Winter is leaching me of my creative juices

Foil lit under a blue light.

Winter got me seeing all shades of blue

If ever we had to designate a time of the year that made people feel the most “BLAH,” it would be around now. The dreary weather and post-holiday lull make for a very uninspiring landscape that certainly do not help to foster creativity. I too fall prey to the monotony that is the mid-winter blues. (Is it even mid-winter? Realistically, has it even been a true winter this year? Are we feeling the ramifications of global warming? All good questions). Feeling like a sad, deflated, grey-tinged marshmallow, I can get really unmotivated to deal with work and school – which can be quite problematic at the start of a new semester. However, I have a few tricks to try and inspire creativity and productivity: 

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New Year, New Me!

“Woke up this morning I was laid out flat on the dark side
With the moon and the room on the wrong side
I took a needle, sewed myself right back at the seams

I saw my universal gleam” – ‘Flick of the Finger, by Beady Eye

Liam Gallagher might not have the same vocals he did back in Oasis’ heyday, but his last effort to bring back the glory days with his (now disbanded) Beady Eye did bring back some of the open lyrical interpretation the band was known for instigating – but I digress. Nevertheless, it makes for a great quote that can relate to the idea of starting the new year with resolutions. It’s a time of year when – for whatever reason – you can see your errors more clearly, and when you decide to pick up the metaphorical needle and attempt to sew yourself back together again. I’m not typically one to fall into the societal norm of setting resolutions specifically to ring in the new year – but given that this will be my first full year as a university student, I decided to give it a shot.

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That Forgetting Feeling

You know that thing that sometimes happens when you’re about to fall asleep but then all of a sudden you feel like you’re falling, you jerk violently, and you’re wide awake again? That’s how I feel when I realize I have forgotten something.

I don’t usually forget things; I’m a reasonably organized person and I have systems that I use to keep on top of things.

Pictured: string tied around my finger

An oldie but a goodie

Every now and then, though, the occasional task slips through the cracks. One such occasion was just a little while ago. I’m taking this really interesting Legal Workshops course; I get to attend a few workshops at the Faculty of Law throughout the year. At the beginning of September, I chose the workshops I was interested in and signed up. I marked the workshops I signed up to attend in my calendar. I put them on my phone. You may have guessed, however, that I recently missed one. Continue reading

First Years – Unplugging on Campus

The start of the ’gap’ between midterms and finals is definitely a good time to find more opportunities to de-stress where possible. As I’ve been emphasizing the importance I’ve placed on striking a balance between work and play, I’ve decided to find out where my fellow first-years have been going to relax on campus. Specifically, I’ve been looking for places to ‘unplug’ and unwind without keeping a constant eye on my phone.

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First-Year: A Mid-Semester Review

This past month has undoubtedly been one of the more strenuous months of my life thus far, and that probably goes for a lot of my fellow freshmen. Midterms hit me hard and have left me feeling absolutely exhausted. Even though mental wellness month just ended, I still think it’s important to make sure sure that I head into the second half of this fall semester with a healthy mindset.

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Tackling the Big Bad Reading

Why did my professor do this to me? Why is she making me read this overly dense, buzzword-ridden, thinly veiled torture device of a book? We are repeatedly told never to make our essays too “wordy.” We’re told to keep things simple and clear. Why, then, does the stuff we read seldom seem to follow the same criteria?

I love to complain and insist that my professors assign dense readings just to make me suffer.

Pictured: A still from PBS's Arthur Episode 2, "The Real Mr. Ratburn" where Mr. Ratburn, in silhouette, is lecturing a bunch of terrified third graders.

I picture Mr. Ratburn, before Arthur and the gang discovered he wasn’t actually a monster who ate nails for breakfast and assigned a ridiculous amount of homework just for the fun of it.         (Image courtesy of http://arthur.wikia.com/wiki/Arthur_and_the_Real_Mr._Ratburn).

A few days ago, one of my professors acknowledged that her reading assignment was tricky, she told us that she has struggled with it too, but she insisted that the points made—once you work to pull them out of the dense prose—are worth the effort.

Pictured: a page of one of my readings, with a particularly complex passage circled in red and the word "huh?" written above it.

Working on it…

Our professors love what they teach and they are pros at sharing that love with us. So when I’m starting to resent a prof for having the audacity to make me read a piece that is riddled with words like “paucity” and “limn,” I try to take a step back and trust that there is likely a very good reason why she’s making me do it. Then, I try to dig up that reason in the text itself.


