Ten Things I Learned in Ten Semesters: A Post-Graduation Retrospect

WE MADE IT, FOLKS. WE’RE OUT OF THE WOODS.

I sent in my completed 30-page comic book Honours Thesis on April 19th, one day after my 23rd birthday. My academic year and my solar year came to a close at exactly the same time. And then I ran off to Massachusetts to be with my partner for a week and a half, and to cleanse myself of all the hard work and hand cramps I’d accumulated over the past three weeks/three months/five years.

Five years. That’s how long I’ve spent here at Glendon. At this moment in my life, five years is a significant chunk of time. It’s memorable. It is, hilariously, approximately 23% of my life so far. Now there’s a fractal for you.

With big things like this—milestones, major accomplishments, life events—a good dose of closure always helps to ease the transition. So I’m giving myself the chance to pay tribute to my five years at Glendon through a wrap-up post. A comprehensive review, a longitudinal study, a critique and a celebration. Ultimately, a celebration. The goodbye will come—it’ll come next week, with my final post. But this, the penultimate, it’s here to party.

So. Ten things I’ve learned in ten semesters. Ten lessons for five years, in roughly chronological order. Let’s see what we can dredge up.

Year One, Semester One: Responsibility

Whether it was social responsibility (making and maintaining new friendships), or academic responsibility (making course choices), or financial responsibility (choosing to drop one course despite the fact that we were past the refund date), or plain old responsibility for the self—the first lesson was all about the price that comes with independence. There’s no one to yell up the stairs that it’s dinnertime, no one to remind you to do laundry (or to do it for you), no one to care for you if you fall ill, no one to dictate your schedule in any way. It’s all on you. Some of it might end up on your friends, if you have wonderful caring friends, but even then, most of it is on you. The first lesson was that responsibility isn’t something to be afraid of—in fact, it’s the opposite. Responsibility means control. It means agency. The more responsibility you have, the more agency you get. The more responsibility you take, the more valuable you become.

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Year One, Semester Two: Enthusiasm

Once I had myself at least somewhat oriented towards university life, the second lesson was to jump into every opportunity that presented itself. When you’re only just beginning a journey, it pays off to say YES to everything, even things you’re unsure of or nervous about. Not much of a dance person? Go to one pub night, just to say you did. Get offered a position on an executive board of a club? Jump on it. Think you’re too junior to fit in at an upper-year lecture or reading? Go anyway. (I just realized that I met the professor I had for this year’s Advanced Writing class in my FIRST YEAR—I went to a book reading and was the only student attending who wasn’t part of his class. Full circle.) You have boundless energy and potential and nothing is fixed or certain at this point. It’s time to get your fingers into as many pies as possible, and taste-test them all now, so you can find out which ones you want a bigger slice of later.

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Year Two, Semester One: Faith

This is the semester I finished the first draft of the first part of my novel. This is the semester I reconnected with my partner after over a year of radio silence. This is the semester I went to Japan for a week with my work-study group to present at an international linguistics conference. Having done my taste-test, the third lesson was to latch onto the things that made me feel the most passionate, the most perseverant, the most alive, and to pour my heart and soul into them. Once you find your projects—whether they’re professional, artistic, interpersonal, or anything else—feed them with all the faith you’ve got. Faith that other people will find your work interesting. Faith that a relationship is going to be an adventure worth going on. Faith that you can manage, you can handle, you can take anything they throw at you, no matter how big and overwhelming it seems or how young and inexperienced you feel. The only way to become experienced is to gather experience. Have faith you will figure it out.

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Year Two, Semester Two: Commitment

By now, things are becoming clearer. What you like and dislike, what resonates with you and what doesn’t—and also, what doesn’t resonate with you any longer. Two years is long enough not just to form a pattern, but to see that pattern break and change as you grow up and out. When I say the fourth lesson was about commitment, I don’t just mean it was about learning how to commit, I mean it was about understanding what commitments I had previously formed, about acknowledging that some commitments are long-term and others are not, about learning how to put a commitment down with grace. This is the semester I realized my commitment with my first work-study had run its course, that my interests were changing and taking me elsewhere. It was also the semester I committed to spend the summer doing the 200 hours of training necessary to certify me as a yoga instructor. It was the semester where a lot of my most important relationships switched around in prioritization. And it showed me that in order to truly master commitment to anything, you need to understand and respect the impact any commitment will have on the whole of your life. Learn to latch on, and learn to let go. Use both as necessary.

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Year Three, Semester One: Humility

All that self-confidence is only useful so long as it doesn’t turn to arrogance, or to egotism. No matter how much you learn, you need to remember there’s an infinite amount you don’t yet know; no matter how comfortable you feel in your domain, you need to remind yourself now and again that some things are out of your control. I have a tendency to think I’ve got everything locked down, and this semester taught me the difficult lesson that I don’t. The fifth lesson: as powerful as you are, you need to accept when something is no longer in your hands (or indeed, was never in your hands to begin with). You need to accept your own weakness, your own failure, your own vulnerability, your own imperfection. This is the semester I failed my exam and earned my infamous B+. It’s also the semester I enrolled in Case Studies in Canada’s Aboriginal Languages, and had my whole worldview thrown into disarray. These experiences paved the way for who I am today—but in order to learn from them, I had to approach them with humility. I had to be willing to mess things up a bit.

