ELHAM NUMAN/THE VARSITY

In the fall, U of T will welcome hoards of eager frosh waiting for the university experience to turn their lives upside down. This summer series of personal essays delves into the minds of seasoned upper-year students, and everything they never expected to learn.


 

Knock, knock.

Pencil down, book closed. Seven hours of organic chemistry passed me by. I looked down. I was still wearing pajamas from last night. It occurred to me that maybe I should change before answering the door.

Or maybe not.

I answered the door. Dressed up and ready to explore, two of my closest friends in first-year residence asked, “Want to come with us?”

Yes!

I gestured to my outfit. “Sorry, I have a date with my textbook,” I replied.

If I were to summarize most of my first year university experience, it would be exactly like that — a series of invitations from friends and followed by a polite declination from me.

My high school life was an endless cycle of self-loving and self-loathing. I was obsessed with perfection — perfecting my skills and my grades. However, I was also my worst critic — brutally honest and inescapable. No matter how well I did, nothing I did was good enough for me.

University came around and I was determined to succeed. I’ve always succeeded, I thought. University shouldn’t be too different. What a joke — first year in Life Sciences hit me hard. I’ve never felt that much of a failure in my entire life.

I wanted to do well in my courses. I wanted a good number — a good mark — to make me stand out and feel like less of a number. However, the more I tried, the more I became the number I feared: student #151 out of 1000 in first-year biology, sitting behind rows and rows of medical and graduate school hopefuls that were just like me. There was nothing I could see to tell us apart.

I have always had a fear of oblivion. By the end of first year, it became my reality as I lost my sense of identity.

If I wasn’t the successful student that I once thought I was, then who was I?

Though the process was fraught, university has taught me that I am more than just a number.

I decided to turn things around in second year. I was mostly unhappy in first year, and I wanted to try balancing my academics with my social life instead. It was tough, but I was determined. It was a process that involved a lot of self-reflection and learning how to confide in people without feeling vulnerable, without thinking less of myself. Even to this day, it’s still an ongoing process.

As a result, I developed friendships I made back in first year, I made new friends, and I became more involved around campus. I have learned to genuinely love and care about people. I’ve made a second family here and they made me realize that I am worth so much more.

With my first-year prerequisites over with, in second year, I finally got a taste of my chosen programs. I no longer feel the need to go to my classes. I want to go to my classes, because I love what I am learning.

I used to let the numbers determine my worth. Though the process was fraught, university has taught me that I am more than just a number. My identity comes from the relationships I’ve made, my passions, my dreams, my insights, my interests — these are the qualities that make me who I am.

My grades are only a fraction of my identity. I no longer feel limited by the numbers I had attached to myself.

People are not as one-dimensional as I had once subconsciously thought.

I also started seeing my peers for who they are; the ranked scale that I once saw them in disappeared. I started seeing our differences.

She looks like she’s a good dancer, I thought. She has the posture for it and she’s light on her feet. She carries herself with the kind of confidence that only years of dance could give you. He seems like a keener — someone who I would once have thought of as a threat. Now it makes me wonder where he gets his drive from. He motivates me.

People are not as one-dimensional as I had once subconsciously thought. Instead of mindlessly introducing myself to people, in an attempt to have a class buddy or for the purpose of networking, I find myself wanting to peel back layer after layer of self-identity if they will let me. People surprise you. And often, they’re really good surprises.

We are complex. We are wonderful. University made me feel like a number, but I didn’t let it define me.

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