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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.

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I Don’t Know How to Sail (A Half Truth)

Sarah, Health/Environmental Studies, Class of 2022

I’m not a fan of inspirational quotes. In all honesty, I find them tacky. Over the first quarantine in April, after my exams, I found myself staring at the ceiling, desperate for any inspiration in the unknown that was going to be my summer. No internship, exchange cancelled, summer courses looming, hoping for the chance to serve people coffee again (if I am one character from Friends, it’s Rachel. But only Rachel saying, “I’m getting coffee and it’s not even for me”). Exhausted, I combed through the depths of my laptop, going through archived notes, hoping to find some chink of light. I found this quote I wrote down from Little Women: “I am not afraid of storms for I’m learning how to sail my ship.” I broke my rule on inspirational quotes.

Cover of novel Little Women

I have wanted to learn to sail for years. That comes as no secret to those who know me, and to those who have been following these posts (the ocean analogies had to come from somewhere!). That being said, I have no idea how to sail, as circumstance has limited my learning opportunities. Even though the task itself isn’t something, I’m ready to get going when I can—and I know that the belief in your ability to carry out the task is, as with all things, going to be vital. This belief is known as task self-efficacy.

Task self-efficacy is a theory drawn from health promotion, which aims to promote and enable healthy behaviours. The idea fits under the broader range of self-efficacy, defined as the belief we have in our ability to complete something. Self-efficacy is foundational. Scholars argue that it’s the believing in ourselves that kickstarts the behaviour change itself. That belief doesn’t always come from an instantaneous “aha” moment; it can take a lot of work to mold. This molding is achieved through tools called “behaviour change techniques” (BCTs). In theory, you can use BCTs to influence task self-efficacy and, in turn, affect behaviour outcome.

So, why the crash course in health behaviour change?

I’d argue that a lot of core concepts in health behaviour change are applicable to adapting to the online learning environment. Everyone has been through a crash course in online learning this semester. For better or for worse, the fall semester is over. The fall semester gives us a benchmark on how we did with this transition, what we need to do to improve or maintain our current learning strategies. We can think of online learning as the task that we’ve undertaken. I know at the beginning we all felt like we had no sense of self-efficacy when it came to online learning. But the task is done, and again, for better or for worse, we have a benchmark idea of our abilities. The point being, we did it. In and of itself, that shows we got through it, and we can do it again. I’d say that because we have this benchmark, we will be able to do better. Like how way back in first year, none of us knew what we were doing, but by third year, we have (mostly) figured it out. The same applies now. Your belief in yourself, and attempts to evaluate your progress and set new goals, will help you improve this semester.

On that note, I’ve taken 3 main lessons away from last semester.

(1) You need to take of yourself.

At Student Academic Success Services, we often discuss how there are a lot of things that influence academic performance in students. It’s why we emphasize getting good sleep, eating right, and exercise. Essentially, following the 24-Hour Movement Guidelines, published this year by the School of Kinesiology & Health Studies is a great roadmap for how to stay healthy. But the key to using those guidelines is the promise to yourself to take care of yourself. I’m not talking face masks, takeout, and binging Netflix (while those might help!). Not committing to taking care of your health and well-being is a sure way to have a miserable time at university, and to struggle with your academic work. I am irony embodied in this case: I’m a health student and blogger who hasn’t done this as effectively as I could have been with online learning. I’ve actively identified areas of my daily routines, both academic and non-academic, that need improvement to promote my overall well-being. Make some small commitment right now to improve your wellbeing. It could be a five-minute walk, making one healthy choice at your next mealtime, or going to bed just a few minutes earlier today. Even small changes will help.

(2) Stay in touch with professors and TAs.

I never used to go to office hours or talk to TAs. When content was confusing, or assignments unclear, I blamed myself for not being smart enough to figure it out on my own. Online school has made me come out of that bubble. It’s made me go to office hours (sometimes just for the sake of virtual human interaction) and ask questions. It’s made me get to know my professors a little bit more, deconstructing the “larger than life” academic persona my various high school teachers have burned into my memory as what to expect from professors. Profs are people too, who often want to see students asking questions, being curious and inquisitive (with a laugh or two in between as conversations go). Online assignment instructions can be confusing, and there isn’t shame in asking a TA or professor for clarification. Utilize your e-mail, OnQ discussion boards, office hours – don’t be afraid to just say, “I don’t get this,” and explain why. Your ego might be bruised asking for help, but your grades will not be.

(3) Prioritize.

As brilliant a student as I am (or maybe not…), I have difficulty prioritizing. I take a lot on because I have such a strong drive to make the most of my university experience. Thus, I work really long hours. I have a friend whose father is a professor. He often checks in with me and asks if I’m doing okay because I seem “very stressed.” There are times where I wish I had my planner on me to show him just how packed my days are. My reality is there are a lot of things in my day I cannot change. I have to work to support myself, I have to do classwork, I have to do well in said classes to keep my financial aid – there is every reason to be stressed and have a packed day. To combat this evident stress, I’ve begun thinking within the specific framework of this BCT called “Framing/Reframing”. This BCT calls on us to deliberately take on a new perspective of our behaviour to change the way we feel about the behaviour. So, instead of cursing my inability to say no, I frame my days with this sentence: “There are only 24 hours in a day, and I come first.” With this reframing, I adopt a mantra of “look at the work I have the privilege of doing”, instead of “I have so much to do.” The reality and busy nature of my days won’t change, but my attitude and behaviour can.

It’s okay not to know how to sail your ship. It’s the experience of figuring out the task itself, using transferable skills, and building confidence, that gives you enough strength to weather whatever academic storm comes at you. And with winter term over, I know collectively, we have the strength to do this again. Hopefully, for the better.

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