Here are some strategies that I use to get through—and understand—dense readings:

  1. Fight the urge to speed read

Usually, my instinct is to power through dense readings as quickly as possible so as to end my suffering asap. I have found that this is extremely counter-productive because I end up not digesting much of the information. When it comes time to review, I’m back at square one and I have actually increased the amount of time I’ll spend agonizing over the reading in question.

  1. Highlight, write notes, and mark passages

The particular note-taking strategy that I use for a particular reading will vary by class, but I always like to take note somehow because it helps me to read actively and pick out the important points. The notes are also helpful when I return to the reading later, either when I’m writing an essay or reviewing for a test or exam.

I also like to mark passages that I don’t understand so that I can discuss them with my peers or with the professor during office hours.

  1. Have a dictionary handy

Academics sure do love their jargon! I like to use a physical dictionary rather than an online resource whenever possible because keeping away from electronics makes me less likely to get distracted or procrastinate.

  1. Read aloud

I’m not really sure why this works for me, but something about vocalizing what I’m reading can help me to grasp the meaning behind it. Reading aloud also helps me stay focused and better remember the information I’m absorbing.

  1. Set goals and take breaks

Sometimes, I’ll buy a chocolate bar and reward myself with a piece every ten pages. If I didn’t take little breaks every once in a while, I wouldn’t be able to stay sharp and focused and the whole endeavour would be a lot more arduous.

  1. Collect your thoughts afterwards

Sometimes, the best way to digest what you have read is to take a moment to reflect after you close the book. I like to take a walk once I’m finished; the fresh air helps me put my thoughts in order.

  1. If all else fails, wait until after the lecture

This one is for desperate times when I am really struggling and I feel like I’m not digesting any of the information. I try to pick out a few points so that I can still participate in class, but other than that, I put the reading aside.

The professor’s lecture can help me figure out what to focus on so that when I come back to the reading after the lecture, it finally starts to make sense. Of course, I usually try to get a week ahead in another class to make up for the time I’ll lose doing the particularly troublesome reading after the fact.


When you have the proper strategies at your disposal, the whole library is your oyster!

Pictured: DW from PBS's Arthur holding a library card. The caption reads: "Now I know what true power feels like."

D.W. knows what’s up                                                                                                                         (Image courtesy of http://poplibrary.tumblr.com/post/95835561085/indianazoe-true-power)

What strategies do you use to get through tricky readings? Let me know in the comments below!

A Song of Ice and Frosh

Hey there, fellow first-years! I’m Alex, a freshman Computer Engineering student. Over the course of the next few months, I’ll be sharing my experiences as a first-year student at the St. George campus. I’m one month into my time here, and one thing that’s really stood out to me is how the ‘stereotypes’ I heard in high school compare with my actual experience thus far.

I won’t bore you with a full list, but there is the whole spiel that “You’d better develop some good study habits, because university is on a whole other level!” This is the one we all love to wave off in high school. Teachers try to drill the mantra into you, but you shrug it off and cram for exams in the hour – I mean, days – leading up to them. Barely one month into the first of four years in the Computer Engineering department, and I can safely say how much I regret doing just that. I wrote my first university quiz last week, and was blatantly under-prepared. I’ve found that I really need to work on doing the readings, taking better notes and listening during lectures, and working on the ever-growing mountain of suggested problems.

Get those problem sets done, and stay on top of your studies!

Get those problem sets done, and stay on top of your studies!

One other maxim you hear a lot is that we should find time to just have fun. While education does play a major part (at least, I would hope so) in coming to university, it’s critical to find time to enjoy your life. I’m not just referring to having a laugh with your friends in between classes. If you’re like me and aren’t local to the area, set aside time to explore the city! Coming from Vancouver, I thought Toronto would be similar except with a lot less green space and more people. Well I was right about the latter, but the former was a false pretence. I visited the Scarborough Bluffs a couple of weekends ago as part of the Engineering Photography Club, and I have to admit that the GTA has its fair share of nature and spectacular views.

Breathtaking views. Definitely worth visiting when the weather is as nice as it was that day.

Breathtaking views from the Bluffs. Definitely worth visiting when the weather is as nice as it was that day.

There’s fun to be had throughout Toronto, too. It seems like there’s an event going on every weekend, be it Nuit Blanche, a marathon, or even a lightsaber battle in the heart of downtown (I’m not lying, check it out). Life in the 6 is never a dull moment, and that’s something to be thankful for, as well as something I plan to take full advantage of this year.

Anyone get their picture taken for the JR project during Nuit Blanche?

Anyone get their picture taken for the JR project during Nuit Blanche?

