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Peer blog: Living a healthy 2021 by choosing and meeting your goals

Rahul, Psychology, Class of 2021

Poster with 2022 is going to be my yearHey! My name is Rahul, and I’m a 4th-year Psychology major! As I’m writing this post, the break is about to end, and the winter term is about to begin. Not to be too pessimistic, but I can’t say I’m too excited for 2020, Part 2. I sense the feeling might be mutual for some of those who are reading this post. However, if things continue as they were in 2020, it might be time for a change.

Perhaps you weren’t on top of your schoolwork, your job(s), your health, or your friendships in 2020. But at one point, you thought things were going to change for 2021 when you set out your resolutions. If you have struggled with those resolutions already, I bet some of you are thinking that 2022 will be my year for sure

This mindset creates a barrier to change. We shouldn’t have to wait for 2022 for our lives to magically transform. After all, with the events of 2020, who knows what obstacles we’ll face in the future? If you want things to change, you need to start right now. Here are some tips that I want you to keep in mind as you pursue a better you—in whatever small ways that you can or choose to—in 2021. 


What is it that you want to change? Yeah, there might be a lot of things you want to change about yourself. But dig deeper—what is the most essential thing that you want to change for yourself? 

For me, I realized that my physical health was at a low as 2020 drew to a close. I know about the links of physical health and academic success: at the end of the day, you can’t study well if you’re feeling lethargic and unhealthy. I’ve heard that adults should get about 10,000 steps a day. But here I am, glued to my armchair, getting maybe 100 steps a day in. Ouch. I know that the pandemic doesn’t make it easier to do daily activities outside. But I’ve decided not to wait for 2022 to be “my year for sure.” Instead, I thought of ways to improve my physical health at the end of the break. You might be thinking that this is an academic success, not a fitness, blog. But you can use the same approaches to strategic and incremental lifestyle change in your study habits, whether you want to read more, write regularly, or get started on big new projects.

Here’s how I got started.

closeup of overwhelmed kid

Me coping with the fact that I need 10,000 steps a day when I only get 100…

Start small

It’s unrealistic to immediately get your 10,000 steps. Let’s say you do get 10,000 steps or close to it—your body might experience a physical shock to this new change, which could lead to soreness the next day or two. This effect can be demotivating. Instead, motivate yourself by setting incremental targets (1,000 steps on Monday, 1,500 steps on Tuesday, and so on). Or, if steps aren’t your thing, go by minutes (10 minutes on Monday, 15 minutes on Tuesday, and so on)! We truly feel a lot better and stick with our habits when we set ourselves up for success by starting small and setting measurable and realistic goals.

To start small, I started walking (with my mask—you should too!). In my first walk, I probably walked for about 10 minutes. Then another day, I went for a run for about 10 minutes. On my second walk, I timed myself to walk for 15 minutes. On my second run, I did the same. Starting small gave me confidence. Starting small allowed me to increase my limits. Starting small was realistic.

After 2 weeks in the break, I eventually ran 8,500 steps and found myself at the top of Fort Henry in Kingston! This shows you how you can build up new habits. Pick an academic (or a health) challenge, and commit to making a tiny step towards your goal today. You can always add more tomorrow, next week, or next month.

View of Kingston from Fort Henry



I know some of you might be thinking, I’m gonna pass out if I run or but what if I get tired from running or walking? I hear you! I knew that I didn’t want to run or walk every day and that there had to be other alternatives to mix things up. So, if you’ve already thought about an area of your life that you’d like to work on, what alternatives can you use to improve that area? 

I’ve always wanted to bend and reach down to the ground from an upright position. I mean, you might recall trying to do this in your physical education classes in elementary or high school. I then realized that there are a plethora of yoga videos on YouTube. This is where I stumbled across Yoga with Adrienne, who takes a personal approach to yoga. With YouTube and a free app like Yoga for Beginners | Mind+Body, I improved my physical health through another alternative. So, what alternatives can you really pursue to improve an area in your life? 

I started with yoga sessions every 2 days. Once I felt like this was a small enough and comfortable pace, I then did yoga every other day. Now, I’m doing yoga every day and hope to maintain this pace. I found a new alternative to improving my physical health, and on top of that, I started small! If you’re looking for academic tips, why not choose one thing you’ll change in your study habits, and try a new habit just 3 times a week to start with?

Rahul doing yoga tree pose

A tree pose, after a lot of practice!

2021: Your year

I can’t provide you with a step-by-step guide to getting your life together for 2021 during a pandemic, but I can give you some general ideas that you should reflect on. 

What is one thing that you want to focus on? How can you work toward this in a small and incremental manner? In what ways can you accomplish this one goal? 

Once you’ve applied these basic ideas successfully, move to a different and vital area of your life. Having worked toward one area in your life, you will be ready to improve the next.

Believe in yourself. 2021 will be your year, and you shouldn’t have to wait for good things to happen in your life! Begin now, reflect, start small, and expand.

