What I Actually Learned in My First Semester at UVic

With my first semester of university now solidly behind me, it’s time to reflect back on some of the most important, hilarious, and difficult lessons that I’ve learned over the past four months.

As I’m sure you can imagine, many of these lessons weren’t just communicated to me within the walls of a 200-seat first-year lecture hall (although some certainly were).

They came in the form of late-night conversations with unexpected friends, thought-provoking TED Talks, and disagreements that morphed into mutual understandings. They came from trying out the advice that I never wanted to admit I needed. They came from taking risks, and finally being a little more honest with myself.

A beautiful view from Pender Island during one of my weekend adventures. Victoria is just off in the distance…


#1 Vulnerability is not weakness.

I’ll be the first person to admit that after graduating high school, I thought that I was very prepared for just about anything that life could throw at me. I knew what I was passionate about, I was confident in my ability to work hard and achieve what I set my mind to, and I was determined to prove myself to the world. While I’m still as ambitious and hopelessly optimistic as ever, I think it’s fair to say that university smacked me squarely in the face. In the best possible way…

In university, I immediately found myself surrounded by thousands of other intelligent, motivated, hardworking, and accomplished young people. My identity was reduced to a 9-digit number, and I no longer had my reputation to fall back on. At the same time, as I interacted with more diverse people and became exposed to new perspectives and ideas, I found myself questioning a lot of the beliefs that I had once held so firmly. Though terrifying at first, this turned out to be absolutely essential.

I’ve learned that it’s perfectly fine to not be the best at anything, and that having questions can be just as valuable as having the answers. I’ve learned to embrace vulnerability as a courageous opportunity for personal growth, rather than an indication of weakness.

#2 We are society.

As a Geography and Environmental Studies student, many of my courses explore the causes, effects, and potential solutions of pertinent global issues, from climate change and food insecurity, to poverty and the refugee crisis. After studying some of these issues in greater depth, it became apparent to me that many of their underlying causes are ultimately rooted in unequal social and economic systems that are so much bigger than any one of us individually.

I will never forget the day that my Introduction to Environmental Studies professor forced us to accept that individual action will never be enough to solve the current environmental crisis. She cited the fact that even if every person in the country committed to all of the individual actions recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency, only a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions would be achieved. To mitigate global climate change, more than an 80% reduction is needed. As a bicycle-riding, thrift-shopping, tree-planting vegan like me, this was admittedly devastating. And infuriating. I had been fighting for years to do everything in my power to create positive social and environmental change, and here I was learning that all of my effort had been for nothing?

Once the shock factor wore off, I sat with this knowledge a little while longer and eventually reached a satisfactory conclusion. I now choose to believe that while my individual choices may not be overly significant for society at large, I know how crucial it is for me to live a life that aligns with my values and supports the future that I want to see. Meanwhile, I also understand that positive change will have to come from many people, at many different levels — from the personal, all the way to the political. This is an exciting opportunity that I look forward to being a part of.

#3 This is not a fight.

This directly ties into my previous lesson. Did you catch me saying that I had been fighting for years to create positive change? As a young person today, it often feels like there’s a lot of pressure on our generation to somehow un-do decades of environmental damage and social injustice. Consequently, it’s all too true that many of us reach the conclusion that achieving change will require us to lace up our boots, rally the troops, and prepare for a long, bloody battle against ‘the system.’ I can certainly relate to this sentiment — it’s overwhelming, intimidating, and scary.

Alternatively, I’ve learned that it might be more beneficial for us to change the metaphor that we use when approaching social activism. Once we allow ourselves to stop fighting, we can start celebrating positive change as a gradual, consistent, and inevitable process.  

This is not a fight, because there is no end, and there are no winners. There will never be a day when the world’s problems are all suddenly solved. There is no ‘us’ against ‘them’- at the end of the day, we’re all in this together.

#4 Write your own rules.

What is success? What does it mean to be a good student? What’s your vision of an ideal lifestyle? What do you need to truly be happy? In university, I learned that there’s no right way to do life. It’s all about figuring it out, and making it work for you.

Who says that everyone learns the same way? I built my own standing desk in my Cluster room, take all of my notes by hand using colourful Sharpie pens, and frequently knit socks during lectures (especially on Fridays — it’s a good incentive to get myself to class on days when I’m really just not feeling it).

Who says that you have to complete your degree in four consecutive years? I was initially surprised by how many students I talked to at UVic who were studying part-time while also pursuing rewarding jobs, or students who had taken one or two (or three or four) years off to travel, explore, or just get their mental health in check at some point during their degree.

Who says that you have to participate in the mainstream food system? By getting in on the local dumpster-diving scene in Victoria, my roommates and I have succeeded in minimizing our living costs while enjoying a plethora of delicious, healthy food that otherwise would’ve been wasted.

Who says that you need a nice house or lots of material possessions to be happy? As a student living far away from home, I now share close living quarters with three other (legitimately wonderful) roommates, and can carry all of my worldly possessions in a big backpack plus a duffle bag. Cutting back on the amount of stuff in my life has left more time for meaningful social interactions, and encouraged me to value the simple things.

The sun just trying to break through over Victoria. Perhaps a sign of more good things to come?

While these lessons are very much still a work in progress, I can honestly say that my first semester at UVic has taught me far more than I ever could’ve imagined. As I continue forward in the many semesters to come, I have no doubt that my thoughts and perspectives will continue to change with me. As a very wise new friend of mine once said, “It is always a process of becoming.”

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2 Responses

  1. Helenah says:

    Hi Hannah! How can I come in contact with you? It seems we have a lot in common. 🙂

  2. Hannah says:

    Hi Helenah! I’m so glad that you can relate to some of my thoughts. I can contact you via the email address that you submitted with the comment. I just sent you a note! I hope to be in touch soon.