It’s all about the free stuff: some resources to keep you going

If you’ve been tuning in this week, you’ll know that UofT has dedicated October to Mental Wellness Month, and we here at the Life@UofT blog are taking part by talking about our own experiences with stress and mental health. The hope being, that you can learn from our experiences and mistakes.

In my first few years, I thought I had to deal with things all on my own; and to a degree, I still feel that way—even though I know better. It’s not easy to ask for help, and sometimes you have to engage in some self-care. For some, that might just be sitting down with some soothing tea and watching television, get a massage, listen to some calming music, or even pop some balloons or some bubble wrap. For me, it’s always been a combination of these, but also a matter of learning to use the resources available to me.

It’s easy to think that resources are meant for other people: people who need them more. It’s just as easy to forget that sometimes we are the ones who need them. So here: let me lend a hand, and even if you think you don’t need it, please read on. Here are seven of the free resources that I use to keep on top of things during the school year:

Vintage photo of people looking at books, with an added speech bubble that says "Wowee, check out these awesome free resources, Mildred!"

1. Free Past Tests & Past Exams
I often have problems with my memory, so when it comes to midterms and exams, I can stress out a lot. Papers I can handle, but tests… tests are something else. Fortunately, the Arts and Sciences Students Union (ASSU) has filing cabinets full of past tests: literally. Just walk in with a T-Card and you can take a free peek at one of their many past tests, donated by students (find them in SS1068). (They also sell test packages around midterms). And, when it comes time for exams, you can always look at the past exam repository, to help you get a clue.

Photo of some of the files and past tests that ASSU has available.

From A(CT240) to Z(OO362), ASSU has you covered.

2. Free Essay Clinics
Essay clinics are run by professions, free of cost to you: professionals will look at drafts of your paper, and tell you how to make it better, and generally how to improve your writing, for free. And why not? You can only get better. Each college has a writing centre, and so do some departments. Find one to book a free appointment here.

3. Free Massages
Free massages, every Monday at Hart House. Enough said: click here for more details.

4. The Free Seed Library
It’s nice to take a break from studying every now and then, and I find planting relaxing (and science does say plants make you more creative). DG Ivey Library at New College has a seed library, part of the Toronto Seed Library. The idea is simple: you “check out” seeds, plant them, and when your produce is ready to harvest, you take some seeds from your yield and return them to the library for the next person to use. A nice, free way to relax and go green.

Photo of the Seed Library at New College, showing packets of seeds.

The New College Seed Library at Ivey Library

5. Free Math, Chemistry, Stats, & Eco help
Just like the writing centres: why not get free help from professionals? Get free tutoring in math, chemistry, stats, or economics. The resources are there for you!

6. Pop some Free Virtual Bubble Wrap
Okay, so this one isn’t provided by the university, but who can resist? Start popping here. (Also, you can get bubble wrap super cheap at Dollarama: just so you know).

7. Free Professor Office Hours
Nobody knows how to help you succeed in a class like the people running that class. Talk to your profs and your teaching assistants! They get pretty lonely when nobody comes by, and they’d love to chat and help you get through assignments and material. It’s also a great way to make friends (profs are people too!).

8. What about you?
I could go on and on with the other resources on campus I use, but I only get so many words per post, so why not help me out? So what resources do you use: do you have any tips or tricks to help you get through your year? Help me out and let me know in the comments!


Finding Massey College…and More

Last Monday I heard about a reading by author David Bezmozgis being held at Massey College and decided to check it out. Stepping through the gated entranceway, past the porter’s lodge, along the stone pathway of the water garden, I was unsure of my expectations. I can say now that I was pleasantly assured, surprised and encouraged by my experience.

If you didn’t know, the University of Toronto is home to the Jack McClelland Writer in Residence program, under the joint sponsorship of the English Department and Massey College. The writer joins the U of T community to work with staff and students in the field of creative writing. Last year they had Joy Kogawa, and this year they are pleased to host David Bezmozgis.

In addition to holding office hours for students, the writer in residence also leads a non-credit creative writing workshop, usually in the spring term. There is a limited enrolment, and it’s very competitive (seems a lot of people out there want to be writers).



