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canadian university report - been there

Eight students who have been there offer advice based on their experience.zhang bo/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Months of applying to universities and jumping through hoops have finally paid off – you are on the road to earning an undergraduate degree.

But along with the excitement university life can offer may come nerves, fears and feelings of uncertainty.

The counselling service at Mount Royal University in Calgary, for instance, says new students may bring with them "a good many negative self-fulfilling prophecies ... widespread fears and problems," including concerns that university may be too difficult, they may have chosen the wrong major, or may have problems with fellow students, roommates or professors. Students living away from home for the first time may also get homesick.

"If some of these concerns sound familiar, take comfort," Mount Royal says in its online note to students. "Most other entering students share the exact same fears. Your concerns are normal transition pains."

Universities offer student counselling services, many with 24/7 support. But newcomers can also stand to learn from peers who have already experienced campus or online education life.

So we asked students and new graduates from across Canada to share their views on what they wish they had known before starting university.

Advice: Rise to challenges and it will pay off

Herbert Bempah, 21

University of New Brunswick (UNB), Fredericton

Fourth year, business administration

Goal: To get an MBA and go to law school

Mr. Bempah says he wishes he knew before arriving at UNB as an international student from Ghana, West Africa, that "university will be hard, will have its ups and downs, and there are moments where giving up would be very tempting."

He also wishes he had the mindset that "failing isn't a bad thing, after all," and it can motivate you to work harder.

Mr. Bempah also learned that a university education isn't just about getting a degree – it can also serve as an opportunity to gain valuable skills and begin networking.

Despite the initial culture shock, "attending university in Canada ... has been a crucial and integral part of my life," he says. "One of the most exciting parts has been meeting people of various walks of life, races, sexualities, beliefs and perspectives."

Advice: Take the time you need for mental health

Laura Cutmore, 25

Dalhousie University, Halifax

In second year of master of library and information studies (MLIS) (completed a bachelor of arts honours at University of King's College/Dalhousie in contemporary studies and psychology in 2015)

Goal: Work in a public library or for an environmental non-profit organization Ms. Cutmore says one of her regrets was believing others who said she had to complete her undergraduate degree at King's College in four years.

"It's absolutely not worth sacrificing mental health for a deadline that's unrealistic for a growing number of students," says Ms. Cutmore, who lives in Halifax, which is sometimes referred to by its Indigenous name, K'jipuktuk on unceded Mi'kmaq territory.

She says working, on top of being a full-time undergraduate student, prevented her from getting involved in issues she cared about because she had fears and anxiety that would have proved too challenging.

"It was only after I graduated and my mental health started to improve that I felt capable of learning more about social and environmental issues and finding ways to get engaged."

Ms. Cutmore took a year off school before starting her master's degree, and hasn't let her studies get in the way of her student and community activism, including as co-director of the Dalhousie Student Union Sustainability Office.

"And apart from being so much healthier and happier than I was in my undergrad, I'm also finding that I'm learning just as much through my activism and organizing work as through my formal education."

Advice: Access services and groups on campus

Shifrah Gadamsetti, 24

Mount Royal University, Calgary

Bachelor of arts in sociology program, third year (graduated with a bachelor of nursing in 2014, works as a registered nurse and is chair of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations)

Goal: To get a master's degree in public policy.

Only 16 when she started her bachelor of nursing at Mount Royal, Ms. Gadamsetti wishes she had learned sooner about all the services her school has to offer.

She recalls she and many other student newcomers became overwhelmed by academic and non-academic pressures, such as picking the right courses, navigating the online course platform, applying for financial aid, making friends and finding their way around campus.

"I wish I had known about the value of being connected. It wasn't until I slowly started getting more involved in campus life that I discovered all the services offered at my school ... everything from financial literacy workshops, to wellness management training, to clubs where I could meet like-minded people.

"Once I began plugging into the community through volunteering and joining clubs, my support networks and confidence grew, and I felt much more prepared to handle the demands of university."

Advice: Don't isolate yourself

Alyson Gher-White, 22

University of the Fraser Valley (UFV), Abbotsford, B.C.

Criminology and criminal justice program, third year

Goal: "I came out of high school wanting to be a lawyer, but ... have learned that there is much more we can do before we reach a courtroom."

Ms. Gher-White entered UFV thinking she needed to isolate herself from others and just focus on her studies to cope.

"I wish I knew that university was different from high school, and that I didn't have to be afraid to be me," she says.