See you soon, friends!


Yoga with Adrienne: https://apps.apple.com/us/app/yoga-for-beginners-mind-body/id1382141225

Yoga Apps: Yoga for Beginners | Mind+Body, Yoga | Daily Yoga

Find a community—yoga subreddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/yoga/

Find a community—running subreddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/running

Running Apps: Strava: Run, Ride, Swim; Nike Run Club

Queen’s Athletics and Recreation Centre YouTube | See videos related to physical activity: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCCq5zzamjU8AOntSLEuamkQ/videos


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Cs get degrees, but what do you really want from university?

Liyi, Engineering, Class of 2024

Hello everyone! I hope you are all well. Final exams are here, and feelings of anxiety and pressure have come with them.

In my blog a couple of weeks ago, I talked about juggling plastic balls and glass balls. The plastic balls are okay to drop, but the glass balls shatter. Currently, many of the balls that I am juggling are made of glass: shifts at work, studying for final exams, and meetings for final projects. I cannot afford to drop any in this crucial time. That, in itself, is complicated. The pressure I feel right now is astounding, and I’m not sure how to know when to stop studying and pushing myself.

I am still getting used to the new work routine I talked briefly about in last week’s blog (here). I’m trying to stay on one task for a good amount of time rather than randomly switching between tasks. It has been working well, but I still have to drastically improve my level of focus for each task. I want to take things slow and focus on…well, focus on focussing. I am hoping by the new year that my work ethic will have changed (and that a Covid vaccine is available to the public!). In a sense, this makes my work schedule more minimal: finishing one task, one at a time, seems a lot neater than working on one task for 15 minutes than switching to another for another 5, then another, and another, and another.

My 2021 resolution is to live more minimally. For me, personally, this means cleaning my room to be neat, getting rid of anything I do not need, finding a “minimal” schedule, and just creating a space where I am not distracted. This will help with my studies.

Dealing with notes is one of the biggest hurdles when it comes to studying with a minimalistic mindset. School notes are something I keep forever. I cannot bear to dispose of them. Every time a new course begins, I am always conflicted as to where to start writing notes, and how to organize them. Of course, I have my basic binders and ringed notebooks, but I would like something nicer and prettier. An efficient method to organize notes so they are easy to refer to would help! I recognize that this is not usually something that people are stressed over, but to me, having attractive and organized notes would help me feel a bit more accomplished and secure. With exams coming, this organizational problem will have to wait until I have more time on my hands. Either way, I am looking forward to finally finding an organizational method—I’ll come back to this in January!

One thing I really wanted to include in this blog is something that I’ve been dealing with for the last few weeks. I want to know if you guys had any thoughts or input on this: how do you stay motivated and deal with stress and setbacks without big goals like you had in high school? In the blogs that I have already written, I have mentioned the ups and downs of university, and the distress I feel when receiving unsatisfactory marks. I really do try my best, but I’ve sometimes received disappointing scores, for example for my physics midterm and engineering practice assignments.

A big challenge right now is finding the line between being hard on myself to improve and taking care of my mental health. When I think back to myself as a high school student, I realize I was extremely tough on myself. I felt certain I had to get good grades to enter a good university and to try for some scholarships. Although my mental health was not necessarily bad, it seems like compared to now, I felt more pressure in high school to excel. That pressure helped me a lot in terms of studying, but I also became more upset at receiving low grades. Now, as I’ve discussed in my blog posts, I seem to move on from setbacks a bit quicker.

This line that I have been trying to draw, the line between pressuring myself and taking care of myself, has been on my mind for weeks. In high school, there was a clear goal in mind: get high grades so I can have lots of university choices. I knew where high school grades came from: doing well on the exam, and mastering skills.

Now, I do not know what I want to do after university. Without a big goal, I find it much harder to set expectations for myself. We have all heard the phrase “Cs get degrees,” but what do I want after a degree, and what do I have to achieve to get it? I’ll sort this out one day. I promise you and I promise myself. But, alas, finals exams are the focus right now. Once I figure out where I’m going in the future, which may be weeks or months from now, I will let you know, and hopefully I will find the place to draw the line: I’ll know when I’ve done enough work and when I can stop. Right now, I will continue to do the best as I can with the support of friends, TAs, and club members.

Moving on from that small existential crisis, I paid my first monthly rent for a house in Kingston!! I will be moving in next year and I am ecstatic. I will finally experience campus life (with the hopes that COVID-19 will quietly go away) and see all the friends I have made along the way. I will finally live the first-year experience that we have always dreamed about, just a year later.

This blog has been a wild ride; I shared my problems but unfortunately offered no solutions. That is life, it seems. Let’s not worry too much about it, haha. Thank you for joining me and good luck on your exams! Happy holidays, and see you in the new year!

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Peer blog: How to survive exam season!