Admission to the workshop, however, all depends on the tastes of the resident writer. Maybe he will like your work, maybe he will hate it. Who really knows? If you like creative writing, apply, apply, apply!

If you have never visited Massey College, please do! I often hear people comment on the similarity of U of T to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But Massey College is different. Massey College is more reminiscent of a Buddhist monastery or something.



Tucked, rather nondescriptly, into the west side of Devonshire Place, across from William Graham Library, Massey College can be easily missed (especially in the winter). Inside, however, there are study spaces, a dining hall, and a quaint library. In a way, Massey College feels like a separate oasis within U of T, a secret get-away for those “deeper” meditations. Or just a nice place for a nap!

The Upper Library, where the reading was held, is a small, charming room, lined with books and blue stained glass windows. I had expected a larger turnout, but there was a good mix of workshop members, fans and readers, and academics. It was a casual reading, followed by a reception of coffee and tea and things.

David Bezmozgis, whose latest book sounds like a moral-political thriller, pleasantly debunked the stereotype of the disgruntled, cynical novelist. Well-spoken and approachable, Bezmozgis explained that writing can be a force of enquiry into unknown, disagreeable issues. If you look at the world and see that something is wrong, then write about it!



He spoke also of his process. Three years of research, reading memoirs, travelling, and endlessly talking to people. I found this, most of all, to be a helpful reminder that the skills and habits we learn at university are very useful, and often necessary in later life. Even the free, boundless writer has to do research, readings, and talk to people!

These events and programs are great because they encourage young writers to pursue their passion and their craft. We have the opportunity to meet and mingle with professionals, faculty and other students, who share similar interests and goals. As a professor of creative writing adroitly noted, even ‘old’ writers can benefit from encouragement.

U of T is home to many programs and groups, and events are happening all the time! If you follow your interests, even on a whim, you never know what opportunity will just appear out of the side of a snow covered street. #TryitUofT

‘Til next time. Stay diamond.

– Stephen

On Perfectionism, Writer’s Block, and Overcoming Both

Hands down, my least favourite question during a job interview is being asked the quintessential “What is your biggest weakness?” question. Firstly, where do I even begin?! Secondly, how do I trick my potential bosses into thinking any flaw of mine is actually going to be an asset to their business? (Fun fact: I once answered with “strong, dark-haired men”. In return I received astonished laughter, and a job offer. #TryItUofT?)

I read somewhere once that the best and worst response in an interview would be to say, “My biggest flaw is that I’m a perfectionist.” I figure this works both ways because – congratulations: you have solved the quandary I discussed above and successfully fooled those suckers into hiring you – but you’ve done it at the cost of sounding like the most irritating human being on the planet. And at the risk of coming in a close second to that title, I’m going to take the leap and say I can relate to that.

Trying to sell yourself to somebody vs. not coming off as incredibly annoying... the eternal struggle.

Trying to sell yourself to somebody vs. not coming off as ~the worst~… it’s the eternal struggle. (PC:

I really, really enjoy writing as a pastime. One of my most prized possessions to date is a purple plush-bound diary I received for my fifth birthday. I’ve blogged since the days of Xanga. I actually kind of enjoyed proofreading my friends’ essays in high school (albeit partially due to my grammar nazi tendencies). I tend to do better on essays and written assignments than I do on tests that solely feature multiple choice questions. I think I’ve even started several novels throughout my lifetime (I know, it’s taking all of my energy not to roll my eyes at myself right now).

Yeah... I was that girl.

Yeah… I was (and still am) that girl. (PC: via Tumblr/

But it’s been almost 15 years since I received that diary and I never managed to fill out all of its pages. I’ve started so many blogs with the intent of keeping a constant record that I can’t remember all the screen names I own. I’ve spent time rewriting sentences for other people’s papers without starting my own. I don’t think I’ve ever finished an essay earlier than the night before or morning of its due date. And there’s a reason I’m here as a student at U of T and not richer than the Queen of England, à la J.K. Rowling. To what do I owe this misfortune? My prognosis: a terrible case of writer’s block, brought on by the onset of perfectionism.

Writing for Life at U of T has not so much been a job for me as it is has been an outlet to create something I hope others will enjoy from doing something that I love. Recently, however, I’m finding it harder and harder to produce writing that I’m happy with. (Another fun fact: I had writer’s block while writing this post about writer’s block. Super meta and ironic.) The constant anxiety of not being able to perfectly transfer my thoughts from mind to keyboard has gotten me literally nowhere, except in slowing down my progress.

