My first-year is almost over. Again.
I’m 25 years old, and I’m in first year again – in a different field of study, but at the same campus as my last degree. This is my 7th year in a university. Reading this post by Aimée made me want to reflect on my years since leaving home for the Ivory towers, and my development as both a student and as a person.
My “real” first year was in 2004, where I was a bewildered West Coast transplant on a university campus in a smallish town in Ontario. That year was too new and too over-stimulating to reflect upon. I remember learning how to make mac and cheese for the first time in a residence kitchen, going on my first awkward date with an engineer, and going to a Finnegan’s Wake reading group and not understanding a thing.
I was in first year again in 2008, starting my Master’s degree in a new city and a new campus. That time, I was no longer a naive teenager not knowing how to do basic adult things. But I felt overwhelmed in a different sense – from knowing my professors intimately to having trouble connecting to a new group, from the comfort of a small anglophone town to the foreign “city” where most people spoke in a language and accent I couldn’t fathom.
This time? I feel so much better – albeit still a bit unsettled as first years tend to be. The law program at McGill presents factors that appear contradictory and a little disorienting as a result. I’m now pursuing a degree that is kind of like a post-graduate degree (many people already hold Bachelor’s, Master’s, and some even PhDs) but not (in its designation as a “bachelor’s” and the presence of post-CEGEP students pursuing their first university degree). It’s two degrees at once, purporting to be “transsystemic” that is meant to teach you about two legal systems in one program. It’s a bilingual degree where “bilingualism” really means “passive” bilingualism where you don’t have to express yourself in the other language.
Being a first year again meant pushing myself to limits and places I hadn’t been to before. Pushing myself to work the hardest I’ve ever done in many, many years – yes, even harder than that Master’s. Pushing myself to write multiple drafts when I only wanted to stop at the first one. Pushing myself to read one more article on a topic I didn’t understand when I wanted to stop. Pushing myself to do the French reading when I wanted to copy-pasted it into Google Translate or look at past summaries. Pushing myself to talk to strangers at minglers, and pushing through the first few seconds of awkwardness.
It’s also been about allowing myself to feel imperfect and uncomfortable. Allowing myself to feel lost in concepts and feel overwhelmed by so many Latin phrases. Allowing myself to make mistakes in my writing, subsequently see the weakness in my writing – yes, writing! for this English major! – and address them as best as I can. Allowing myself to admit that I don’t know, that I am no longer in control. Allowing myself to accept the results that were not always the best. Allowing myself to close my book and watch an episode of Boardwalk Empire or go to the gym even though I had not finished my readings. And allowing myself to still see my friends without too much guilt – there is never no guilt – because it is important to be a good person that makes me feel whole, rather than focusing too much on being a good student.
Sometimes it’s a little bit of both – allowing myself to feel disappointed, frustrated, but also pushing myself through those feelings to a better place.
Last month, I finished my first pieces of first-year legal writing assignments, and felt the anxiety of doing something I had never done before. It’s always an interesting experience – telling your brain to think and organize in a different way, to orient your thoughts in a way that you had never thought possible.
I’m studying for my first set of law school exams – and my first exams in 3 years. I am making coherent study notes of everything I’ve read instead of banging out a 20-page paper and reading a ton of Judith Butler. I go through the daily grind of stressing over the information I have not yet mastered, and procrastinating over Facebook and Globe and Mail browsing for something – anything! – more interesting than my own notes. But then I feel the moments of joy when I finally “get” something, when I can check off a month’s worth of notes off as having been reviewed.
So all in all, first year for the third time feels pretty good.