July 27, 2021

What I Wish I Knew My First Year

Recently, an incoming first-year student asked if I had any advice to prepare for their time at the University of Calgary. As I gave my answer, I wondered how others might have approached this question differently, based on lived experience, area of study, and campus involvement. I discussed this with other upper-year students to provide first-year Dino’s with a list of tips, tricks, and unsolicited advice on the UCalgary experience: this is what I wish I knew my first year.
School Girl with Book in front of natural rustic red brick background holding book up to her face

Emilee Bews, 4th Year English Major & Mental Wellbeing and Resiliency Certificate
"Explore all of your options; it could put you on a path that you never expected to be on." 

Sometimes students don't get admitted into their first-choice program, and while it can be disappointing, it does not define your educational journey. Four years ago, I was that student who had been rejected from (what I thought were) my top-choice programs. Not one, but two of them! I began university feeling disappointed in myself, discouraged academically, and in the undeclared Arts program. It's silly to think about now as I head into my final year, where I'll be graduating with a degree I never once considered before university. By exploring different options in my first year, I found my actual dream program and passion.   

I urge incoming students to take advantage of your open option credits, whether your major is declared or not. That period to explore all the university offers is precious, so find what interests you, creates excitement, sparks a passion, and makes you curious. You may fall in love with a path you never saw yourself taking, and that is entirely okay.


Lina Chhom, 5th Year Law & Society & Political Science Major
"Think about each class like a puzzle piece that fits into the larger picture of your degree."  

The path to obtaining your degree is a marathon, not a sprint - don't burn yourself out in that first year! While there are so many clubs, committees, social events, and classes to choose from, be selective where you can to best preserve your time and energy. You're going to want to maintain some of that excitement and enthusiasm in your upper years. Plus, the earlier you learn to balance a personal or social life with academics, well, you will thank yourself later.   

I found student advising was incredibly helpful in strategically planning and addressing my academic needs. Arts advising ensured I met all of my degree requirements while helping me approach my classes as strategically as possible. By taking courses that built on one another, I consistently challenged my understanding of topics. The material remained interesting, and I gained a deeper appreciation for what I studied. I encourage new students to access support services, like faculty advising, to make the most of their time here.   


Keanu Dickson, 3rd Year Political Science Major & Management and Society Minor
"You aren't tethered to the program that you have started your journey in."  

When I first started university, I was in a different program at a completely different institution. My plans have drastically changed over the last few years, and while that journey may sound intimidating, it was the best choice for my education. I share my experience, as many incoming students are under the impression that they must graduate with the degree they began with. That belief is 100% false. In fact, it's estimated that 75% of university students will change their major at least once before graduation - it is far more common than you might think.   

The traditional university experience promotes the completion of one degree in four years, tethering students to a choice they often make in high school. While many successfully complete their chosen program this way, many students do not. No path is necessarily better or worse. They are just different. Recognize that your educational journey is unique to you. I hope that students remember this while paving their own path: you are never entirely "stuck."  Know that at the University of Calgary, there are many avenues to help you on this journey. If you are thinking about switching, you can meet with an exploratory advisor to learn more about the process.


Angela Ma, 5th Year Global Development Studies Major & Political Science Minor
"Be comfortable in the uncomfortable."  

Students often feel an unreasonable amount of pressure to succeed and "have it all together" in their young adult lives. I certainly did, but the unattainable goal of perfection unknowingly held me back in my first year. I opted for classes I knew I'd perform well in for the sake of my GPA rather than take more interesting courses which worked to challenge me academically. In later years, I noticed gaps in my education from sticking within my comfort zone for too long. I enrolled in the co-op program and took part in a study abroad term to combat these issues. These are just two examples of opportunities that work to complement classroom learning by providing an alternate academic experience. By stepping out of my comfort zone and challenging myself to try something completely new, I rounded out my degree in a way that best fit my individual goals and needs. I encourage new students to explore different opportunities which complement traditional academics: challenge yourself.  

*This article was written in-full by Emilee Bews, in close conversation with contributors Lina Chhom, Keanu Dickson, and Angela Ma, to accurately reflect their views in each student response.


Freedman, L. (2013) The Developmental Disconnect in Choosing a Major: Why Institutions Should Prohibit Choice until Second Year. Butler University. Vol. 15. DOI: 10.26209/MJ1561278.