Bright lights, small univer-city

A huge part of my job is writing profiles of students for the intuit Student Life Guide. In addition to overwhelmingly amazing involvement, these students all share one thing: each and every one commented on how massive U of T seemed when they first arrived here. Truth be told, I thought the same thing. I think every first year does - and with good reason. As a fresh-faced 12th-grader, you probably hear a few things:
  1. There are over 40,000 U of T students (FYI: across campuses, in undergrad alone, it was more like 55,352 this past year);
  2. Classes are massive, making it hard to get to know other students and impossible to get to know your profs, so get used to answering to 99- --- --- (Fact: BIO150, one of the first-year mega-courses held in Con Hall, is home to some 1,600 students on any given lecture night);
  3. You’re usually divided into colleges, which should serve as a more intimate community… of at least 1,650 students and more likely between 4,000 and 6,000. Oh, and it’s in the middle of downtown Toronto.
And then you start, and it seems so big… for about five seconds. OK, fine, it’s been a while since I was a first-year (*cough* two years), and maybe it took longer than I remember to get to know the campus, but my experience has not been of some massive, impersonal school. If anything, it’s gotten a little too personal. For me, it went like this: I arrived at my residence, and was basically cheered at for a few hours before I joined in the cheering. A week later I came to and, having lost the ability to speak, had gained at least 30-some friends. Some people I had befriended introduced me to others and suddenly UC was full of familiar faces. Then some of those familiar faces cropped up in my classes, which weren’t so huge to begin with (one first-year seminar and a few office-hour visits later and I knew all my profs - a few had nicknamed me 996). Some of my high school friends had come to different colleges here, so I met a few of their friends. I went to a few parties and campus-wide club nights, exchanged Facebook info with some of the people in my classes, and suddenly I was running into people I knew all the time. Granted, I was hyper-eager to make friends after long chats with my mum about how finally, in university, I would meet people as geeky as me. At this point though, I still had some anonymity. I kind of reveled in having days where I could go to classes, the library, whatever without having to talk to anyone - just another face in the sea. And then I got involved and nothing was ever the same again. It took me some time to realize the shift had happened, that I had lost whatever anonymity I thought I had. That despite its apparent size, U of T was in fact, for all intents and purposes, microscopic. I should have known this when I had questions and knew just who to e-mail (and they knew who I was when they wrote back); when I recognized people in every class; when I knew how to find all my classes (for a girl who had gotten lost in Queen’s Park not once but twice, no small feat). But no. It took sitting in Robarts during last exam period at 2 a.m., eyes wandering off my ECO333 textbook, and right onto my own smiling face. On someone else’s computer screen. Someone I had never seen before. That’s right, friends. I watched a girl I had never met Facebook creep me. And she looked totally sane. I can just imagine it—taking a study break, this fellow U of T-er went on her news feed, maybe saw an album I was tagged in, clicked on me, and lo and behold there was my profile photo from Grade 11, a 16-year old Liz smiling in Greece. From a stranger’s laptop screen. I think this kind of thing can happen regardless. When you’re around a place long enough, you’re bound to get to know a few people. But when you’re involved you’ve sealed your fate. You will appear on at least one stranger’s monitor. My poison wasn’t even the worst. I write for The Varsity, and through that I’ve interviewed and met staff, students and student politicians from all different colleges and clubs - and then their friends. And I’m just a by-line. Some friends of mine have been involved in student politics and their tenure here (often longer than average) is filled with people they know and people who think they know them. Say goodbye to sweatpants on rainy days, friends, you are gonna run into someone. A lot of people draw the analogy between U of T and a big city - Toronto, specifically. I suggest a different one: U of T isn’t a metropolis, and it isn’t a huge institution. It’s a small town. And just as in a small town you feel like you can’t avoid seeing people, U of T (at least for me, recently) homes far too many busybodies, old flames and other people you would rather not have crop up in a small course you are taking over the summer. I should say, the flip side of this is pretty stellar. By third year you can, and probably will, know most of your profs, which makes the courses a lot easier to master. You also know which resources to go to for what, and the people who work there really aren’t intimidating. Also, if you’re feeling a little overwhelmed at the library, it can be really wonderful to run into someone you know. But I leave you with this. Be careful what you say. Too many times recently I’ve told a story, without naming names, to someone I met in an entirely different context only to get a “Wait… What’s she studying? What’s her name? Oh my god! She was my girlfriend’s cousin’s roommate in second year!” Small world. - Liz

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