Santosh, Life Sciences, Class of 2021

Hi Gaels! I hope everyone is studying hard during this finals season. Whether your final assessment is in the form of an exam, open book assignment, or lab report, this is the home stretch. I can already hear the Christmas carols as I write this blog! But we still have a few more weeks before we can take our feet off the pedal. Finals can be a time of stress and anxiety, but it definitely does not have to be this way. There are many things that we can do to make this time of the year as smooth sailing as possible.

A significant difference for me this term was the transition to exam season. Last year, I saw hundreds of students like myself rush into Stauffer at 9 A.M. That environment helped me concentrate, because there was a special, exam spirit throughout campus. This year is not the same. Being hours away from campus this year, the transition was really minimal, and it took a few days for my mind to shift gears to exam mode. Something I’m doing to get mentally prepared was to replicate my exam-season morning routine from last year. I wake up and get ready for the day, make a cup of steaming hot coffee, and grab a croissant. I then make my way back to my room (a much shorter walk than the distance to Stauffer!) and sit down in front of my books. Although this might sound like a lot of work or so simple it’s silly, replicating my morning habit was very effective for me to get into the right mindset to study for exams. If you are struggling to focus as well, try it out!

Exam season entails a lot of memorization and understanding of course content. Therefore, making sure your study techniques are effective will not only give you better results but also save you a lot of time. I was definitely guilty of studying passively last year: doing nothing but staring aimlessly at material when I should have been testing myself and practicing exam questions. I spent hours highlighting and re-reading my notes. Sometimes I even highlighted things for the sake of highlighting. Passive methods of studying are a TRAP! They feel fast, convenient, and make you think you understand the concept even when you don’t (of course you understand something when you’re staring at the explanation in the textbook). Instead, I highly recommend active learning methods such as using cue cards to test yourself. I love using cue cards because they are simple to make and can help me to truly know how much of a concept I understand. I can also focus my studying on a certain topic because by organizing them into different categories based on the concept they test. Even the process of creating cue cards will help you get familiar with the content! Read all about Quizlet, a great app to help you create and use cue cards, then give it a go. SASS has more on test and exam prep methods here.

When all the prep is done, a big difference this year is the use of online proctoring services. If you have proctored exams coming up, it is really important to learn about the process in advance. The last thing you want is to not be able to concentrate on your 45% exam. I had a few protected midterms already, and although I am much more used to it by now, many of my peers are facing this for the first time. Here are a few tips I have to be prepared for proctored exams:

  1. Clean up your room – having a clean room helps the room scan go smoothly because the proctor better understands where everything is placed. This shortens the pre-test period which allows you to start your exam quickly.
  2. Keep all your ID and utensils on your desk – Each time you get up to get something, another room check is usually required. Therefore to limit this unnecessary work, keep everything you need on your desk!
  3. Connect to your proctor 10 minutes before your scheduled time – The proctoring servers take several minutes to connect you to a proctor. To avoid being late to your scheduled test, join the proctoring service beforehand!
  4. Focus on your test – I was guilty of constantly checking if my connection to the proctoring service was still working during my first experience with Examity. Although, this extra work during the test was an unnecessary hassle that I really did not need. If anything does go wrong in terms of connection, your proctor will help you solve the problem. So make sure your full attention remains on your test!

Finally, remember to listen to your body and mind during the exam period. Over-working will work for a day or two, but the sudden crash that follows this period will waste more time than if you would have kept a proper schedule. Listening to your body can also maximize your memory, focus, and ability to think critically. I learned that if I study after 10 PM, I am much less likely to understand the content, so I complete my studying before then. Even if I’m not finished by 10, I relax for the rest of the day to make sure I am ready to tackle the next day. Also, I love to fit in a few walks along the park during the day. Walking clears my mind and helps me rejuvenate before my next work session. If you can, even a quick socially distanced walk with a friend to grab a coffee might give you the time and space to think about your work more clearly.

You worked hard all this semester, so be confident and crush your exams to end this semester strong! Good luck everyone, happy holidays, and I’ll catch you in the new year for more blogging!

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Peer blog: Mastering the in-between times

Liyi, Engineering, Class of 2024

Sometimes there are weeks where our days are packed with midterms, big labs, and time-consuming assignment submissions. The stress levels are high and emotions run wild, so it’s not surprising that these are the weeks we talk about most. I’ve noticed that not a lot of people talk about the weeks—the type of week I am having right now—where coursework is light enough where we are not running around like headless chickens, but also not light enough where we can totally relax. These are the in-between weeks when we are trying our best to be productive but we have some free time.

This feeling of in-between is stronger since I have no synchronous lectures or tutorials except for a Geology lab on Monday and a Physics tutorial on Friday at 2:30. Since my only synchronous commitments are at the beginning and end of the week, the days in between seem like a blur. I find myself slowly doing my work in the early part of the in-between time because I assume that I will have the motivation to do homework faster later in the week. But I never do.

