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Guest Post: An Open Letter to My Son, On Starting University

Dear Owen,
When you were accepted to Dalhousie, one of my first thoughts was “welcome to my world!”
I’ve been around universities all of my life. I was born in Berkeley, where my parents had met as graduate students. I vividly remember childhood visits to my father’s office in UBC’s Old Administration Building: I had no idea what work he did there, but I loved the hushed yet busy atmosphere and the cabinets full of stationery supplies. My parents used to pick us up from elementary school at lunch time so we could attend the Music Department’s noon-hour concerts; when I went to University Hill Secondary School (which, as its name implies, was on the periphery of the campus) the university library, cafeterias, bookstore, and pool all became familiar territory. Without really knowing it, I was internalizing a culture, a way of life, that I went on to explore further as a university student and which I now inhabit fully as a professor myself. Though I’m at the opposite side of our (very wide) nation from where I began, in this respect at least I’m still very much at home.
It’s not as if you haven’t also been around universities all of your life, of course. You were born literally across the street from the Dalhousie campus, in a teaching hospital affiliated with the university’s medical school. You went to many summer camps at Dalhousie — what a treat it always was to visit you on the quad at lunch time! You’ve hung out with me at my office and attended workshops and special events here. Over the years you’ve also overheard endless conversations between your two professor parents about our academic work: about our students, about our colleagues, about our professional commitments, but also about the passionate interests that motivated us to take up this work in the first place.
You aren’t exactly a stranger to this world, then. But it’s different now, because this time it’s about you, not me.
I’ve been surprised by how emotional I get contemplating your move to university. It’s not just that you are literally moving, into residence, though that’s part of it: the room that has been yours for so many of your 18 years will feel more than empty. It’s not just that I’m worried about how well you’ll take care of yourself without a bit of nudging, though of course that’s part of it too, because moms fret (“this mom especially,” I hear you saying, with a hint of irritation)(but seriously, you won’t forget to floss, will you?). No, what’s both exciting and unsettling is knowing what a period of discovery this will be for you, and thus, inevitably, for us, as we all find out who you are really going to be and where you’re going to go from here. We’ve brought you this far, but from now on we will recede, rightly, from the foreground of your life — we will be formative but not definitive influences on you. “Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending,” George Eliot wisely observed: while for you this is a beginning, for me it is also an ending, and so my celebration is inevitably tinged with poignancy.
It turns out, then, that I’m not really welcoming you into my familiar world: I’m watching you make it yourworld. Don’t think, though, that this means I don’t have any advice for you! After all, I’ve still been around universities a lot longer than you — and I’m still your mom. So here are my top tips, for you and for anyone on the brink of this big adventure.
First of all, take care of yourself (did I mention flossing? healthy gums, healthy mind!).
Second, take care of your business — by which I mean the business of your education. My specific tips here might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how much they matter, and how many students disregard them, sometimes until it’s too late.
1.     Go to class. Boring or entertaining, simple or challenging, that’s what you are there for, and you won’t always be the best judge of the value of the time you spend in the room.
2.     Do the work, including all the readings. Remember the immortal words of Raymond Chandler: “There are no dull subjects, only dull minds.” Make it interesting.
3.     Be present — not just physically, but mentally. Sometimes this will take effort. Make the effort.
4.     Talk to your professors. That’s what they are there for — and there’s nothing they like better than talking to a student who is trying to know more, understand more, do more with the subject they have dedicated their lives to. (Remember how I light up when I talk about Middlemarch? Every professor has a Middlemarch, and you will learn the most from them when they talk about it. If you ever want to listen when I talk about Middlemarch, you will learn something from me too!)
5.     If you don’t know something, or if you need something, ask someone. This applies in class, but also across campus: in your residence, at the library, at the counselling center, or at the gym. Just because it’s up to you now doesn’t mean you’re on your own.
I miss you already, but I also couldn’t be more excited for you. Learn a lot, have a wonderful time, and when you’re ready, invite me over and tell me what it’s like for you.

Department of English, Dalhousie University
Read Rohan’s amazing blog Novel Readings here

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