Finding Headspace in the Midst of Exams 

If you had told me in September that 8 months from now I would be an avid supporter of meditation – I would have told you that you were crazy! 

I grew up my whole life with a mother who was very into yoga, so I’m no stranger to meditative practices and how beneficial they can be for the mind and body. But I could just never manage to actually get the hang of it. I would always get distracted, or end up spending the entire time thinking and worrying – which is the opposite goal of meditation to begin with! 

That was until I heard an online blogger talk about the app Headspace.

The interface of the headspace app! I'm obsessed with how clean and simple the graphics are!

The interface of the headspace app! I’m obsessed with how clean and simple the graphics are!

Headspace is a mobile guided meditation app. Their beginners trial is a 10-day, 10-minute guided meditation series that is aimed to introduce you to the process of meditation – and help you get more headspace. 

I was really doubtful that this would actually work for my anxiety-ridden, million-miles-an-hour mind, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to give it a try! 

Well 2 weeks after my 10 day trial and I’m still obsessed! 

Image via.

Image via.

I started the trial around the end of classes, and although it was hard to make time at the beginning, I started to look forward to my 10 minutes of meditation a day. Instead of giving me 10 minutes a day where I don’t have to think about anything, the meditation encouraged me to let thoughts flow in and out of my mind naturally. It didn’t feel like I was trying to suppress anything, but I wasn’t trying to focus on anything specific either. 

I started out by doing it every morning. Before I ate breakfast and got ready for the day, I would sit on my bed with a cup of coffee and go through my 10 minute routine.

Now, I’m meditating for 10 minutes every morning – and during the day when I feel like I need some mental space or quiet time. 

Now that it's nice out I might even try some outdoor meditation at secret nooks like this one at Vic!

Now that it’s nice out I might even try some outdoor meditation at secret nooks like this one at Vic!

For me, meditation is about the combination of routine – and doing what feels natural. I want it to be integrated into my every day life, not something that feels unnatural and forced. 

You can get the app for free here, but if you’re looking for something a bit more hands-on, the U of T offers free meditation classes every day – all across campus

Try the bamboo garden in the Donnelly Centre

Try some meditation in the bamboo garden in the Donnelly Centre

There are also a variety of different meditation spaces on campus. I’m a big fan of the multi-faith and meditation room at Robarts for some mid-studying headspace, but I’ve also tried some of these quiet campus getaways recommended by Amie

Meditation has really helped me during exams; it gives me specific time to relax, which means I’m more focused when it’s time to study. 

image via.

image via.

Do you have any routines or tricks that help you get through exams? Or do you know of any awesome meditative spots on campus I need to check out? Let me know in the comments below or on twitter @Rachael_UofT 


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!

Planning to Procrastinate

I have never felt so emotionally attached to an e-card as the one you see below. 


Not only do I feel like this victorian lady is my spirit animal, but I also feel as if I may have actually written this e-card subconsciously, and am now just re-discovering it for the first time. 

My name is Rachael, and I am a professional procrastinator. 

I’ve always been fully aware of my procrastination habits – even in high school I was a night-before essay writer. At university I’ve definitely met some procrastination pros who surpass even me, but I’ve also met hundreds of people who plan and perfect things weeks in advanced. 

I always use to compare myself to these people. They must be getting such better marks than me. Their lives are probably so stress-free. THEY MUST BE LITERALLY PERFECT AND I WANT TO BE THEM IN EVERY WAY POSSIBLE. 


My preferred form of procrastination is Netflix, coffee, and painting my nails

But over the last semester, I’ve learned that I’m not just a typical procrastinator. No, I actually plan to procrastinate. I know that may seem like an oxymoron, but it really is true. I am the most organized last-minute procrastinator you will probably ever meet. 

If I have an essay due on Monday, I will make sure I’ve done all my research by Friday, and I will spend all day Saturday and Sunday locked in ROBARTS creating in depth outlines and rough copies. By 8pm on Sunday night – I will have a perfect (at least to me at the time) essay ready to be handed in the next morning. 


More important than this realization however, was the realization that maybe this is okay. 

Procrastination has such an awful stigma attached to it. The entire internet is filled with procrastination memes and 2am Facebook posts by stressed out students. They contribute to this idea that procrastination is an inadequate and unacceptable form of studying.

