As some of you may have heard, the Globe and Mail gave U of T the lowest ranking out of any large Canadian university in measures of Work-Play Balance. We got a “D”. As true U of T students, one bad grade got the best of us, and my Facebook feed was immediately colonized with reposts of the article and comments that were drenched in a mix of self-pity and thinly-veiled pride. Was I surprised? Not really. The Facebook updates of most of my U of T friends tend to be about recent conferences and upcoming debates, while those from my friends at various other Ontario universities tend to be more along the lines of Tequila Tuesdays, purple facepaint, and keg stands. In fact, I imagine basically every non-U of T university to be something like this, all of the time. It is possible – even probable! – that my mind has exaggerated the differences between schools. Fine.
Do I now, as a fourth-year student, regret my decision to come to U of T? Hell no.
Did I regret my decision to come to U of T when I was in first year? Absolutely.
In fact, I was one signed form away from moving to some anonymous small Ontario city, ready to start over.
My first year at U of T jolted me into my own humanity. I grew up in a small town with a fairly homogenous, old-school set of values, politics and beliefs. I recall my mother’s awkward silence when the girl at the Frosh Week registration booth gave me my frosh kit, announcing, “Here’s your free t-shirt, and here are your free condoms!” I remember my own fascination when I met people who proudly told me their stories and granted me the privilege of seeing into their culturally, linguistically, religiously, sexually, ethically, socially unique worlds. I remember thinking I should bring binoculars to lectures in Con Hall, and I remember trying to replace sleep with coffee and libraries. I remember being humbled by honesty and tyrannized by the breadth of possibility. I remember when it was easier to judge others based on the distance between us, rather than to reach out to them and try to learn and love as much as I possibly could. Such are the challenges and virtues of attending a school with a population multiple times the size of the city in which you were raised.
All of these things were hard. I was shell-shocked. I was in a new world, and people maybe didn’t understand me – and maybe this was because I didn’t understand myself. I would walk to classes and feel so alone and yet so physically near to hundreds or even thousands of other students. It was surreal, really. I would later walk home from classes and worry about the 10-hour problem set that was due in three hours. Imagine this on loop for a semester or two. Or four.
With time, I started to worry less and listen more. I accidentally met people that changed my world. I submitted poetry to journals and had it torn to pieces. I took dance classes and learned to love my body. I learned real math, took up debate, and began looking at my four years here as an experiment in living in a microcosm of the great big world. I started asking people about their religions; their relationships; their research. I knocked on random professors’ doors when there were questions that burned into me. Sometimes they offered me caramel popcorn; sometimes they offered me a book; sometimes a story. I scribbled my questions in an infinite sequence of notebooks.
All of these things changed me. Radically. I am mildly ashamed when I read the poorly articulated essays that I wrote in first year. In a similar vein, I’m sure that I’ll be mildly ashamed of my naive lifeatuoft blog posts if I ever come back to read them when I’m 25. That’s fine. It means I’m growing.
The reason I’ve grown is the constant bombardment of ideas, study, people, and experiences here, which is in fact the reason that I came to university. Yes, it is undeniably intense. I know that I spend far more time studying than do many of my friends at other schools. This is the culture of U of T, however: we’re world-renowned as a place to learn. Learning is HARD. Learning means letting go of everything that you thought that you knew, and admitting over and over again that you were wrong, and that people before you were wrong, and that some problems aren’t even solvable at all. Learning is also, however, the crescendo of intuitive and deep understanding that comes when you realize you’ve finally stumbled across something truly special. This is a feeling that I wouldn’t trade for the world.
I feel lucky to be in a place that pushes me closer to who I am and could and want to be. There are so many departments and research groups and clubs and people here that every single part of you – well-defined or currently unexplored – has a kindred spirit somewhere on this campus. There are brilliant friends who will hold up a mirror to your soul. There are courses that, if taken sufficiently seriously, will change who you are as a human being. These kinds of things, I would argue, aren’t nearly as pervasive when one tries to attempt to package undergraduate education into neat uniform little four-year packages with obvious, well-trod paths of courses and extracurriculars. Will you have to make sacrifices for it? Probably, because that’s what true learning requires. Learning means giving yourself permission to deliberately rock the boat and ride whatever waves surround it. It’s immersing yourself in the larger consciousness that comes from knowing. I am lucky to be able to immerse myself in the largest, most diverse, fascinating hotbed of controversy, passion, and dedication in the country. I write and think and wonder until I have nothing left to give. But in those moments where I’m weak, I know where to stop, and I take what I need. That’s my job. As for the university’s job? I ask that they just give me a place to grow. And they have.
I guess what I mean is, if the pieces don’t fit, keep looking. There’s a place for you here. You’ll find it.