Have you heard of the story where a turtle and a hare race each other? Everyone assumes the hare would win since hares can run faster. In the story, the hare takes many breaks since they are confident that they will win, and then falls asleep by a tree. The turtle, slow and steady, moves forward without breaks and ends up winning while the hare is still asleep. I feel like my usual approach is like the turtle’s: I aim to go slow and steady. Unfortunately, I seem to take as many breaks as the hare does. That is not a good sign.

So what am I doing to change my approach?

Last week I talked about calling school “fun” and “exciting” due to the intellectual challenges and unprecedented events. During those in-between weeks where none of that happens, it becomes much more difficult to find something to be excited about. This week, I’m going to try some of the strategies from the “Making it work… at home,” lesson on the SASS site to improve my work efficiency and effectiveness. Throughout the years, I have enjoyed using daily planners, but I never liked to constrict myself to strict schedules that count everything out by the minute. I liked the freedom of not having schedules, but now I think it is a bit detrimental to me.

That might need to change. One of the things I want to try is thinking of school like a full-time job, or even like back in high school where there were 4 periods allocated to each class in a day. This way, I can completely focus on one task for a specific amount of time. Since I have also always had trouble with trying to multitask different courses within a timespan, I want to try allocating one chunk of time for one task. There are many new methods I want to try, and as I am writing this, I am slowly getting excited to work again. Remember that what works for me won’t necessarily work for you, but try something new from the working at home resource!

A couple of blogs ago, I discussed my Mod 1 group mark, and how I was upset at the marks we received back. Looking back, it seems amazing how fast the mind can grow and learn from then until now. Last Monday, I had my first physics midterm. I was confident I had prepared well enough: I thoroughly watched the lectures, I did the practice problems until I understood them, and I ensured there was nothing I was confused about. When the time came to write the exam, my heart dropped. The questions on the exam were difficult, and it was the type of test where you had to know the concepts and be able to apply them in tough, new ways. It was hard, and for the majority of the time, I did not know what to do.

I went through the 5 stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and then acceptance– in less than 5 seconds. I accepted the situation right away because, really, what could I do about it? I’m glad that the ways I practiced overcoming hurdles—read about them in my last blog if you didn’t already—are helping me in these situations.

Even if a person does everything right, they can still struggle. That kind of sucks, but it is a tough reality, and as one of my friends says: “We move.” We must get past that. In the end, I will study hard for my next midterm, and I am excited to use the new tools from the SASS site to keep myself going! Though this week may not have been as hectic as the last, I still want to use my time wisely and effectively as the semester draws to a close.

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Peer blog: “How much longer?” Ending the semester strong

Santosh, Life Sciences, Class of 2023

Hi Gaels!

With a few weeks left before exam season, we are nearing the end of classes. I really enjoy this period because it brings closure to all the topics that we learned throughout the semester and it helps us understand how everything fits together into wider, bigger concepts and theories!

However, I’m pretty sure we all had a moment over the past few months where we thought to ourselves, “How much longer?” I definitely had a few of those throughout the semester. Luckily, with exams just around the corner, the term is beginning to wrap up and the holidays are inching closer by the second. With that being said, these final few weeks are what make up most of our grades and so, we still have some work to do before we let our foot off the pedal!

During this time, we tend to have individual questions about the course content or assignments. Normally, these would be answered by our professors after a lecture, but with online schooling, we need to find new ways to clarify our doubts. This is where discussion boards, virtual office hours, and tutorial sessions come into play. These are great avenues to get clarification on any doubts or questions you might have. To be honest, I was a bit hesitant to use the discussion boards at the beginning of the semester because I had a feeling that my questions were not “good” enough. Although, after seeing my peers ask all kinds of questions ranging from font size inquires to assignment doubts, I understood that discussion boards are a way to get fast responses to any kind of question. Even if you have had a question since the first week of the semester, go ask it now! It is normal for students to discuss concepts from earlier periods of the course before exams. The last thing you want is the one topic that you struggled with to come up on the exam. Going to office hours can help clarify your doubts—and maybe a few of your peer’s questions as well! A pro tip: professors sometimes even drop a few hints about the exam during office hours at this time of the semester, so keep a lookout for them!

The last few weeks of November is also a time where we have to complete more assignments than we can count. On top of that, these summative assignments require us to use all the concepts we learned throughout the semester. Remember, these assessments are usually worth a substantial portion of your grade, so take your time and make sure you hand in your best work. Therefore, begin work on these assignments as early as possible! Doing a bit each day—even if it’s just five or ten minutes—helps ease the workload and the stress that comes with it. The SASS Assignment Planner can help you create a realistic schedule that will help you finish these assignments to the best of your ability. A few writing tips from SASS’s writing resources or having a Peer Writing Assistant help you improve your writing could elevate your work to that next level.