I know that there are hundreds of research projects out there that tell you all the reasons why procrastination is bad for your mental health and your grades, there are actually quite a few out there who say that procrastination isn’t as bad as we make it out to be

Sure, if you’re skipping deadlines and missing assignments, your procrastination is getting a bit out of control. But if you find that you’re actually able to produce your best work when you procrastinate, and it’t not affecting your physical or mental health, then who am I (or the Internet) to tell you that you’re doing it wrong? 

When I eliminated the stigma around my procrastination – I found I was actually able to produce better results, and be less stressed in the process. I didn’t feel like I was doing something wrong, or like I had “planned to fail, by failing to plan.” 

Instead, I would sit down and set out a timeline of my procrastination. I would re-schedule my time, knowing that I was going to spend the entire weekend in the library. Overall, I think this has actually made be a better – and certainly happier – student. 

What’s your option on procrastination? Do you embrace it, or does it embarrass you? Or do you not do it at all!? Let me know in the comments below! 

Are You Ready for the Test???

Being prepared for tests is a complicated art. Exams are the most individual task you will do in university. It’s just you and the test, so don’t let your mind go rushing onto all your other responsibilities. Your soul must be centered. Physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual balance are key to preparing and working on all those areas in advance when you still have time and strength is the best failsafe.

Before and during tests, you have the opportunity to fight for every mark. One helpful trick I’ve found is to do practice tests, quizzes and review at the time of day when your exam will be. Exams can be held at strange times, so it’s good to get into the habit of working on the specific material on your test at those weird times.

Two battered erasers with paperclip guns and bottle cap helmets

These are my study soldiers: veterans of seven semesters of duty (Photo by Zachary Biech)

Eat a healthy, large meal before your test so you don’t go hungry or have an upset stomach. Bring everything you need for the test and bring spares if you can. Pens, pencils, sharpener, eraser and your T-card are must-haves, and depending on your course, you may need a non-programmable calculator so bring one with batteries! Also, bring a watch! Most test rooms at U of T don’t have clocks. The worst feeling in the world is when your exam invigilator says you only have 20 minutes left and you’ve only done the first tenth of the test because you couldn’t keep track of time!

a pencil sharpener, two pencils, two pens, an eraser, and a non-graphing calculator

Test-taking kit (Photo by Zachary Biech)

a watch on my arm

Not sure of the time? Better watch it! (Photo by Zachary Biech)

Be 100% sure of your test location because you don’t want to show up to the wrong room. If you’re not familiar with the location, check it out a few days in advance so you know where to go and what the room will be like. Exam rooms here can be very large, strange and intimidating at first so do yourself a favor and get used to it beforehand.

Leave early when you are going to the test because you never know what can happen along the way. Traffic, construction, and many emergencies can stop you from getting there on time and can cost many marks.

There’s also an art to the moments before tests begin. First, make sure you use the bathroom before you go into the test room!!! I’ve written too many tests where I couldn’t think straight because I had to go so badly!

Second, you have to keep centered when you’re waiting to get into test room with all your classmates. I’ve found that students can hugely destabilize each other outside test rooms. Some people are so stressed that they’re shaking, unclean and sleep-deprived and their behavior can rattle others.

The other thing you have to watch out for students who try to rattle you and your classmates. I’ve played plenty of games with such people. They may try to shake your confidence by asking you if you reviewed obscure topics just to make you worry, and suggesting that weird questions you’ve never heard of will be on the test. They also act overly confident and may try getting you to lend them pencils or erasers just to bother you and to eliminate your spares.

Avoid those people as best you can and remember that you only need to trust yourself and your instinct. I remind myself to expect that behavior so I can shrug off their nonsense. They are laughable so you might even be able to get a good chuckle from them if you need it!

When you finally begin the test, you’re near the finish line! Listen to your exam invigilators and follow their instructions carefully so you don’t break any rules. Monitor your use of time and leave yourself with enough time at the end to check your work. Stay for the whole duration of the test. You may wonder, “why am I the first one done?” or, “why am I the last one done? Why is everybody leaving already?” Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing, only focus on your test. Use every minute, fight for every mark. If a question is about something you didn’t prepare for, you may feel a jolt of panic. Breathe, and keep centered if this happens. Skip to a different question if necessary and come back at the end.

Don’t give up on any questions! Finish all the questions you know the best and use the time you’ve left yourself at the end to squeeze as many marks from the difficult ones as possible! You will surprise yourself with how many marks you can earn yourself with this extra effort and you definitely deserve those marks! Leave all the energy you have in that test room, and your result will be the best reward you can give yourself.