"I spent my first semester shut inside due to my severe anxiety and other mental-health issues. I spent most of my time studying, and that eventually landed me in the hospital."

Over time, however, she came out of her shell, developing a love for politics "to help our current and future students."

"I wish I knew that your lived experiences matter just as much as your education. The experiences and connections you make at university can help you to find your passions and even change your life," she says, urging others to also "prioritize your health."

"If you met first-year Alyson, you wouldn't recognize me. ... University isn't easy, but the people and the life lessons make it worth it."

Advice: Put your learning to use through clubs, co-op and other ways

Grace Hamilton-Burge, 23

Acadia University, Wolfville, N.S.

Environmental science, fifth year

Goal: To possibly enter a graduate program

Ms. Hamilton-Burge wishes she had known sooner about the importance of quickly putting what you learn in university into practice and of connecting with relevant clubs and professors.

"I wish I had known that the knowledge you receive in university is just that, knowledge, until you really begin to apply it to your life and the world. ... The best way to ensure that knowledge sticks with you is to use it."

Ms. Hamilton-Burge, who is from Halifax, says she waited until her third and fourth years at Acadia to get involved in the Environmental Science program's club and talk to her professors. She has still managed to get into three co-operative education placements, taken an environmental science field course and conducted her honours work at Acadia.

"All these experiences have allowed me to really dive into my field, find out what I like, and better yet, what I don't like, so that I'm more prepared" for life after university.

Advice: Reach out to others for help and support

Faisal Hejazi, 22

Brock University, St. Catharines, Ont.

Graduated with a bachelor of applied science in 2016 and is president and CEO of the Brock students' union

Goal: Plans to become a lawyer with a focus on health policy

Mr. Hejazi wishes he had not listened to some of his highschool teachers who told him no one would care if he failed at university.

He says he was also told he could not depend on others for help, and "I would essentially be a number in a lecture hall.

"The idea of being completely independent was superimposed on me and further led me to think that I shouldn't be reaching out for advice and help from professors, other students and the various support groups on campus," says Mr. Hejazi, who immigrated to St. Catharines in 1998 from Amman, Jordan.

"I wish I would have known [entering university] that this is entirely untrue."

He advises incoming and current students to "step outside of your shell, take risks, ask questions, approach your professors, make new friends. ... Never feel alone because there are numerous outlets available that will ultimately help you succeed."

Advice: Know the full costs up front

Charlotte Kiddell, 26

Mount Saint Vincent University, Halifax

Graduated with a double major degree in psychology and English in May of 2016; now deputy chair of the Canadian Federation of Students

Goal: After completing her work with the CFS, including to help achieve universal postsecondary education, she hopes to pursue a career focusing on the principles of social justice

Coming from a low-income, singleparent family in Toronto, Ms. Kiddell wishes she had entered university with a better handle on the costs of attending university.

"As a high-school student, I was able to thrive in a public educational environment – meaning myself and anyone who wanted to learn could do so regardless of what was in their family's bank account."

She says she knew the cost of her tuition the first year, but was surprised that fees "would go up well beyond the rate of inflation.

"Average tuition in Nova Scotia is now $1,000 higher than when I started my degree. ... I don't think I could afford to attend university if I were graduating high school today."

Ms. Kiddell says she wishes university affordability would be a priority for governments. Last year, she made those feelings known to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who met with the outspoken student and nine other Canadians in one-on-one sitdowns to get their views on a range of topics, as part of a special TV program.

Advice: Know what you want

Shawna Wasylyshyn, 35

Athabasca University, Athabasca, Alta.

Bachelor of management program, fourth year

Goal: Continue as a sales manager or move into a different management position

Ms. Wasylyshyn wishes she knew what she wanted out of university before she enrolled right after graduating from high school in 1999.

"I didn't have a vision of where I wanted my education to take me or what type of career I would obtain," she says. "After two years, I left university so I could make sure I was taking the correct program."

In 2003, Ms. Wasylyshyn started working in customer service and sales, later becoming a district sales manager for Avon Canada, while also growing her family. She is now married and the mother of three children and one stepchild and lives in St. Albert, just northwest of Edmonton.

Years after first attending university, Ms. Wasylyshyn transferred her credits to Athabasca University, which specializes in online distance education, and where she has been students' union president since May of 2015.

She says she wished she had tapped into the growing world of distance, or online, learning sooner, because it is a convenient yet still-challenging way for students to earn accredited degrees without attending bricks-and-mortar schools.

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