A saving grace for me last year was to use the end-of-semester period to prepare for exam season. By that, I don’t mean studying and revising, but just organizing my notes, making sure I had all my resources, and creating a schedule that I stuck to during December (all the info you need is right here). The exam period should be spent studying for your exams. It shouldn’t be spent trying to find a piece of a paper from week two that has somehow ended up under your bed (real story of mine, unfortunately). Doing this will also get you into the mindset of studying once exams begin because you will have all the necessary tools to succeed right in front of you. If you want to take this a step further, go to the Queen’s University Exam Bank and collect some past exams for you to go over when you begin to study. Take a few minutes each day to do this prepping and by the time exams roll around you will be ready to go. (Disclaimer: don’t assume the prof will definitely repeat questions from previous years’ exams!)

Finally, make sure your physical and mental health does not take a back seat during this hectic period. It is easy to get into the trap of sleeping less than seven hours a night or studying non-stop for a few days straight. Whenever I feel like my mental health is taking a hit, I go for a run to get some fresh air, I talk to my family and friends, or I eat a healthy snack like fruit! These activities help clear my mind and give me a much-needed break from studying. Try one of these approaches for yourselves and see how it goes.

Well, my fellow Gaels, we made it through two and a half grueling months of online school and we only have one more to go. Remember to celebrate your successes thus far this semester and use your setbacks to help drive you to success. And as Thomas Edison once said, “there is no substitute for hard work”: keep it up for just a little while longer and exams will be done!

I’ll talk to you all next time!

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Peer blog: Being in the midst of precedented, unprecedented times

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1 

Happy December! Congratulations, you are almost there! Cue the music from Chariots of Fire. Over the last three months, I have become fully engrossed in picking apart the meaning of the phrase “unprecedented times.” In March, the whole world agreed upon the fact that these were unprecedented times, but for how long must things remain unprecedented before they become… precedented?

As a student, it feels like we all unknowingly entered an alternative dimension. Navigating this semester has been strange at times. On the surface, everything seems to be running normally. Lectures get uploaded every week, assignments are the same. But every now and again, you stumble across a glitch in the matrix, like realizing that you still don’t know what your professors look like—even though you have now spent hours upon hours listening to them. One of my most jarring realizations has been that I have not had a face-to-face conversation with any of my lab mates or supervisor for nearly eight months now! Nevertheless, we trek on, knowing that this setback is only temporary. I commend you for carrying on! It has not been easy, but don’t let that prevent you from making the most out of this school year.

Speaking of “making the most,” I was finally given permission to work in my lab space at the beginning of November. Thus, my primary objective is now to get back into the swing of things, specifically, into the swing of lab work. Our lab just moved to a new location on campus, so the space is a little chaotic, but I missed it! Although the building is eerily quiet, there is something very comforting about climbing the four flights of stairs as I used to way back in March. Right now, I am analyzing rat brain tissue under the microscope for a colleague. I wanted to complete this analysis by the holidays, but because I was granted access to the facility only recently, I will likely have to carry this work over into the new year. In spite of this minor delay, I thoroughly enjoy just being back in the lab space and cannot wait to begin my own experiments.

So far, my progress on the research front has been steady. At the beginning of the semester, I stated that I was in the “gathering information” phase of the research process. To date, I have built up a pretty large library of resources. Before last year, I did not have a good method of organizing my literature aside from keeping a very large folder on my desktop labelled “Lit Review”. But then, I was introduced to Zotero and I am here to sing its praises. Zotero is a free tool that is compatible with both Mac and PC and allows for the seamless organization of journal articles. I highly recommend trying it out for any assignment which requires referencing. You can create separate folders for separate projects if you have multiple things on the go and, best of all, Zotero will create and update your citation list at the end of your document. That’s right, gone are the days of trying to, word-by-word, painstakingly follow some obscure set of citation formatting guidelines. Zotero is capable of formatting citations in dozens of styles (e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.) at the push of a button. You have truly never felt power until you click “Add Bibliography” in the Zotero “add-in” tab in Microsoft Word. If you take anything away from this blog, I urge you to try Zotero. It’s free, it’s easy to use, and you will never have to manually cite another article ever again in your life. Need I say more!?

At this time of year, it is the thought of the holidays (and break) that keeps me motivated! Although it is just slightly too early to decorate and play holiday-themed music, I look forward to the transition into December. I think we have all had enough of 2020, so, at the very least, I am looking forward to closing the book on this year. With good news of a vaccination not far away, I am confident that, as long as we all keep doing our part to stay safe and healthy, things will only go up from here!

p.s. My conference talk was finally uploaded to Youtube! See caption.

p.p.s. Make sure you try Zotero!

Kate presenting at a conference

Kate presenting her research at her first conference!

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Peer blog: “I need a life jacket”

Sarah, Health/Environmental Studies, Class of 2022

In a previous blog, I explained that I love the water. The ironic thing, though, is that I can’t really swim. Don’t get me wrong: I can do the bare minimum to pass any kind of swimming test, but my swimming is definitely more of a fancy dog paddle. That means when I’m out on the water, I need a life jacket. Life jackets are designed to keep us afloat in water, so they’re absolutely crucial to safety. We all wear—and we need—life jackets in other areas of our lives: the things we engage in that keep us afloat and not sinking to the depths that lie far below. (Dramatic, I know!)