Fighting for every mark is hard and takes lots of motivation. I attended a talk by Chantal Fiola–a Métis scholar of identity, politics, and spirituality–on March 16th. I was even given the honor of conducting the smudge for all attendees at the beginning of the presentation! Chantal shared many invaluable lessons and insights from her life’s journey and also shared key Anishinaabe teachings, including the Seven Fires prophecy.

Her new book:

Her explanation was an immensely helpful reminder for me of those teachings and of what our role is at U of T. We are the seventh generation. We are a new type of people with many precious gifts as well as an immensely difficult task. The path we must navigate is very hard but the hope and potential we can nourish by fighting for every single mark is worth every moment. What we do here every day at U of T, in every classroom and with every test, will cause change more positive and productive than anything that has yet been seen in the world.

I wish I could’ve thanked Chantal for reminding me to fight for every mark. The tests and assignments and endless workloads may drive us nuts, but we can always remember that we’re lucky to have the opportunity to be driven nuts by such important material and invaluable experience for the journey ahead.

The Road Ahead: Planning for Post-Exam Life

“I can’t believe this year’s already over!” we all say to ourselves in disbelief. In just over a month (even sooner for some people) we’ll be done with exams and will be free for four months. Now I know many of you have likely started figuring out your summers already, since jobs, travel plans etc. are often best planned in advance. But, if you’re like me and have procrastinated on post-exam Life: Have no fear – Api is here!

I have compiled a list of my summer options, which are my alternatives to the summer endeavours that I should have (probably) started a few months ago…(I’m only human.)

Hopefully this will help me decide on what to do this summer, and will offer some inspiration to a world of procrastinators and beyond:

1. Employment: Okay to be clear, with jobs, EARLIER IS ALWAYS BETTER. But don’t fret my friends, because it is not too late! Many places around the city are still hiring and continue to hire into the summer. Places with high traffic in the summer (such as tourist destinations) tend to hire progressively throughout the summer as well, based on need. Realistically, it might not be exactly what you wanted, but if money is the motivation, then you have plenty of hope!

Special Tip: Check out the U of T Career Centre (aka my life and soul), either in person on online for job postings, resume building and more! A few other personal favourites for job postings include TalentEgg or Indeed.Ca!

Api in a blazer in an office setting

I Wear Blazers So Please Hire Me: A Student Saga.

2. Travel: Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of experience planning large trips abroad, so I know that’s likely out of the question for me this year. BUT did you know Ontario is kind of an amazing province? A weekend up north at Georgian Bay or a Toronto Staycation is exactly what I need this summer (and it won’t disrupt school, work or anything else I want to do!

Api sitting on rock formation overlooking a lake at Georgian Bay

Ontario, yours to discover!

3. Study: The schedule for the summer term came out fairly recently, and as always, there’s a wide array of courses being offered.  Ah, summer school. It may help you finish your course requirements faster, or let you take a more intensive course without the distraction of other classes. And it probably has many other perks for some! But alas, it is school. In the summer.

Photo of empty chairs at Hart House Library

One of the many summer term perks: EMPTIER LIBRARIES

Special Tip: If you’re taking 1.0 credits continuously from May-August, then you’re eligible for the summer work-study program! Yay for more employment options!

Bonus Suggestion: Binge-watch things. I’ve barely kept up with my TV shows this year. I think that justifies watching ALL of 2014/2015’s TV gold AT ONCE, right?

So that’s a little peek into my summer, folks! What is your summer looking like, U of T? If you have any tips for what I can explore for the next third of my year, let me know down in the comments!

Hiroshima in One Day

Hiroshima holds a strong sentimental value for me. It was the first Japanese city that I spent a significant amount of time in, and my friends and homestay families there introduced me to Japan. Last week, for the first time I had the opportunity to show someone else around the city, when one of my friends from Tokyo swung by to visit.

We began our day at Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park. Located at ground zero, the park features a museum and several memorials dedicated to atomic bomb victims. The museum details the aftermath of the atomic bomb – how it affected people at the time and years after, how the city recovered from it, and how some of its side-effects persist today. The exhibits are silencing and sometimes harrowing, but absolutely worthwhile.

This image shows a concrete arch situated on a bed of pebbles. Flowers can be seen in the immediate foreground, in front of the bed of pebbles. Trees are visible in the background.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

This image shows a signboards submerged in shallow water. It is at the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. Trees are visible in the background.

Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

After taking a lap of the park, we walked to a nearby restaurant specializing in Hiroshima’s signature dish: okonomiyaki. It primarily consists of noodles, cabbage, pork, and egg, with a number of optional ingredients. It’s cooked and served on a hot surface called a teppan. We sat at a bar attached to the teppan, and watched the chef cook our meal in front of us.

This image shows an okonomiyaki resting on a teppan.


A stroll through Hiroshima’s central street led us to a streetcar bound for Hiroshima’s port.

This image shows choppy waves. Mountainous islands ca be seen in the background, to the left of a large piece of machinery.

Port of Hiroshima

Our ride to Edajima.

A number of islands surround the greater Hiroshima area in the Seto Inland Sea. My friend and I had both been to the most famous island in the area, Miyajima, before, so we decided the check out the less well-known island of Edajima instead.

This image shows a paved path along a body of water. Forested mountains can be seen in the background.

Miyajima – One of Hiroshima’s major tourist destinations.

Edajima was sleepy – it offered a nice change of pace from what we were used to in Tokyo. Shops were open for a few hours a day, bus service ran once an hour, and many of the houses appeared to be vacant. We spent a some time wandering around the island and taking in its natural scenery, before getting a lift back to the ferry from one of the locals we met along the way.

This image shows a body of water. A forested landmass is visible in the background.


This image shows a body of water. Forested islands can be seen in the background.


Finally, we ended the day by meeting up with another friend at an izakaya before calling it a night.

This image shows a scene of Hiroshima at night. Tall buildings line a concrete street. Cars and a streetcar can be seen on the street.

Hiroshima at night. [source]

Anyway, that’s Hiroshima in a day. Next week I’ll be writing to you from Osaka, and the following week I’ll be writing from Okinawa.

Overcoming my Fear of Professors

Up until last Thursday, I don’t think I had ever actually seen a professor up close. 

I mean, sure, I’ve sat front row in lecture or passed them while walking to class, but I am really bad at actually talking to my professors. I never bring my questions to them after class, or go to their office hours. I do all of these things with my TAs, but something about actually talking to a professor intimidates me. 

I think that I’m always worried I’ll sound stupid, or that I won’t have anything worth occupying their time with. When in reality, my philosophy professor would probably actually enjoy discussing Plato with me. I mean, isn’t that kind of why you become a teacher? To teach

Photo of a professor looking over a whiteboard as a student writes on it

Image via.

So when I was invited to the UCLit Coffee with the Profs: A Panel Discussion on Poverty and Homelessness, I immediately thought no way! 

Poster promoting equity with the profs. It reads:  A discussion on poverty presented by Coffee with the Profs.

Image via.

What could I possibly bring to this discussion that one of the expert panelists couldn’t say better? Do I even know anything about poverty and homelessness in Toronto? Do I even know ANYTHING AT ALL?!!?!!

But doing things that are out of my comfort zone was one of my new school year resolutions, and has created most of my other content here on the blog. I survived all those other awkward situations, so why not this one?

The layout of the panel!

The layout of the panel!

Coffee with the Profs is a regular event held by the UCLit. Anyone can come, and each event has a different theme or topic. Some, like this one, are panel-style, while others are more of a social and networking event. The atmosphere is always casual – they order pizza and make a cozy corner of couches in the JCR – and there are UCLit reps scattered throughout the group to ask a question when things get awkward and silent. 

The panel I attended was more of an informal round-table discussion than a panel, and included Professor Hulchanski from the Centre for Urban and Community studies, Poet Laureate George Elliot Clarke, and Jesse Surdigo from the Yonge Street Mission. Each guest brought a different perspective to the topic as they discussed questions such as; what is poverty, why is it so difficult to escape, and what can we be doing to help? 

Students gathered around a large table and projector in the UC JCR

A different Coffee with the Profs session held by the UClit photo via.

I found that although I didn’t have a wealth of knowledge on the subject, I was able to ask more specific questions about what was being discussed – rather than overarching philosophical ones. I actually ended up leaving the panel having formulated the beginning of my own opinion on the subject.

I overcame my fear of feeling inadequate in the presence of professors, and learned some new things in the process. I even engaged in a bit of twitter-talk with Professor Hulchanski after the panel! 