When all is said and done, finding the time to make the most of what Toronto has to offer should be high on everyone’s list of priorities. As your First-Year Blogger, I’ll definitely be doing my best to get out as often as my daunting engineering schedule allows. It may be harder than ever to balance school with recreation, but I’m quickly finding out how much more enriched my days have been when I’ve made the effort to get out and do new things. Midterms might be in full swing, but I know I’ll be worse off if I don’t allow myself time to unwind, and truly make Toronto my home away from home.

Hand Cramps Be Gone: The Art of Note-taking in Lectures

Maybe you got hand cramps from packing sand to make sandcastles all over a beach, maybe you got them from tapping lines of candy in the intense game that is Candy Crush, maybe you got them from whipping fluffy cream in your kitchen for delicious whoopie pies, or maybe, if you’re like me, you got them from clinging on to a kite string too tightly for fear of it whisking away; regardless, you’re so not ready for hand cramps caused by scribbling an infinite number of notes during lectures, especially when you feel like all you did was accomplish the art of transcribing.

My brother, taking over the kite-flying like a pro after I got a hand cramp.

— My brother, taking over the kite-flying like a pro after I got a hand cramp.

The solution to a happy hand and concise notes? Improve your note-taking skills. Here are a few strategies I’ve implemented that have helped me with this so far:

  1. Work with headers

Sometimes, the lecture slides might include headers on which the prof plans to elaborate—write them down. If headers aren’t provided, listen to what the prof is explaining and later jot down the concept or topic that best encompasses the material. This will not only help organize your notes, but it’ll also serve as a ready-made list of concepts for exam review.

Notes I took for Astronomy class. I use ‘☆ |’ to make headers easier to locate. "☆ |Our Cosmic Address: Earth - the planet in which we live; Solar system - one or more stars plus the bodies orbiting it/them; Milky Way galaxy - the galaxy containing our solar system; Local Group - a group of galaxies containing the Milky Way. ☆ |Units: 1 AU (astronomical unit) - average distance between the Earth and Sun; 1 LY (light year): distance light travels in one year."

— Notes I took for Astronomy class. I use ‘☆ |’ to make headers easier to locate.

  1. Jot down brief bullet points about what the prof is saying

Instead of transcribing the lecture slide featuring a twenty-line passage from Metamorphoses word-for-word, take brief notes about what the prof is saying. Lecture slides can’t substitute for a prof’s one- to three-hour talk, after all. Plus, some profs post their slides on Blackboard afterwards, so you can copy them later.

  1. Use abbreviations and symbols

Ever write as fast as if you were on a time-sensitive mission in a James Bond movie, and by the time you’ve written your sixth word, the teacher has switched topics, leaving you with a string of half-finished sentences? It might help to substitute words for symbols and abbreviate long words to ensure you get all your notes down. For example, try writing ‘&’ for ‘and’ or ‘political party’ as ‘pol pty.’

  1. Extra: Edit/revise your notes

If following the step above, you might very well end up with a page filled with something that looks partly Quenya. To avoid this, edit your notes after the lecture, when you still remember what those symbols and abbreviations stood for. Also, revise your notes until you’re sure they’re cohesive enough that you’ll understand them a few months from now, when you need them for exams.

A chart of Tolkien’s created language, Quenya, which vaguely resembles my high-school law notes . . . Source: http://i.fonts2u.com/te/mp1_tengwar-quenya-1_1.png

— A chart of Tolkien’s created language, Quenya, which vaguely resembles my high-school law notes . . .
Source: http://i.fonts2u.com/te/mp1_tengwar-quenya-1_1.png

If you’re interested in honing your note-taking skills even more, consider signing up for an upcoming workshop hosted by the Academic Success Centre called “Reading & Note-Taking.” Details on the ASC workshop are listed here under October 1.

Remember, it’s okay to find note-taking difficult and frustrating at first. However, like all other skills, it can be improved. Save yourself from that hand cramp and churn out those beautiful, envy-inducing notes!

 

 

Do you have any other tips on how to make great lecture notes? Let me know in the comments below or through @lifeatuoft on Twitter!

Lessons learned from my first year in the Life Sigh stream

Did you know: If you take a full course load for all years of undergrad leading up to med school applications, the U of T Faculty of Medicine will drop six half-courses with the lowest grades from your admission GPA?

I took only four courses in my first semester of first year, thereby forever excluding myself from this option. DO YOU UNDERSTAND MY FRUSTRATION. I got a 61 in first year physics and my GPA has never recovered!!!

This is the kind of life-changing information that I wish I’d known when I started first year. 