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Year Three, Semester Two: Patience

This semester had a lot of interpersonal conflict, and a lot of obstacles in the way of accomplishing projects. It was also the first time I had a real struggle with Seasonal Affective Disorder—or at least, the first time it impacted me negatively enough for me to take notice. Lesson number six, at this point in the game, was to be patient. To wait it out. To be able to sacrifice instant gratification for long-term fulfillment. At the time, I thought I had one year left to go, and that’s always the moment when you start getting antsy. When you’ve got a mere fraction of work left in order to end something, that’s when every obstacle starts being disproportionately irritating, when ‘what if I just drop it and start over’ becomes more and more of a tantalizing option. New things are shiny and romantic and untouched by the imperfections of the reality that is living them—but what you’ve already got? What you’ve worked on for so long? That’s solid. That’s got real merit. And if you can hold out for it, the rewards will be significant and lasting. Whether it’s in your courses, or your relationships, or your career, or your art, be patient with the rough patches. They will pass. Everything does, in the end.

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Year Four, Semester One: Community

This was the semester everything really came together for me. I’d just wrapped up a summer working as a monitor for Explore, alongside a three-week trip to Massachusetts to see Anna, and I was coming into the school year with not one but two dream jobs: Pro Tem’s Layout Designer, and your very own Glendon eAmbassador. All of my jobs and the connections that they fostered taught me lesson number seven, which was the value of community. I’d been a solitary creature for most of my life, and certainly for a lot of my school life, but now I was finally starting to be a little more social. And the relationships that came out of this socializing paved the way for all sorts of adventures and conversations and heart-warming moments. This is lesson the seventh: everything is better when shared. Find people to share with. If you find the right ones, the ones that appreciate you just right, then even the most trivial mundanities of life become delightful.

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Year Four, Semester Two: Adaptability

Younger sister of humility, and cousin to Flow—this semester was the hardest of all. It required that I make use of everything I’d learned so far to make decisions with huge impacts on my life, decisions like whether to take a fifth year or summer school, whether to continue living in residence or to find a home elsewhere, and whether or not to drop a course I’d built with my own two hands. (Yeah, that’s right—did you know I created and subsequently dropped an Independent Study in between the first successful one and my Honours Thesis?) These changes weren’t playful or small, they meant business. It took a lot of deep breathing and reminders to “roll with it” to get through. So here is lesson the eighth, quoted straight from my book: “life is transformation. You change, or you die.” Sometimes things really will work out how you envisioned them—but almost every time, they won’t. You need to leave some wiggle room. You can’t make your plans airtight. You need to allow space for the Glorious Unknown.

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Year Five, Semester One: Empowerment

Everyone still thinks a degree is ‘supposed’ to last four years, so making the decision to take an extra year placed me firmly in the ‘unorthodox’ camp—one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. A note: I know more people who take five years, or six, or three, than the ‘standard’ four years of a post-secondary undergraduate. I know someone who took almost a decade to finish his bachelor’s because he kept taking time off to pursue one artistic project or another. It hasn’t hurt him in the slightest—if anything else, it’s made his life all the richer. The same goes for me. This is the semester I consciously chose to front my artistic passions, to make it clear to the world what I actually cared about and to build structures and rituals that would support those passions when the going got tough. It’s the semester I finally started meditating regularly, the semester I bought a day planner and devised a pseudo-bullet-journal system that’s served me impeccably to this day. It’s the semester I embarked on my Honours Thesis. It was a time full of choices made for no one except me, and it taught me lesson number nine: this world is full of systems, most of which are old enough and powerful enough that you don’t even notice them. But you need to take note, and to challenge them, and sometimes to destroy and rebuild them in your favour. It’ll shake you, and you will have doubts, but ultimately, the personal power you gain is worth the fight to gain it.

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Year Five, Semester Two: Grace

Because what else could come after empowerment, except learning to use that power gracefully? This was a dead sprint, and an incubation period, all in one. I had to juggle lots of responsibilities at once, and then I had to narrow down and obsess over one responsibility in particular; I had to learn to handle the consequences of both spontaneous actions and pre-mediated plans. I had to take stock of all the resources I had—all my influence, my finances, my friends, my wits—and invest them responsibly. I had to mature, to evolve. I had to let go of some dreams that I’d outgrown without noticing; I had to counter my own fantasies with practical expectations. I had to work with reality instead of against it. And I had to pay my respects to everyone and everything that got me here. The tenth and final lesson for the tenth and final semester: appreciate everything. Say thank you for the triumphs. Say thank you for the failures, because you’ve learned something. Say thank you for the joy. But say thank you for the suffering, because suffering means you’re alive to feel the suffering at all. Say thank you for everything, and watch the way that gratitude turns even the ugliest of situations into something that’s on your side.

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So there we have it. Choosing to attend university wasn’t my choice in the beginning—it was just another thing you do, part of the conveyor belt of life in this part of the world. But over time, it became my choice. I chose it over and over again, with every year, every semester, every class. And as time went on and I reflected on everything I was gaining, the choosing became more and more purposeful.

Now, we’re here. There is no rule book from here on out. Which I suppose is a good thing, given the overall lesson I’ve learned is how to make my own rules. I’m not ready—no one ever is—but I’m prepared. I hope this helps to prepare you, too.

Love, and graduation, and triumph,

~Sisi

 

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