Don’t Fight the Current: Choosing Courses and Programs

Sage Advice from a First-Year Student (Part 6)

I have observed in my limited life experience thus far that there are two distinct types of accomplishment: detached and attached. An example of a detached accomplishment for me would be high school. I poured my heart and soul into my senior years, joining every club to plump up my resume, putting extra effort into all my essays and writing mile-long bibliographies, being a teacher’s pet – I have no shame, racking up honours and proficiencies and acing every class. The ultimate goal, of course, was University of Toronto. When I crossed the stage at graduation, I felt intense pride, laced with passionate relief. It’s a miracle I wasn’t selected to be valedictorian because my speech would have been as follows: “My fellow students, it’s done. High school, you’ve just been wrecked. Peace.”

This was a detached accomplishment. I was finished, and as much as I relished receiving my diploma, I mostly just wanted to leave. It wasn’t about learning per se: it was a means to an end, a bridge to better things. I was a great student in high school and I performed highly. But when it was all over, in many ways, it was meaningless. It was something I had to do, so that I could do something else.

An example of an attached accomplishment on the other hand, for me, would be writing. When I finish writing a piece, I worry about it. I contemplate it. I edit and edit and edit, and thoughtfully decide when it’s ready for public viewing. Once I allow others to see it, I crave feedback. I continue to worry and care, and I never truly move on, because the experience of writing that piece and the criticism I receive for it stays with me as I write the next piece. It’s an attached accomplishment, because I’m never truly finished with it – I care about it, and I will continue to so long as I continue writing.

I’ve recently come to the revelation that I want my BA at U of T to be an attached accomplishment. I don’t want to study just for the sake of finishing, so I can once again get my degree and run in the opposite direction, thankful I made it out alive. I want the degree to have meaning, and I want it to intermingle with my next educational endeavor so its meaning is unremitting.

When I came to this school, my plan was to do International Relations for my undergrad, and then apply to law school. This was a solid plan that seemed to me to be very sensible at the time. However, if you have read my previous blogs, you may recall that economics and I had a brief, tumultuous affair, ultimately culminating in myself dropping the course, eliminating my eligibility for the IR program. I realized fairly early in the year that I had fashioned an image of myself following this sensible plan, without actually considering whether I truly wanted it. After taking political science and history of international relations this year and not finding either to particularly pique my interest, I can confidently say that IR is not the program for me.

My friend’s mother gave her an excellent piece of advice earlier this year when she was struggling with her program: don’t fight the current. I never wanted to do IR or to be a lawyer. I wanted to do English and be a writer. The latter, however, seemed unrealistic, and so I went with the former which seemed much more prudent and, in my naive 17-year old mind, more “impressive”. What’s really unrealistic, however, was my expectation that I would be interested in a program just because it seemed like a sensible option. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I’ve always been interested in English. As my friend’s mother aptly put it, if that’s the direction in which my heart is pulling me, why fight the current?

I came to U of T wanting to be an IR major looking to apply to law school: I am now looking into doing a double major in English and Jewish Studies, and a minor in Spanish. There are two morals to this story, catered especially to my fellow struggling students barely managing to tread through the perplexing waters of choosing courses and programs, and these constitute my two pieces of advice for this month:

  1. Don’t fight the current: When considering your courses and your program, don’t make choices based on what you think will look good for a professional school, what you think are sensible options, etc. Make choices based on what you want to learn about. You will not only do best in a program in which you actually care about the subject matter, but your university experience as a whole will be exponentially better if your studies overlap with your interests.
  2. Plans change: If your original program doesn’t work out, it’s not a catastrophe. Some students change their programs three or four times. You are not an anomaly. Move on with the confidence that for every program you eliminate, you’re one step closer to the right one for you.

When I receive my diploma at Convocation Hall in what feels like a million years (but is actually only three – I have a slight tendency to exaggerate), I don’t want to be thinking, “SEE YOU NEVER, U OF T!” (Or perhaps something more obscene than that solid example of grade 5 level wit, but I’m going to keep it PG for my more modest readers.) I want to have confidence in the knowledge that what I learned in Toronto will be important to me for the rest of my life – that it won’t lose meaning when I cross the stage, because it will always be relevant to me. It’s a big school that some call impersonal, but when you find your niche, it shrinks and becomes a place where your interests matter, molded especially for you.

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