervous, self-cautious, and intimidated around unfamiliar company as you are. Once I realized this, I started to worry less about being “out of my league” and make more of an effort to be the one to begin the conversation. Now, I’m comfortable with approaching new people, and the dreaded small talk doesn’t intimidate me nearly as much anymore! All it takes is a simple “Hi!” to melt the ice away. You might even find a great friend that way!

Think differently.

If you want your work to shine, you need to stand out from the crowd. Semester upon semester, professors are used to reading similar, safe topics from students, and while tried and tested to be truly good papers, they are always looking out for something great. Yes, we are at school to learn from these fine educators, but at the same time, they’re here because they want to learn from YOU too. Impress them by teaching them something brand new! While the rest of the class is writing their Pride & Prejudice essays on Elizabeth Bennet’s feminist qualities, venture to do a character study on her younger sister, Lydia! Approaching any type of project, academic and otherwise, with a fresh perspective will take more time, but if you are willing to invest yourself, the outcome could be very worthwhile!

Get involved.

Hands down the most rewarding experiences you will have at university will be through your participation outside of the lecture room – with student organizations, co-op, volunteering, international exchanges, and the list goes on. I know you’ve all heard this spiel several times before, but it bears repeating. NOW is the best time to start exploring your future, while you are in a secure place to experiment with all of the opportunities available to you. It was during the final two years of my undergraduate experience when I pushed myself to try Co-op, and then volunteering and clubs, and even mentorship and leadership (which I never would have attempted before!) after that.

Through this time of professional and personal growth, I have built up my drive, versatility, and confidence, and gained a clearer understanding of who I am and where I would ultimately like to be. Plus, I have gotten to know some of the most cheerful, kind, talented, and passionate people I have ever met, all of whom inspire me in their own special ways. When you embrace new opportunities with open minds and arms, you increase your chances of encountering whatever it is that you so desire – be it your dream job, a fascinating person, or something else equally awesome. It’s called happenstance!

Respond ASAP.

When you receive an invitation or a progress-update request from someone, give an answer as soon as you possibly can! Even if your answer is not yet an affirmative ‘yes’ or ‘no’, or ‘done’ or ‘not done’, just be upfront about your current status. Only you have access to what you’re thinking, so imagine how difficult it must be for the person on the other line who is waiting in the dark. Oftentimes, in the case of RSVP-ing for events or signing up for opportunities, people do not want to appear overeager to commit until they are absolutely positively sure about their commitment. However, it is important to remember that it takes time to schedule things, so giving an immediate response helps to make the planning smoother, which is very much appreciated. As well, establishing a system of regular and effective communication between team members can prevent many issues regarding group work. Take the initiative to be considerate and respond right away. Don’t make people wait! Time is precious!

Embrace YOU.

Sometimes, society will tell us that the personal qualities we possess deem us unfit for what we wish to pursue in our lives. For the longest time, I believed that, as an introvert, I was plagued with many limitations as to what I could hope to accomplish. For instance, I could never find myself in a position of leadership, as leaders are typically perceived as being a part of an exclusive club of super-outgoing and incredibly charismatic people. It wasn’t until I took an innovative leadership program, which introduced broader definitions of the concept, that I realized that I can lead people through my writing, or even through my every day interactions with others (for more on this idea, see Drew Dudley‘s TEDxTalk on “Leading Through Lollipops“). I never would have discovered this untapped potential if I didn’t try to challenge the norms. Identity your strengths and what you have to offer, and find a way to utilize your gifts for the greater good. Don’t be discouraged from pursuing your passion. If there are obstacles, push through them and set your own unique path. Be authentic. Be true. Be YOU.

Take notes.

Time flies when you’re cramming studying, working hard, and having fun! During these fast-paced years, it’s easy to lose track of time. While you are busy building these memories, have you been remembering to capture these special moments as you go? It’s important to keep track of what you’ve seen, felt, learned, and accomplished throughout your experiences. That way, later on, you can always look back on what you did and see how much you’ve changed, developed, and grown during the years to be who you are.

It is as simple as jotting down a few notes in your Moleskine every day, writing weekly journal or blog entries, scrapbooking (if you wish to include images), or vlogging (if multimedia is more your thing). Whatever your method, try to record stuff like important events, interesting insights, funny stories, and other items you want to remember. Make self-reflection a part of your regular routine. Tell your unique story, because it’s worth commemorating!

And a few other little lessons worth including:

  • Pay the kindness forward. Never underestimate the power of a smile, a compliment, and a ‘thank you’. It’s the small gestures that can turn someone’s whole day around for the better.
  • Keep in touch with the people in your classes, teams, etc. who you had shared interests and a good connection with. You could potentially find a close friend or a collaboration partner!
  • LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook are your friends. Get in-the-know about new job and volunteer opportunities, events, contests, and other important information by staying connected on social media.
  • Asking for help is not a sign of incompetency. Rather, seeking assistance from someone shows that you value their insight and help to build a system of trust and mutual respect. It also demonstrates your curiosity and interest.
  • Tired of missing out on great opportunities because you forgot to ‘check it out later’ like you said you would? Make productive use of that smartphone and set a reminder for yourself so you’ll never strike out again!
  • It’s okay to say ‘no’ once in a while, especially if your heart, mind, and body isn’t into it.
  • Allow yourself time for rest and relaxation. Nobody wants to burn out!
  • Facing rejection and making mistakes are two extremely undesirable results, but they are not synonymous with weakness. Yes, being turned down stings and being wrong bruises, but all will heal and you will get over it. Face it. Own it. Learn, grow, and move on. You will be okay.

It sure feels bittersweet to be convocating. For once in my life, I don’t know exactly where I’ll be three months from now. I’m leaving my future up in the air and seeing where the wind will take me. It’s scary, but I know it will be okay. Above all, university has taught me that when you believe in yourself, you have the ability to get through anything.

As I wrap up my parting gift to you, I leave you all with a quotation from one of my inspirations, Elizabeth Taylor:

Follow your passion, follow your heart, and the things you need will come.”

Congratulations to the Class of 2013! Live long and prosper!

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