Screen Shot 2015-03-16 at 11.35.35 PM

If you’re nervous about talking to professors, I would definitely suggest hitting up one of these events! The informal setting makes it a lot easier to interact, or to just sit back and watch if that’s what you’re more comfortable with. I would also suggest going if you’re particularly interested in one of the topics, as it’s a great place to share your passion with other academics and students. 

Congrats to the UClit on hosting such a great series of events! I can’t wait to see what topics you bring up next! 

Where to Hang Out in Tokyo

Tokyo’s hangout spots are overwhelmingly diverse. In terms of music, atmosphere, and menu, there is a venue to match almost anyone’s taste. Since there are few social spaces on the University of Tokyo’s campus, most socializing instead takes place in one of the surrounding neighbourhoods. In this post, I’ll share some of the spots that I’ve checked out with other University of Tokyo students since getting here.

1. Shibuya

Shibuya is popular amongst University of Tokyo students, largely because of its close proximity to campus. It only takes ten minutes to get from here:

This image shows a tree-lined corridor at the University of Tokyo's Komaba campus. It is dusk.

The University of Tokyo’s Komaba Campus.

to here:

This image shows Shibuya's crossing at night. It is surrounded by tall buildings featuring extensive neon signage.

Shibuya [source]

It’s home to countless restaurants and music venues, many of which are affordably priced for the students who go to its surrounding universities.

2. Shimokitazawa

Shimokitazawa is another favourite haunt for many University of Tokyo students, again because of its close proximity to campus. It’s a cozy neighbourhood characterized by winding streets and outdoor speakers playing laid-back music. An abundance of curry restaurants and independent cafés also define the neighbourhood, and attract Tokyoites from all over the city. Some friends and I have a favourite curry joint that we visit once every few weeks.

3. Shinjuku

Shinjuku is one of Tokyo’s busiest districts. Its central train station services ten different lines from five different train operators, and sees an average of 3.64 million passengers per day.

Shinjuku at night.

Shinjuku at night.

This area is farther away from campus than the other two, but its exciting bustle and central location make it a popular hangout spot. Its Golden-Gai (ゴールデン街) area is a particularly fun place to explore with friends. It consists of six narrow streets that collectively contain over 200 small izakaya, i.e. tapas restaurants like Guu Izakaya on Bloor Street, many of which feature highly specific themes and music. A friend and I celebrated the end of our first semester in this area. We ended up sitting next to a University of Tokyo alumnus, who was eager to share stories from his student days.

This image shows a narrow street lined with neon signs. It is part of a street in Shinjuku District's Golden-Gai area.

A Glimpse of Golden-Gai. [source]

4. Kichijoji

Lastly, the Kichijoji neighbourhood boasts a number of music (especially jazz) venues and delicious restaurants. It’s also close to many of the university’s dormitories, which is particular important when going out at night here. Tokyo’s public transport system does not accommodate nightlife, especially live shows, as well as many other major cities’; most bus routes and train lines shut down around midnight, which means that going out at night often requires heading home shortly after eleven, or staying out until five in the morning when the first trains run. Kichijoji’s proximity to the dormitories allows for an easy walk home. I can say from experience that being stranded until five in the morning is an unpleasant experience.

I hope this post offers a glimpse into some of the popular hangout spots amongst UTokyo students. If you have any questions, please comment below!

Making Group Work Work

“Teamwork makes the dream work”, or so I’ve been told. Some people might be inclined to respond that “Group work makes the nightmare work”. It’s a scary form of assessment which universities seem to be falling increasingly in love with. From an outsider glance, it’s easy to see why: future researchers need to be able to collaborate with people who have different knowledge than do they in order to continue advancing our understandings of the world, and anyone working or living in the world today needs to develop interpersonal and teamwork skills to survive.

Both in the real world and in the university, group work poses a few risks: someone might coast along with the team just to take credit, people might take control of the group,  and duties might not be distributed fairly, among other things. In the classroom, there’s the added weight that your grade usually depends on working with other people. It’s a scary trial that many people will have to confront before they graduate.

Yet, despite so many students harping on group work at UofT and around the globe, a google search for how to make university group work actually work shows almost no results: mostly just resources for teachers trying to make group work worthwhile. But what about us students? Where are the guides for making group work work? Good question. It will depend on the kind of group work assigned and the discipline it’s for. But I think there are some answers on a broader interpretation. Continue reading:

1. Introduce yourself. Even in small classrooms, it’s very easy not to know the people around you. It will be a lot easier to work with people if you know their names, and it helps to break the ice. Even if your group work is only going to last ten minutes, it only takes a few seconds to introduce yourself.