Back in high school, the general attitude about U of T Life Sci is that it’s named the Life Sciences stream ironically, due to the lack of a life you’ll possess if you choose to come here. 

Now as a wise and weary fourth-year, I can attest to the fact that this stigma is a little harsh. It’s very possible to do well in school, maintain a social life, get involved and yes, even sleep. There were both highlights and lowlights in my first year as a Life Sci student and I’m here to drop some knowledge and spill some truth tea: 

Kermit the Frog sipping a cup of Lipton Tea. This is a lame reference to the Kermit The Frog meme.

  • The transition from high school to university is going to be exciting, difficult and unpredictable no matter what program you’re in. Balance is key. Say you’re not doing well in a course. Spending too much time wallowing and trying to improve just that one aspect of your life will mean that you miss out on a lot of other equally important experiences. You feel even worse because now you’re both flunking AND have major FOMO. This in turn only worsens your performance in school. Try not to get caught up in a bubble of helplessness. Having other responsibilities helps distract you from some things while still being productive. And then you can go back and take on your previous struggle with fresh eyes.
Me holding a fluffy little pup during the UC Exam Jam in the JCR.

Exam Jams are always happening on campus. Nothing better than a puppy and some free food to take your mind off the stress of exams. Apparently New College’s Exam Jam even got a kangaroo to make a cameo last April??

  • Pay attention in class – it will make studying much easier. This seems obvious but I never realized how much I wasn’t paying attention until I started paying attention. Again, devoting attention to something is always easier if you’re actually interested in it. Also do practice/past tests that your prof wrote, if they’re available.
  • If you have transfer credits, use them. I wish I’d used my chem credit so I wouldn’t have had to sit through it again in my first year. Make use of the CR/NCR option for electives you might not do as well in. Join a FLC (pronounced flick) to connect with other students in Life Sci. FLCs are like mini study groups where you can collaborate on coursework and learn in a friendly environment. It counts towards your co-curricular record! Research experience is also key; apply for an ROP course or to places externally.
  • Get involved outside your program as well! Whether it’s elective courses, school clubs/organizations or extra-curriculars, explore your other interests too. Doing “other stuff” makes me seem mysterious and well-rounded to those who don’t know any better.
An art book I found in the Robarts stacks about Raphael's works. Flipped to a page of a character study, comparing his rough sketch and the final product of one of his paintings.

I like taking art history courses for fun, just because it’s an area I also enjoy learning about. Taking courses outside of the sciences really helps to break the monotony of constant lab reports and paper reviews, while also fulfilling your breadth requirements.

  • During first year bio, in a sea of 1000+ students, our prof asked: “Who here wants to get into med school?” A majority of the class raises their hands. Said prof laughs in derision and comments on how only 10% of those who raised their hands will actually get in. A crippling statistic, but still true. Everyone comes in having some vaguely planned and romanticized dream about becoming a doctor. Take the time to research (and as early as possible) the requirements for such a career. It’s a long and hard path that will only be harder if you aren’t truly passionate about what you’re studying. Are you willing to put in the effort? The time? Consider other options if your heart isn’t in it. You are not a failure if you don’t get in. You are not a failure if you don’t want to get in.
A pixelated graphic of Confucius and the words

Discover your true chill. Source: http://8-bitfiction.tumblr.com/

  • Everyone’s circumstances are going to be different. As our great Canadian icon Drake once said, “KNOW YOURSELF… KNOW YA WORTH.” Only you can figure out what you want and how to get it.
Drake watching a football game projected onto his hotel mirror. Tim Horton's cups litter the counter.

If Drake can simultaneously watch a football game, gaze into the mirror, drink Canadian coffee and make millions on #1 hits, then you can certainly get through U of T Life Sci. Source: Instagram @champagnepapi

  • Try not to stress out prematurely! You’ll have fun, do great and grow into yourself during your time here. U of T is your oyster.

A view of Sir Dan's as seen in the fall from a bench in front of Sid Smith. I photoshopped a sparkly oyster wearing a party hat onto the foreground.

What are some of your personal experiences as a Life Sciences student? What are newly accepted students looking forward to the most? Leave me a comment below! 

Legacy

We made it! April has finally arrived! I just survived three essays and four exams all in the last two weeks and I don’t even want to know what percentage of my final grade all those tests and assignments were worth.

“Good thing I just had three final exams in the last three days, now my final exams can actually begin.” Unfortunately, this is not an April Fools joke.

Looking out my apartment window south down Bay Street. It's morning, but very dark and cloudy, with all the buildings lit up like night time. Weird.

