The power of student-run conferences and how they’re like mini UN assemblies

Student-run conferences have become a big part of my involvement in campus activities. By “conference,” I refer not to a United Nations-like assembly of prominent politicians in suits but to a much less intimidating form that has really enriched my learning experience.

The UN General Assembly Hall filled with world leaders and national delegates.

Student conferences may not be on such a large-scale level as a UN General Assembly… but a Con Hall psych class may give it a run for its money.

I’ve participated in a few and have had great experiences with them. Smaller events will often be free while larger events may require a fee that covers food, speakers, or renting out the space. In January, I attended the UTGB Student Leadership Conference where we discussed the impact of international short-term volunteering and the importance of understanding the underlying social and political context of the countries we serve. Just last month, I registered for the Fraser Institute seminar on public policy, which touched upon a range of diverse topics such as Aboriginal title in Canada and free market trade.

A lecture hall filled with students listening to a guest speaker.

Listening to Dr. Lawrence Loh’s talk on how to optimize long-term outcomes with short-term volunteering during the UTGB Conference.

There are some cool advantages to attending student conferences – here are some features I personally enjoy:

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Reading EEK!

Oh, Reading Week, that glorious, majestic, magical gift. It started off with such promise; you had such high hopes. Tasks would be accomplished, fun would be had, naps would be napped.

All of a sudden, it’s Thursday. If you’re anything like me, you’re starting to feel a bit anxious that you haven’t made enough progress. Many tasks on your To-Do list remain woefully unchecked. It turns out that Netflix was your one true Valentine. That wily temptress has sucked away your time and energy; you have nothing left for 18th Century Philosophy, or French pronouns, or even Lord Denning!

Pictured: Clipart Laptop with eyes playing Netflix and holding flowers

My funny Valentine [Image courtesy of: skidmore.spoonuniversity.com]

Time to panic? Not so fast. When I reassessed my Reading Week situation, I realized that I have accomplished quite a bit, even if I haven’t yet touched that reading and I’m only half finished that essay. Here are some of the ways that I’m now measuring my progress:

I cleaned!

I mentioned in a previous post that I recently got quite sick. Last week, I had to play catch-up in a major way. Unfortunately, that meant that plenty of other stuff fell by the wayside. My poor apartment definitely took a hit. I’m a pretty tidy person generally; mess makes me very upset. At the start of Reading Week, I took my time getting everything ship-shape once again. It was a huge weight off my shoulders. There’s nothing like blasting your music and tango-ing around the apartment with the vacuum, is there? No? Just me? Gotcha.

I socialized!

I love a good Robarts party—don’t get me wrong—but it’s nice to actually get out there from time to time. This week, I showed some friends around Toronto, I saw a few movies, and I attended a pizza party! It was nice to catch up with everyone before we all crawl back into our respective work cocoons in a few week’s time. Reading Week is kind of the calm before the storm, isn’t it?

I planned!

My mission, as always, is to find a CV-boosting summer job. I have been doing lots of research and preparing applications. It’s really comforting to know that I already have some irons in the fire. Reading Week is a great time to get on top of that sort of thing.

I rested!

So. Much. Napping.

Pictured: my adorable dog

I mean, how could you say no to this cuddle buddy?

I explored!

I have been exploring Netflix, yes, but I have also finished a couple of books that I have wanted to read for ages! It was a bit too cold for much outdoor exploring this weekend, but I did discover a cute new coffee shop and I went on a walk by the lake today. Often, I tend to write these sorts of things off as non-essential, but I’m realizing more and more that taking some “me time” gives me a much more positive outlook. I end up being more productive as a result.


If you did anything that made you smile, feel more relaxed, or just feel better generally, then you haven’t wasted your Reading Week! Also, guess what? It’s only Thursday! There is still plenty of time to do some more schoolwork, catch up with a few more friends, watch a movie or two, or explore somewhere new. If you go back to class next Monday feeling at all recharged and ready to get back to work, then Reading Week will have worked its magic after all!

Be sure to check out how Emaan has been rocking her Reading Week and let me know what you’ve been up to in the comments below!

Sick in the 6ix

My alarm goes off. I sit up and my head is spinning. I reach for my alarm and miss it the first two times. I finally get it to switch off, lie back down, and assess the situation. I’m drenched in sweat. My head is pounding. My throat is really sore; it hurts to swallow. I feel too cold and too hot at the same time. Memories of my dreams start to trickle back: flying donuts, green skies, canoeing on a chocolate river. I start to put the pieces together.

Pictured: The chocolate river from the good film version of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"

This fever dream is brought to you by Wonka’s Chocolate Factory™ and Pure Imagination™ Picture courtesy of  http://www.frenchtoastsunday.com

Yep. I’m sick. Now what?  Continue reading

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.