So, what constitutes a life jacket in the context of student life?

It can really be anything that helps keep you going and staying afloat: hobbies, extracurriculars, routines, study strategies, friends, family. Your identity. Your mindset. Your supports. Whatever works for you.

However, when life jackets are exposed to water for long periods of time without the opportunity to dry out, they can actually make staying afloat significantly more arduous. They need to be maintained, dried out, and sometimes replaced. The same goes for all those supports in other areas of your life. Let me explain.

What do I do if my life jacket is failing me?

As a peer advisor in both PASS and SASS, I always recommend students reach out to someone they trust and who cares about them when they need some extra support. I recently did the same. I called my mother and stepfather, and we had a very emotional talk about school. I worked so hard to get to third year, and everything my life jacket has been designed to do is failing. Right now, it feels like I’m sinking most days of the week. I’ve touched on my struggles before in this blog. I told my parents that I’m still struggling. I hate the thought that I have struggled through nine weeks of term without being able to swallow my pride and seek more help. My parents said something that really resonated with me: “Sarah, your identity is too tied to your academics.”

I think the reason my own personal life jacket is no longer working is because I have been hyper-focused, and I’ve lost sense of who I am outside of being a student. At my part-time job, friends will ask me how I’m doing or what’s new with me, and all I talk about is school. It’s okay to be proud to go to Queen’s—but when that’s your entire identity, all-encompassing of everything you live and breath? No matter my life jacket is so water-logged.

But how dare I not take 5 or 6 courses a term? Lots of us Queen’s students would think that our academic identity is our life jacket. A full course load, extracurriculars, our GPAs are the fabric of that jacket. But just because they are, does that mean it has to be that way?

Given everything that has happened this year, I’ve been reflecting on that question a lot. Do I want to be the person constantly stressed about school? Do I want to continue to be feel this constantly sad when that sadness eclipses all my other successes and joys? Do I want to continue to push myself academically at the cost of my mental wellbeing?

I can’t answer for you. But for me, the answer to those questions is no. I’m tired of my academic identity being the sole component of my life jacket. Because it’s waterlogged and causing me to sink.

So, if you’re like me, you might be asking: “Where do I go to fix this life jacket?”

Talk to someone

Even if it doesn’t feel like it, there are people out there at Queen’s who can help. Your professors (who are, surprisingly, human beings too), your teaching assistants, an academic advisor, a learning strategist with SASS. The list is long. Even if you don’t know these people, they’re there to help.

I wrote a long and beautifully crafted academic advisor outlining my troubles during the online fall semester. Student Wellness Services is available for those seeking physical and mental health support. I also highly recommend talking to a learning strategist: I used one when I was in first year, and I continue to use the service in third year. It is so validating to have someone feel for you and the position you’re in with online school, then to sit with you, find where you can work more effectively and efficiently, then work with you to figure out a plan.

Ask yourself if your life jacket is working

If your academic identity is the only thing that is keeping you afloat, it might be a sign to rethink it. Academics are only a small part of our life. Taking a step back and ask: “Is this jacket the right fit for me?” Once you find that your supports aren’t helping keep you afloat, ask what you can do to change them. For me, this might look like taking fewer courses for the winter semester.  For you, it might mean taking time out of your day to do the little things that set you up for success. Or taking time to do more things you enjoy. Or it can be as simple as reframing your appraisal of situations to look for positives—even if they’re small—in your daily work.

Find something to be proud of

After talking with the people who care about me, I find myself at a bit of a crossroads for next semester. I am constantly second guessing my actions: “Do I take 5 courses and repeat the strain and sadness of this past semester? Do I take 3 or 4? How dare I only take 3? I can do more. But what about my research internship? What if the 5 courses I stubbornly talk myself into staying in take away from one of the most valuable experiences of my third year? Could I just drop a required course and take an elective?”

Welcome to the express train of my thoughts. It’s exhausting.

I caught myself spiraling down this rabbit hole earlier this week. Then, a small voice reminded me that this is a process. So what if I only take 3 or 4 courses? If the cost of engaging in a full course load is too high, there is nothing wrong with taking less. We are not worth less because we take less than 5 courses in a semester. This has become my mantra as I stubbornly unlearn all the mindsets that waterlogged my life jacket in the first place.

On that note, I hope the fall semester has been a learning experience for everyone. Whether that’s learning how to facilitate a Zoom meeting, mute your Outlook notifications, how to navigate a new environment, mute your microphone, or learning how to restructure your life jacket—you’ve done it. And there’s a light on shore telling you you’ve almost made it, so keep floating. The holidays will be here soon!

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Peer blog: Getting excited and learning to drop the ball

Liyi, Engineering, Class of 2024

Whenever people ask me, “Hey, how’s school going?” it is always difficult to explain how I am feeling. My go-to answer is, “It’s busy. It’s so busy, but I’m having a lot of fun.” That statement is technically true, but most of the time, I am not even sure what I mean by saying, “I’m having fun.”

