Long Story Short: It’s OK to struggle with adjusting to a new academic environment

Illustrated by Tiffany Chan

By: Devana Petrovic, Staff Writer

For most of high school, I was relatively strong academically. I mean, I never failed any classes and seemed to get by pretty easily, but I also was definitely not a top student. However, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have strong views on what my strengths were and that I didn’t hold myself to certain standards. Since I spent the first two years of high school in an accelerated program clashing with highly competitive students, I internalized a lot of the unrealistic expectations that I saw in my peers. 

So, coming into university with a full course load and having an already overwhelmingly new experience was difficult. I was mentally and emotionally struggling, and I was completely over my head with expectations for myself. Plus, I was working a part-time job 12 hours a week. Yeah, it didn’t really start off too well. 

The first couple of weeks were manageable enough. As long as it was syllabus week and I had nothing due the next day, the whole university thing seemed doable. Talking to a lot of my friends in their final years of post-secondary, I had heard several stories on unexpected failures and adjustment issues with being a first-year, but just like every other human being, I obviously thought I would be the exception and disregarded this possibility for myself. Of course, looking back now, my reasoning lacked any sort of logic and was destined to make me feel like shit. Surprise — it didn’t take long for the authentic SFU experience to kick in. 

About less than a third of the way into my first semester, I had already nearly failed an English paper — which was probably a sympathy pass — gotten torn apart by more than one professor, and cried in a lecture and the bus ride home an unhealthy amount of times. 

See, in the past, I had treated school as something that required my utmost ambition. I never allowed myself to fail or even slip-up a little bit. It had always been a matter of achieving, not growth. Part of that came with having parents with high expectations, but also the learning environment in which I was accustomed to. So, seeing myself “fail” felt wrong and shameful, like something that had erupted from a personal flaw. I was confused and completely taken aback by my poor performance.

None of the struggles I faced in my first semester were failures, but merely opportunities for growth in my learning, which is exactly what should be happening in a university. 

I also come from a cultural background where struggling to succeed is a sign of weakness, and where it is not customary to be particularly open about mental health struggles in general. 

I had to ask myself, “Does my failure reflect on my abilities and skills? Have I been cowardly flaunting my confidence this whole time when I’m really not good at anything?”

Not to mention, I had no sense of community or a support system on campus. Being a commuter made it difficult to make friends as I would usually bus home immediately after finishing my classes for the day. It was always lonely, I had little communication with people and even started to sparingly see my closest friends. Everything felt like it was drifting from my control, and as the semester progressed I only felt more alone and isolated. The aspects of my life that had felt safe and secure before starting post-secondary started to feel like they were dissolving before me. 

In short, I felt entirely out of touch with myself.

I admit that a lot of what I’m describing is basically the standard for many students, and I’m not trying to prove that my struggles are worse or comparable to anyone else’s. I view my learning now as a completely different phenomenon and in retrospect, being so rigid with my education was probably a factor in why it was difficult for me to adjust.

I’m very lucky that I had an accessible, loving, and supportive group of friends to listen to me and to continue reassuring me that it would get better as long I was patient with myself. Having that safe place, where I could admit I was struggling, feel free of judgment, and also receive genuine and thoughtful advice drew me back to some form of rationality. 

I had spent the majority of my first semester at SFU trying to fight those feelings of confusion and uncertainty. I was in denial of the trouble I was having adjusting, and trying to adhere to the academic standards I had in mind for myself. In turn, it only made it a harder struggle. 

As soon as I allowed myself to be vulnerable with my conflicts, things started to seem clearer and less permanent. Once I understood what I was going through, I was able to help myself in my second semester by getting a job on campus, meeting new people in my classes, and working towards building a community for myself at SFU.

I was struggling to adjust to a new environment during a particularly fragile time in my life, and that’s OK. None of that is easy, and being so strict with myself over minor bumps in the road was entirely unreasonable. None of the struggles I faced in my first semester were failures, but merely opportunities for growth in my learning, which is exactly what should be happening in a university. 

It was a difficult semester for sure, but it taught me to be patient with myself, how important it was to unlearn and dispose of my fears of ‘failure,’ and that if I give myself a chance, new opportunities and experiences can be well worth it.