When the glamour of frosh week fades, most first-year students are left to navigate the transition from high school student to university level critical-thinker. First-years are immediately immersed in a massive network of different subcultures, ranging from small study groups to a myriad of student clubs, organizations, politics, and beyond. The biggest challenge for first-year students following September—besides the actual school work—will be tunneling through the academic and social madness to establish a sense of belonging. The most important part of this process involves using as many educational tools and resources as possible. You are paying for it, after all.


Professor Robert Brym, Associate Chair of the Undergraduate Sociology Department and longtime professor of the standard first-year class SOC101Y1, pointed out that the university experience has changed drastically. When asked about his own first-year university experience, Brym noted the difference in student-professor interactions. While he quickly developed close relationships with his professors, Brym observed that today’s students are turning more towards their peers for help with educational issues.


Brym acknowledged, however, the current difficulties faced by students—in part due to the “subtle distances” some professors create by focusing solely on research projects: “This is a large, research-intensive university, and that can sometimes create an educational environment that isn’t very inviting.” Despite this, Brym is optimistic that over time the close relationships between faculty and students will be rebuilt. For this to happen, Brym stressed the need to “shrink the classroom” to encourage more discussion in lectures, and respond to the growing trend of students who feel disconnected from their educational experience.


“I went [into my undergraduate degree] knowing that I wanted to major in women’s studies,” said Professor Sarah Trimble, faculty member of the Women’s and Gender Studies Institute at U of T. Despite being initially set on a major, Trimble added: “I think that [in university], the further you go, the less certain you are about everything.”


Trimble’s point is valid, considering the number of students who enter first year without necessarily knowing what they will major in; this struggle to find their footing is intensified by overwhelming campuses, which can hinder educational growth in later years. Trimble suggested that students should re-evaluate how they envision their university education, and most importantly, develop critical-thinking skills and engage with material early on.


The first year at university may not come across as entirely serious, but before the end of fourth year, it is important to remember that what you put in, you get out. It may be difficult to land that dream job with just an undergraduate degree in today’s job market, but the most important thing to take away from university—combined with the ups and downs of young adulthood—is the skills, relationships, and experiences you create.


Professor Trimble articulated why one should care about finding their sense of belonging and purpose as students and critical thinkers: “Things happen and we need to be able to respond to the claims of the world.” Indeed, as first-year students enter their second month of university, they will need to start formulating their own perceptions and claims of the world⏤and hopefully, discover what higher education ultimately has in store.


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