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Peer Blog: Smooth Sailing – Finally?

Sarah, Health/Environmental Studies, Class of 2022

My housemate and I recently had an interesting conversation about how we feel as upper-year students. We’re third- and fourth-year students in wildly different programs (shout out to Computer Science majors: I have no idea what you all do, but I’m endlessly entertained by stories from my computer science housemate). In spite of all the challenges of this year, neither of us feels like school is a “dumpster fire” right now. But reflecting on this, we weren’t sure why at first. The content is certainly not getting any easier. At times, it isn’t even enjoyable. So it’s time to figure out why we both feel like we’re navigating calmer waters right now (if you’ve been following my blog, you know I love a sailing metaphor!).

But, before we get too into this, I’ll share a secret about myself. It’s not quite Gossip Girl worthy gossip, but it’ll help you understand my rough experience of sailing the academic sea. I came to Queen’s in 2016, intending to graduate as part of the Class of 2020. I didn’t know what I wanted to study. I was in a mixture of courses I found interesting: politics, French, film, and psychology. To the profs’ credit, the content was always interesting. But I didn’t fit in or feel good. I was living in residence, incredibly homesick, anxious, and procrastinating. I didn’t feel good enough because I didn’t know what I wanted to study or what was happening at university. It didn’t get better. After talking to my friends, family, residence don, and professors, I just felt like it wasn’t the right time for me to be at university. So I left Queen’s.

Many others find first-year to be rough sailing. Even when I came back in 2018, after getting some of what I like to call “life experience”, I still struggled. My comp sci housemate also struggled in first year, so we mutually pondered how far we had come: what are we doing right now, as upper-year students?

All of our ideas came down to self-efficacy, which I touched on in a previous blog. Self-efficacy is, in short, the belief you have in yourself to do something. Here’s how we’ve motivated ourselves to be self-efficacious in our academic and non-academic lives:

  1. We joined clubs

In first year (both times), I wouldn’t say I had any great belief in my ability to succeed academically. Thankfully, I joined a Queen’s club as a peer educator, which helped me develop my self-efficacy. I didn’t feel like I had a clue what I was doing in my courses, but being amongst like-minded peers in a club that I felt passionate about was what I needed to set myself up for success in my second semester. It continues to, even while I’m only connecting with clubs virtually. If you have been feeling like you want to get involved, I highly suggest it. Plenty of Queen’s clubs advertise throughout the school year and hiring often begins in both the winter and subsequent fall terms. Take a risk, join something you’ve had your eye on. It might be the things that makes your Queen’s experience even better! If you’re not sure where to start, chat to the folks at the Peer Support Centre: they’ll be able to hook you up!

2. Figure out “balance”

If you ask both of us as upper year students how we balance our time, we’d probably laugh and shrug. In our minds, we don’t recognize the change as radical. It’s been a slow process figuring out balance. We both reminisced with slight jealousy about the people we knew on our respective residence floors who appeared to have “balance” right out of the gate.

I personally didn’t figure out balance until a few weeks ago. My housemate figured it out after coming back from exchange in Finland last year. If you had to ask us what helped us feel like we had a grip on things, we would both say it was our ability to say no and prioritize. At the end of the day, balance looks different for everyone—so don’t buy into any myths about what “successful” Queen’s students do. For example, I like to prioritize at least one or two courses each day, a lunchtime walks, and I almost exclusively take my Zoom calls in the morning. My housemate likes to prioritize waking up early for a morning coffee, working 7:30-4 on school, and playing guitar at night. While I cannot do 7:30-4 because it doesn’t work with my balance, hear about how it works for my housemate doesn’t interfere with my belief that I personally best engage in my schoolwork in 25-minute repeated blocks with many, many breaks in between.

3. Reflect on your progress

Think about how, for many of us, the place we are at right now is the place we two years ago would have given anything to be at. In other words, take time to reflect on what you’re grateful your university experience has brought you. In times where I’m bogged down in epidemiology formulas and health policy readings, my brain drifts slightly. I often think back to how I started in first year. I often gave up on tedious or long readings because I would great frustrated over how much there was to understand. Looking back, I give myself a pat on the back: I’ve come a long way by experimenting with what works for me. A sentiment of “go you!” has been at the core of the intrinsic motivation that has gotten me through many formulas, discussion posts and readings. My self-talk, as opposed to being overly critical, has shifted to sounding like a very supportive friend.

It took a long time—almost four years—since my first go at academia to get here. Yet here I am, not too far from graduation. While there are many challenges ahead even in this semester, and there are many things to do, there’s still time to make this semester sail smoothly. Reflect on what’s going well, give yourself some positive self-talk and, if you need to do, sail your own path: what works for everybody else may not work for you.