Credit: Screencap from The Office

Essentially what perfectionism does to you. (PC: Screencap from The Office)

This was not so much a piece on health and wellness as it is a reflection of an experience that I’m sure most of you will be able empathize with in your time at U of T (and probably one that’s occurred more than once). It also isn’t necessarily limited to an experience within the scope of writing. It’s scary thinking about constantly having to reach a certain standard you’ve set for yourself once you start producing work that you’re actually happy with, or when you start believing that everything you’re doing isn’t living up to your potential. This is probably especially prevalent to most of us when it comes to finals season. Upon the arrival of finals season, it boils down to two emotions – (1) feeling like you have to outperform yourself on the exam because you didn’t do as well as you had hoped throughout the semester, or (2) worrying about your exam performance pulling down your grade and having a semester’s worth of hard work thrown away in vain. Take this common piece of advice given by psychotherapists to patients with anxiety-related disorders: Stop worrying about not being able to do your best, and just get out there and do your best. You’ll only be doing yourself a favour.

So on that note, come brilliant, inspiring, prose or not – until next week, U of T.


Everybody Likes a Gathering!

How goes it everybody?

Hopefully everyone out in U of T land are killing their midterms and papers this week. Speaking of midterms… what’s with that term “midterm” anyways? I think we need to strongly consider changing it to “First Tests” or something, I mean Midterm assumes that you are already midway through the semester, and last I checked we were just 5 weeks in. Also how can one have two midterms? Are you attempting to persuade me into believing that there can be two middles of the semester? have you lost your minds completely? Stop speeding up on me University, time is already going too fast and I still have no idea what I’m going to do post-Grad!

Sums it up nicely

Sums it up nicely

Alright so now that we have the rant portion of the post already covered and out of the way let’s move onto something more productive shall we?

Even though we are all swamped this month with paper’s and tests, it’s nice to get your head out of the library/classroom and check out an event or two on campus. This month First Nations House has a major writing event being held on the 24-25th appropriately titled “Indigenous Writers Gathering”. The purpose of the event is to, of course, promote indigenous writing, storytelling, and rhetoric but it also includes events featuring authors who focus on stronger fiction, non-fiction and creative writing skills in a more broad sense. Therefore the programming is not geared specifically and only towards those of Aboriginal ancestry. It’s not just a great opportunity to get out and meet some professors and award winning writers but also an opportunity to go to an event which you can write about for an assignment/paper. Multiple times, in a variety of my courses, I have been required to attend and then report on an event around campus.  If you are in a similar situation than this is definitely the event for you.


The Indigenous Writer’s Gathering also has a lot of momentum from it’s past years success, if you have a second, check out this short review of last year’s programming. I hope to see some of you there :)

Well, stay in there everybody.  This wave of “first” tests and papers will be long gone in just a few short weeks.




Shall We Go Out to the Theatre?

Last week I went to Hart House Theatre to see the play Bone Cage. Written by Catherine Banks, it’s a picture of Canadian youth, chilling, sad, funny, and poetic. It’s one thing to be a Canadian youth, another to see my fears and anxieties played out on a stage. But that is neither here nor there, and we shant be saying another word on it, shant we! The important thing is that I went out to a U of T event (#tryitUofT What events have you gone out to recently?)!

Hart House Theatre doodle

Does everyone know about Hart House Theatre? It’s a little bit like the Isla de Muerta, in that it cannot be found except by those who already know where it is. Well, not exactly. It’s just below the main entrance. Right there!



Constructed in 1919, the Hart House Theatre is truly a gem of the university. As a nationally recognized theatre it showcases the work of new and established playwrights, while maintaining a strong devotion to Shakespeare. In high school I saw Macbeth at Hart House, featuring at the end (spoiler alert) Macbeth’s severed head. Fifteen-year-old me was very impressed!



Hart House Theatre also offers a lot of involvement opportunities for students, whether it’s casting calls, paid job positions, or on-going volunteer openings in the theatre. In February, Hart House Theatre will host the U of T Drama Festival, a week of original theatre written, produced, and performed by U of T students. Apparently Donald Sutherland got his start right here on the Hart House stage. Look there he is!