2. Exchange the best contact information. A lot of students feel obliged to give out their utoronto email accounts, even though a lot of them don’t use their accounts too frequently. This makes it hard to keep touch. Go ahead and share your sk8r_h8r1998 hotmail account if it’s what you use most. Or, try Facebook groups or third party applications. Whatever is going to keep your team in touch.

3. Don’t be too modest. Everybody has their own skills. A team works best when it’s using everybody’s skills together. If you’re good at presenting, let them know. If you have great research skills, great! If you have strong penmanship, well you’re likely a total keeper. It will make assigning any jobs easier, and will make it easier for you to do your part when you’re already good at it!

4. Break out but don’t break up. It’s easier to work on projects in smaller groups and way easier to schedule! (Not to mention, may be helpful with productivity). But be careful that you don’t wander too far: your break out groups should stay accountable to your whole group. I can only tell you what happens when the people supposed to do section X disappear on presentation day, and nobody knows what their part was.

5. Get [a] stranger. If you have the option to pick your own groups, consider bringing in a stranger. It can be comfortable to study and work with the people you know, but (a) it also means conflicts can be even worse, and (b) some studies show that bringing new people into a group setting improves the creativity and productivity of the group. Who knows what your peers have in store for you!

6. Bonus: Ditch the doodle polls for group scheduling; when2meet has made my scheduling life so much easier in every way.

Have any other tips for surviving group work? Let me know in the comments!

Dealing with Homesickness

Almost every exchange student experiences homesickness at some point. Living in an unfamiliar environment where everyone speaks another language can be alienating at times. Tokyo’s case is ironic; despite being the most populous city in the world, it’s easy to feel isolated here – to be constantly surrounded by people but feel profoundly alone. I’ve experienced these moments of crisis, and so have many of the exchange students around me. Fortunately, during my time as a high school student in Hiroshima, and the exchange I’m on right now, I’ve developed some strategies for dealing with and preventing homesickness and enjoying my time abroad to the fullest.

Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) engages the idea of feeling alone amidst millions of people in Tokyo.

  1. Get Involved at University 

I suggest getting involved in clubs or sports teams at your host university as a remedy; it can be a great way to meet new people, and take your mind off missing home. Don’t be afraid of language barriers between you and the other students in the club you’re interested in either. You’ll improve your grasp of the language you’re studying by using it on a daily basis. By getting involved you can also familiarize yourself with your new environment, and reduce feelings of alienation. When I went to high school in Japan, I joined the volleyball team to make new friends, keep myself busy, and take my mind off home. Right now I make friends in the University of Tokyo’s gym and photography club. Keeping busy helps me to have fun and stay focused on my time in Tokyo, instead of on missing friends and family.

  1. Stay in Touch – Just not too Much

When suffering from homesickness, it might seem relieving to connect with the people you miss. But constant contact with family and friends back home can remind you of how much you miss them, and how far away you are. Moreover, being too preoccupied with your life back home can prevent you from exploring your new environment. By getting out, meeting people, and becoming comfortable in my new surroundings, I’ve fostered a sense of belonging, and turned Japan into a second home.

Of course, a certain amount of contact with friends and family at home is important. Until you overcome homesickness, I recommend deciding in concrete terms how often you will communicate, e.g. once a week or so, in order to prevent communicating too much. Services like Skype and Google Hangouts are great for staying in touch, but they should be used in moderation. I talk with my family about once every two weeks.

  1. Talk with your Fellow Exchange Students

Exchange students at your host university can form a valuable support network for each other. While they come from a plethora of diverse backgrounds, they all have at least one thing in common: they are all confronting the same, unfamiliar environment. Try talking with each other about individual experiences of homesickness. You’ll likely find someone who you can empathize with. Sometimes verbalizing feelings can go a long way to alleviating them. Three other international students and I meet for drinks about once a month to chat about how our exchange is going. We often discover that we’re dealing with the same issues, e.g. homesickness, and find ways together to deal with them.

These are a few of my strategies for dealing with and avoiding homesickness. Fortunately, homesickness tends to strike mostly within the first few months of exchange, after which it is much easier to concentrate on enjoying your time in your new environment. Just remember: your time as an exchange student is limited – make the most of it!