Am I really having fun this semester? That’s complicated. Some things are 100% fun, like going to a theme park, eating dinner with friends, but never would I have imagined calling school “fun.” That being said, school keeps me on my toes, fills up most of my time, and creates a lot of uncertainty (like, for instance, my calculus test being pushed back three weeks because the proctoring apps weren’t working). In my mind, I try to associate this unrest and anxiousness with “fun”. That is how I survive stressful times: I play mind games with myself.

So, within the last few months, I have learned to be excited about things that do not necessarily excite me. I need to hype myself up before doing quizzes, tests, and labs. I tell myself, “This is good. This is fun. You should do it,” and I try to prevent the negative thoughts from forming. If there was anything I would generally groan and complain about before, now I find myself saying, “I need to do this to get a degree. It is something new and exciting.” I think saying these things is good for my mental health. I want to be my own greatest motivator by embracing the unexpected and new challenges school throws at me.

My new quadmester starts next week, and I have two new courses: Earth Systems Engineering and Physics I. My Engineering Practice course from the last quadmester continues into this quad, and so I will still be trying to improve my lab writing. Since my last blog, my reports have been steadily improving, which I am happy about.

Experiencing the end of an old semester and the start of a new one brings stress to the table. I have had to frantically compile and finish last semester’s labs and start learning about next semester’s new courses, all while dealing with clubs and meetings. Like everyone else in school, I am learning to juggle school, work, family life, friends, and clubs, except this time, I am learning when to drop the balls. In high school, I was a pretty good juggler. Now, I am juggling an abundance of plastic balls or glass balls, and there are times where I must drop some.

The author Nora Roberts explains this well. She believes that in life, there are plastic balls to juggle: these are fine when dropped, and just bounce and roll away. There are also glass balls to juggle: when you drop them, they shatter, so we know to prioritize the glass balls. Sometimes it is difficult to differentiate whether something is a plastic ball or a glass ball, but that all depends on the person and circumstance.

Last week I missed a team meeting because I was so stressed, but I let my team members know I had done my work beforehand. A few nights ago, I chose to stay home and work on my project rather than doing something fun for Halloween, because the project was more important. My team project was a glass ball, but my fun evening was a plastic ball.

This type of juggling, to me, is a lot harder than juggling in high school. All I had to do in high school was to not let the balls drop to the floor. And that was simple: I did not have many balls to juggle anyway. Now, I am learning about which ball to drop and when to drop it when everything around me seems so chaotic. It is definitely a learning process, and I will not be perfect at it for a long time (and probably never!). Even so, I am glad I’m learning that it’s fine to let certain things go.

You should try thinking about your commitments as glass and plastic balls. Let me know how it goes.

Until next time!

My lists of tasks and due dates

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Peer blog: 5 strategies for finishing the semester strong

Santosh, Life Sciences, Class of 2023

Hi Gaels! I hope all your midterms went well and that you had a nice break SASS Peer: Santashto rejuvenate. It was a busy month, to say the least, but the semester is far from over. We are entering the last stretch of the term, and this is a period that could make or break our semester. The finish line is in sight and it is up to us how we finish the race. However, the transition from midterm season to summative assignment season can be a stressful time. In this installment of my SASS blog, I’ll provide you with some valuable tips that I’ve been experimenting with lately to manage my work and study load, especially when it comes to prepping for midterms.

  1. The daily task list. Apart from the actual challenges that my midterms posed, one of the biggest difficulties I had this month was getting everything done. There was just so much work this month that things felt overwhelming at times, so I decided to create a daily task list for myself. Sticking to the schedule wasn’t smooth sailing, as I’d hoped it would be…

When I first made the list, I put way too many tasks for myself to complete in a day. I ended up feeling just as overwhelmed because it looked as though I really did have a never-ending list of work and tasks to complete in a limited amount of time. It was only after a few days of experimentation that I began to make a list that I was able to stick to. It does take a few days to a week to create task lists that are realistic because you need those first few days to gauge the time needed to finish something. My advice is to start by putting fewer tasks than you think you can complete and slowly keep adding tasks until you reach your goal! So even though finishing 5 lab reports in a day would be amazing, you have to create a realistic task list that you can stick to you and still be on top of all your responsibilities. The trick is to think about balance, and to remember that not finishing a task or two in a day is not the end of the world!

Overall, the schedule was a huge help because it made something that seemed almost impossible—my never-ending task list—become possible! Another bonus was that checking off a task from the list motivated me to finish the next task and so on (and I needed all the motivation I could get this month!). But all jokes aside this is an amazing tool to use at any time of the year, but it is only as powerful as you make it to be! 