Source: But I like to think it is. Either way, he did get his start at U of T, so if theatre is your bag then you’re certainly in the right place!

Well, maybe it’s not him, but I like to think it is. Either way, he did get his start right here at U of T. So if theatre is your bag then you’re certainly in the right place!

Hart House is just one of many outlets for theatre enthusiasts at U of T. There are also the college drama societies and groups:

Trinity College Dramatic Society will be performing Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile in November, an imagined encounter between Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein in which they chat about genius!

VCDS is currently holding auditions for Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit. I read this play in first year philosophy and it rattled me, yep, like a snake!

New College’s New Faces is at it again with IMPROV sessions every Tuesday! And I’m sure they’ll be bringing something to the 2014 Drama Fest.

And the UC Follies are concocting another year of . . . well, everything from sketch comedy to live radio plays!

All of these societies, groups, and companies are hoping that YOU will audition, volunteer, or at least (if you’re an old geezer like me) come out a show and enjoy the magic of U of T’s theatre life!


‘Til next time, youths and younglings, stay diamond!


Stone Cold Extensions…

Alas my friends I have fallen ill with the dreaded March head cold. There could be no worse time of the year to contract this virulent pestilence that renders my brain nothing more than a cloudy, congested dome of confusion.

It happened Saturday morning. As soon as I woke up I knew I was infected. My head hurt, my nostrils were clogged, and that little tickle in my throat that I had been ignoring all week had transformed from a tickle into more of a sandpaper on raw skin kind of thing.

Am I whining?


However, there’s a point to my whining. With three papers due in the next four days and an illness, I was inspired to write about extensions. No not hair extensions. Paper or assignment extensions.

I am in my fourth year here at U of T and before this week I had never asked for an extension. You might ask why. Most of my friends get extensions regularly. The reason I’ve never asked for one is that the whole process makes me nervous.

First you need to email or meet with your Prof. and request the extension. Usually you’d provide them with some justification for the extension ie. My computer was stolen, My dog died. Yet, most likely the conversation would be about how you need an extension because you have two other papers due the same week or a midterm on the same day. Worst case scenario you tell your Prof that you started too late and simply can’t finish it on time.

Having a conversation about any of these things with my Profs would give me serious anxiety. I mean why I would want my Prof. to know that I am horrible at time management, or worse that I finished all my other assignments before I even started to think about his.

Luckily, I only had to tell my Prof. that I was really sick and she happily gave me an extension. Even still I am left to wonder if she now thinks that I am a bad student for not being finished with the paper early, so that something like a cold wouldn’t get in the way of submitting the paper on time.

The other thing that makes me nervous about extensions is that I am convinced that late paper will automatically be graded more harshly. This might not be an issue if your class has 500 students, but in a seminar class with only 15 people, it’s pretty easy for the Prof to remember who was diligent and who was not.

I have no proof or basis to say this, it’s just a fear I have. I’m sue lots of Profs. grade papers equally regardless of whether they were submitted on time. I’m only saying that this aspect of extensions makes me very uncomfortable.

I actually found this great how to site on the web…How to ask for an extension! Take a look it’s very step by step and instructional.

I hope you all don’t get sick, but if you it might be the perfect opportunity to ask for an extension.


ode to the varsity

Bonjour U of T.

I hope you had a good reading week. Mine was short. Too short, but life goes on.

As I have said in the past, when I first stepped onto this campus I didn’t really know what I was doing.  I didn’t know what I wanted to get involved in, where my interests lay, or how to shape my university experience into something meaningful. All I knew was that this is the place where you get your fancy degree and then head out into the real world. But I didn’t want my university experience to be defined by a mundane cycle of class and commute.

I wanted to get out there and experience all I could, but U of T is big and admittedly, intimidating at times. Where does one start? I knew though that I liked to write. Though I chose to major in biology, writing had always been a passion of mine. I wrote previously for my high school newspaper and always sought opportunities to get my work published. So, a quick Google search led me to the website of The Varsity: U of T’s official undergraduate newspaper.  After finding the website, I quickly noted the e-mail of the comment editor and then for some reason let it sit on my desktop for a semester. Perhaps it’s because the first semester is one in which everybody is just trying to adapt and find a library other than Robarts to study in.  Regardless, I e-mailed the editor, Alex, who remains one of my good friends today and pretty soon found myself getting published.   Nearly a year and fifteen pieces later, The Varsity remains an integral part of my life at U of T and I am forever grateful for the opportunities it has opened up for me.