At the first dawn of this week of exams, this is what my world looked like (Photo by Zachary Biech)

Seeing as how April has arrived, this will be the last First Nations House blog for the 2014-2015 school year! Can you believe it? This has been the fastest, craziest, most exciting and ridiculous year of my life and I’m honored to have been able to share my experiences with you.

Last week, I attended a Ulead workshop which focused on legacy and transition in leadership. I had a great time and I really enjoyed all the people who attended and who facilitated the workshop. The topic of legacy was very intriguing and makes me think of what legacy I hope to leave with the First Nations House blog this year.

First, I’ll take some time to reflect on where I was when I started last September, and where I am now. Or rather, who I am now.

In September 2014, I had never written a blog before. I was also still new to the WordPress program. In September, I had never been to 98% of the events I went to this year either. I had only barely started learning Cree, and had never spoken or written a word in Anishnaabemowin. I had never been a co-chair in an Indigenous student association before either.

In September 2014, I had never given an on-air interview at a radio station before, and I had never had an Indian Taco from the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto. I never made a snow-Zach on campus before, and I had never shared my secret rye biscuit recipe.

A quaint little office with a big Hart House wooden door, a window looking into the Map Room, an old-school telephone, my coffee, and my laptop with what looks like Russian homework in progress.

A view of what it’s like to work in the CIUT 89.5 FM reception desk in Hart House (Photo by Zachary Biech)

A side view of the on-air booth for CIUT 89.5 FM in the Map Room, with all the microphones, gadgets, and even the big fancy fireplace

Another glimpse into the world of CIUT 89.5 FM (Photo by Zachary Biech)

I had never mentored a Toronto Catholic high school class from an Indigenous perspective, and I had never really publicly talked or written about much of my physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual journey. I had never made so many friends and spent so much time in one place like First Nations House. I had never felt so comfortable with who I am and I had never felt like I had a home away from home on this campus.

I also had never told the story of my cactus, Jose!

An awesome pointy weird green cactus in a square purple pot, with epic party sunglasses of course

Cactus Update: I have a new cactus, and this one is like my Dad’s cactus back home whom he calls Spike. So say hello to Spike Jr.! (Photo by Zachary Biech)

Now, because of First Nations House, the people I met there and the balance I have found within, all of this has changed. I can honestly say I am a better student and a better man because of First Nations House and this blog. For that I am grateful.

The primary message I wished to send this year is the importance of balance in university life. Take care of your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual self and I guarantee you will find a pathway through U of T into your life beyond.

I have also learned from my time in First Nations House this year what community and leadership truly means. Community means inclusivity. People from all backgrounds and walks of life have important experiences and talents to share, and should always be welcomed into the circle.

The round building on the west end of University College, with it's fancy stonework lit up in marvellous deep blue

Circles are the best, even in architecture. Always keep your circle open, just like UC, which was lit up in blue on April 2nd for World Autism Awareness Day! (Photo by Zachary Biech)

Leadership means respecting that circle and everyone in it. Leadership means taking all perspectives into account, and recognizing the effects of the group’s actions on others. Leadership means responsibility, accountability, transparency, and building balanced relationships which are mutually beneficial to all those who are involved.

Leaders cannot be followers and have the right and responsibility to protect their circle even from imbalances within the circle. When the circle is broken, true leaders stand up to defend the circle and the pursuit of balance. Sometimes, standing up for the sake of a balanced circle means leaving a broken circle behind and moving forward towards a better future.

Leadership means always striving to find and protect the circle though finding that circle can be a long journey. But once you find your circle and community, I can honestly say the long journey is worth every moment and every single step.

Looking up from the base of the big centre tower of University College, lit up in blue, looking spectacular

I remember way back in June 2012, when the first picture of me at U of T was taken right here in front of UC, in the middle of the night. I took this picture three years later, after my last lecture of the 2014-2015 school year. It took many steps to get here, and what a journey it’s been so far! (Photo by Zachary Biech)

Finally, I can talk about legacy. It is my greatest hope that my blogging this year leaves a legacy which empowers you to engage with U of T and First Nations House and to balance your university life and a legacy which shines a light when there is only darkness on the path ahead. Be brave and be yourself. There is always hope and there is always a path worth exploring.

Looking at University College, with an incredibly bright blue street lamp in the foreground, in the middle of a dark night.

I know the future can look dark and clouded sometimes, so I hope I have been able to shine a light for you (Photo by Zachary Biech)

I’m not very good at goodbyes, I’ll admit. Writing this last sentence may or may not have made me a bit teary-eyed!

So for now I’ll just say niawen:gowa, mii-kwec, спасибо, and thanks!