  1. Cue cards. Use cue cards for the material you need to memorize (e.g. definitions), then test yourself regularly. Even a couple of minutes working through your cards can help! This is an amazing technique because it involves active recall and it helps you understand what course material you need to improve on. Disclaimer: Don’t get carried away trying make your cue cards all fancy: get the information you need on the cards, rather than pretty pictures and formatting.

  2. Past papers. Test your knowledge using past midterms or quizzes. It will get you used to an assessment-like method that will likely be similar to the real deal. Looking over all the wrong answers can help you gauge where your weaknesses are, helping you to fine-tune your knowledge and use your time wisely. If you’re not sure where to find past papers for your courses, Queen’s Exam Bank is a good place to look.

  3. Active reading. Avoid passive reading, which means just re-reading or highlighting text without really using the information you’re seeing. I think we are all suckers for this: who wouldn’t want to just read over their notes on a Thursday evening for half an hour and call it a day because we feel we went over the required material? This is a trap! You feel as though you understand the topic because you are reading the exact information you are going to be tested on. So read actively and in short bursts: take some notes, try testing yourself on information, write questions and annotations for yourself, make cue cards, and try writing summaries after a reading. Even a few minutes of active reading is better than hours of passive reading!

  4. Summaries. Once you’ve been through a topic, write a short summary of major ideas and reflect on how you feel about the material. This will help you remember what you just learned and guide you: if you’re struggling to summarize, or have forgotten key ideas, the next time you review the same material you know exactly what you should focus on! 

As we head into the last stretch before exam season, make sure to give yourself a well-deserved break for finishing this grueling month of university! Mental exhaustion is very common at this time of the year so please do take care of yourselves and set some time each day to do something that you like. Hopefully, these tips will help you study a little more efficiently as final assignments and exams approach. See you next time!

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Peer blog: Academic dual citizenship: My experience as a student and TA

Kate, PhD Psychology, Year 1 

Happy November, everyone! Here we are, about 75% done with the fall term. Whether you are in the first year of your undergrad or fourth year of your PhD, I can guarantee we are all thinking the same thing: how the heck did I do that? By this point, you have likely handed in a few assignments, completed a few midterms, and, if you’re a TA, graded roughly 7000 assignments and/or midterms. So far, I have quite enjoyed being a dual citizen in academia. By this, I am referring to my status as both a Queen’s student and employee. As a student, I get the opportunity to learn about the things I am truly interested in and, as a TA, I get the opportunity to teach about the same. It’s a win-win situation.

This semester, I am taking the “Biological Bases of Behaviour” course. One of the required assignments was a press release in which we had to translate a recently published scientific article into layman’s terms for a non-scientific audience. The task seemed daunting, but I was intrigued by the challenge. These sorts of writing projects force us, as students, to flex different muscles than what we’re used to, especially because academic writing can be very formulaic. For example, lab reports begin with an introduction, followed by methods, results, discussion, and conclusion. After several years of writing lab reports, this style becomes ingrained in our brains. But then, every once in a while, a professor throws a curveball, like this assignment, which requires us to break the mould and get a little creative.

Press releases allow you to draw on a slew of literary practices otherwise frowned upon in scientific writing. Adjectives? What are those? Personal commentary? You wouldn’t dare! Definitive statements?! I wasn’t sure I even remembered how to write one. Nevertheless, I forged ahead on this journey reintroducing myself to the world of creative writing. As I began to write, I was nagged by the thought of: “well, don’t just summarize it,” which, ironically, is something I often tell my students when they review journal articles. So, naturally, the first thing I did was write a summary of the article. I then turned to SASS’s writing resource about avoiding plot summaries for guidance on what to do next. Although this blog specifically discusses how to avoid summarizing stories, not experimental studies, the key strategies were directly applicable to this assignment: you must provide just enough detail to situate the reader. and then focus on discussing the importance, rather than the story line, of the article. All said and done, I was proud of what I created and received very positive feedback from my professor!

My favourite aspect of TAing is interacting with the students. However, due to COVID-19, I knew this might not be possible because professors were forced to tweak their approaches to teaching. Unfortunately for us TAs, this meant that many professors eliminated the synchronous lab/tutorial components from their curriculum. Although I completely understand why this had to happen given the constraints of distance learning, I was crushed to find out my weekly 3-hour lab sessions had been whittled down to a mere 1 office hour per week. I have been a TA for 2.5 years now, yet this is the first TAship in which I have had almost no face-to-face discourse with the students. On the bright side, this teaching experience (or lack thereof) has only reinforced my fondness for in-person teaching! I look forward to, one day, being able to TA labs in which I can physically be in the same room as the students again!

Well, we made it another month. This is a reminder to celebrate your accomplishments, big and small! With our busy schedules, it is easy to overlook the small things (like receiving positive feedback from your professor), but I challenge you to truly acknowledge the amount of time and effort you put into each feat, and don’t be afraid to bask in the glory of your own triumphs!  A few weeks ago, I presented at my first conference which was a big milestone. I am going to share with you what my supervisor shared with me: take some time to enjoy the success, you deserve it!

See you next month!

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