Writing for The Varsity really connected me to the issues facing our campus and students. Researching topics for articles also brought out in me a passion for issues pertaining to post secondary education and a desire to see things get better on our campus. So, at the beginning of this year, I took the plunge and ran to sit on a student union and here I am today, on ASSU.  No longer did U of T seem a complicated maze filled with obscure buildings, policies, events, and people.  U of T became a vibrant colourful community, that I found myself being a part of.  The Varsity was also a great way of meeting people and through it I connected with people outside my college and outside my field of study.  It truly made me feel like a U of T student and not just a University College student.

Contained within the walls of The Varsity office in 21 Sussex is a rich history; a history that contains speaking out against censorship of editors, winning undergraduates access to Robarts Library and the names of thousands of aspiring student writers.  Some of these writers would go on to higher acclaim in life, among them Naomi Klein (Editor in Chief, 1992-1993) and Prime Minister William Lyon McKenzie KingThe Varsity, if anything, is a resilient paper; it has continued to publish despite facing financial trouble over the years. In fact, during one snow storm when no other newspaper in Toronto was able to deliver – The Varsity came through.

Of course, there are other campus newspapers you can join as well. The Newspaper is an independent weekly published by U of T students and also most colleges also publish newspapers (the biggest being UC’s Gargoyle, SMC’s The Mike and Victoria College’s The Strand).  So pick up your pens and join the legacy of writers that have made their mark on our campus.

How the snow thawed my brain…

I have a whole lot of stuff due this week and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Speaking of icebergs…

This weekend I had a ridiculous amount of work due, but I still managed to find time to for procrastination hiking. I enjoyed the snow day last week, but I hadn’t gotten a chance to get out in the white stuff and play. I was stuck inside studying. I forced myself out of the house on Sunday and I’m so glad I did.

I recently moved to an area that is ripe with rock formations and waterfalls…if you are even vaguely aware of Ontario’s topography and you consider the fact that I study at the St. George a campus, then you could probably guess where it is I live. That mental game will give you a few minutes of needed distraction.

So like I was saying, I finally got out into the snow and it was magical…really it was. An hour of fresh cold air, the invigorating sensation of cold snow in your boots, the adrenaline rush when you almost slip five feet into an icy cold stream…it was all good.

After hiking to a nearby ravine I was face to face with a, icy twenty five foot waterfall. We spent about an hour playing in the snow, just being I awe of the natural beauty that surrounded us.

Before I went outside I was feeling really defeated, with a bad case of writer’s block. I was struggling to get any words down on paper and I was frustrated.

I’m not sure if I had just been in a waking sleep all day and the winter air just woke me up, but whatever biological or mental process that occurred during my winter hike cured my writer’s block!

So I really killed a few birds with one stone.  I got some exercise, I spent some quality time with my kids, I enjoyed what may be the last snowfall of the season (if Wiarton Willy is right) and I expelled all the stress from my system.  I was able to sit down at my computer after my hike and hammer out six sold pages of writing.

If you’re suffering from a writer’s block like I was, try a nice winter walk or some other form of exercise. I guess the experts are right it does really help!



ASK me about my new online love…

I met someone online a few months ago. They are smart, resourceful, and they always want to talk to me. I have become quite attached to them as of late and I feel like we’ve developed a deep and meaningful relationship. With all these essays due in the next two weeks, it’s so great to go online and talk to someone who really understands what I need. This is what I need: scholarly journals, citable dictionaries, and article databanks.

My new online love is none other the library chat function “ASK” on the U of T Library website.  This app. Is possibly the best thing ever conceived of in the history of universities! It’s so amazing, you just log in and like magic a librarian is there live on your computer to help you out with any library related needs you might have.

One thing I have learned since starting at U of T is that librarians love to help. They are the most helpful profession. Go and try this. Walk up to the reference desk at your library and ask them to help you find some random piece of research. Notice the glimmer of excitement in their eye. Now notice how they provide you with the information you requested, but they also give a whole wealth of knowledge that you didn’t ask for. You might think “I didn’t ask for that”, but give yourself a few minutes and you’ll realize you
actually do need this information. You just didn’t know it yet!

I’m not a masochist. I will not spend hours in the library trying to uncover research material, when I can just ask someone else to do it for me. Now I know that sounds lazy, but if the University is providing this service to us free of charge, they must agree that this manual labour is just too tiresome for us to be doing ourselves.

I’m sure there was some backroom discussion with all the Humanities Professors on campus, that went something like this, “We’ll find all the stuff for them at the library and you guys can assign another essay or two per term.”

I’m most likely conspiracy theorizing here, but whatever the motivation was for providing this amazing research tool was, I am a much happier student because of it.

Yesterday morning, I was trying to find a scholarly Latin dictionary online, when I stopped myself and asked “why am I doing this?” I quickly logged onto ASK and a librarian sent me a url to an approved Latin dictionary within minutes.

Give ASK a test drive and I’m sure you’ll never research the same again!



Dear Professor

UofT is the largest research institution in Canada. From history to science, philosophy to engineering, UofT churns out new breakthroughs and discoveries every year. And that means big opportunities in research for undergraduate students.

UofT  offers research courses in second, third, and fourth year. For instance, in second year students can take part in a ROP 299 project and in third and fourth year students can participate in independent study project courses like HMB395. These courses can give you the opportunity to take on your own project under the supervision of a professor or allow you to work on part of an existing project.  Many students look for volunteer opportunities in labs as well.

We’ve all heard the saying, “It’s not about what you said, it’s about how you said it.” When it comes to approaching a faculty member or supervisor about the possibility of getting involved in research, this statement couldn’t be more true.  Professors can seem (and sometimes are) intimidating and oftentimes, it’s difficult to understand the “etiquette” required when contacting them. I’ve compiled a list of tips that will hopefully make the process more comfortable. They may even increase your chances of hearing a “YES!”

The Do’s and Don’ts of Contacting Professors for Research


Introduce yourself! Unfortunately, UofT is much larger than any high school on the planet and it’s very unlikely that a professor will recognize you by first name. When speaking to or emailing a professor in regards to a research position, be sure to identify yourself. What’s your name (your FULL name)? What year are you in? What’s your major? Giving yourself an identity will increase the chances of you being remembered.

Be polite! According to the UofT Career Centre, students often forget to use a formal tone when approaching a professor or staff member. You wouldn’t address a professor the way you would a friend. It’s important to show them the respect that they deserve.  

Do your homework! BEFORE contacting a faculty member of your choice, spend some time looking over their current research. Glance over a professor’s CV or scroll through the research that he/she has listed on his/her website. It’s not enough to know the department he/she belongs to or the field he/she is working in. Knowing his/her specific area of interest indicates that you are genuinely excited about the prospect of working with him/her. It also suggests that you know what you’re getting yourself into. Remember, you don’t need to understand EVERYTHING you read (it’s probably far too complicated), but you should try to grasp main points.

Sell yourself! Be humble but be sure to showcase your interest and accomplishments when speaking to or emailing a faculty member. You are, in a sense, advertising yourself. And professors will opt for the individual who sells themselves the best.


Send generic emails! We all do it, don’t we? In first year, I remember sending a generic email for everything (jobs, research positions, etc.) It’s so convenient to address an email “To Whom it May Concern.” There’s also a very slim chance that you will receive a positive response to a generic email. Address your emails to the faculty member of your choice. Be specific.

Neglect proofreading! No silly spelling or grammar mistakes, please! Try to show attention to detail. This is the kind of thing that won’t be noticed if it’s done right. But it’ll definitely be noticed if it’s done wrong.

Give up! Professors are busy. It can often take a while for them to get back to you. And sometimes when they do, they don’t give you the response that you want. They may not have the time or space to supervise an undergraduate research project or they may not feel that they are the best person to direct your work. And as you apply to more and more faculty members, you may find that many of them do not want to take you on at that point in time. Keep trying! You may get 100 no’s but you only need 1 yes to get to where you want to go.

Good luck!

Till next week,