The end of your high school life can be tedious. You’ve been with the same people in the same place for almost five years. You probably have some idea of what you want to do and where you are going. Your mind frequently wanders to bigger and better thing, itching to start your own life and be free to do what you want.
Don’t get me wrong; I loved my time at high school. I was really lucky to have great friends and teachers who I got on well with and who I knew always had my back. My parents strongly supported my passions and interests. I was involved in many activities that made me happy and did pretty well academically.
But high school can be a marathon. Everyone reaches a point when you’ve had enough and sometimes it’s difficult to stay motivated.
For most people, this feeling is strongest, unsurprisingly in Year 13. At eighteen, you are legally an adult, free to make your own choices with the power to control your own life. This is what excited me most about university: independence.
I am one of those people who had everything laid out. I knew what I wanted to study, where I was going, had a passion and knew the kind of career I was aiming for. Or so I thought.
I’ve just completed my first semester at Otago studying a Bachelor of Science majoring in Zoology and minoring in Marine Science and Science Communication. Over the last four months, I’ve been living in Dunedin at St Margaret’s College. I’ve come to love this new city and made some amazing friends whose ambitions are just as great as mine.
From someone who has been in your shoes, I wanted to share what my experience has been like so far.
I had so many expectations as to what university would be like although most of these differed from the true reality of university life. Most importantly, I’d like to share what I’ve learnt over the last few months.
University is one of those experiences that I feel no one can tell you what it’s like until you go yourself. But I’ll do my best to provide you with some advice and hopefully inspire you to make it through these last few months of your school life.
I can’t even begin to tell you how excited I was to start university.
I counted down the months until I could finally begin my degree on the way to becoming the person I wanted to be. I was itching to start my life as a free and independent young adult. The most exciting part for me was that this is just the beginning of my life. I had the opportunity to start a fresh and could be whoever I wanted to be.
New city, new campus, new people. I had only been to Dunedin once to visit as a prospective student for a weekend in 2017. I knew no one there and from this discovered a newfound freedom. Moving to a new place such as this can be refreshing and I felt I now had the confidence to try new things that I had always wanted to do but never would have done because I was afraid of what people might think.
Touching down in Dunedin in February, I felt an unexpected anxiety deep within my stomach.
Back home, I had never considered that moving to university would be anything but exciting. But now I was finally there, an overwhelming number of doubts flooded my head.
What would it be like living in a different city? Would I feel homesick? How would I cope without my parents? Would I make friends? What if my studies didn’t turn out how I had hoped? Had I made the right decision?
As invigorating as increased independence and freedom is, this can be strangely terrifying and this was something I didn’t see coming.
Although, once I saw my accommodation and started to meet fellow first years (commonly known as ‘freshers’) and residential advisors (the returning leaders of the college) over the first weekend, I started to relax. I became distracted once again by the excitement of moving to a new city with lots of new things to do and explore. When the time came for my family to go back to Auckland, I thought little of it and with a chilled “Later!”, I was off on my greatest adventure yet.
Two days later was my first day on campus. Armed with advice from a wise third year across the hall as to how things are done at university, I was just one of the 20,000 students heading into a normal day at Otago.
I couldn’t believe I was finally here. Months of itching anticipation had led up to this moment. Attending my first lectures confirmed I had come to the right place. I quickly made friends in my classes and at St Margaret’s.
But every now and then, that annoying doubt crept back in again and I questioned if I was doing the right thing. I assumed that when I went to university, as soon as I started my studies, all of the people I would meet would have the same interests as me.
For a long time, I had imagined a career in environmental research where I could use what I learnt to make a difference to people, animals and the environment. But little did I know, not all academics are like this.
Some people just do research because they are curious as to how things work not necessarily because they intended on making a difference. I wasn’t so sure I wanted to do pure science and go into a career in research anymore. But this was what I had always imagined I’d do. I found myself writing a lot in my spare time and going on long walks to the harbor and Botanical Gardens, camera in hand.
Maybe I wasn’t studying the right thing? But at the same time, I loved Zoology and Marine Science and never doubted my passion for the environment. But what could I do instead of pure research?
For as long as I can remember, I have loved David Attenborough documentaries and spent hours poring over his films exploring the wonders of our planet and the remarkable creatures that share it with us. I also collect National Geographic magazines, reading about the adventures of scientists and explorers in in far flung corners of the globe and the amazing things they see.
One of my childhood friends and I even used to make our own films, digging up his garden and explaining to the ‘cameraman’ the incredible adaptations of slaters and garden worms. Alongside my love of the natural world, I have always enjoyed writing and photography. In the back of my mind, I had always pondered the idea of filming or writing for the BBC or National Geographic. But that’s not a real job, right? I believed that was the sort of thing that people think about but never actually get to do. Nothing more than a far-flung dream.
Feeling lost, I went and explained my confusion to a university course advisor who unexpectedly said she understood exactly how I felt and that I wasn’t alone. She asked if I had heard of Science Communication, a field which needs people who are both passionate about science and the natural world but also about sharing their knowledge to inspire people through writing, film and other avenues. Dunedin has the largest science communication center in the world, is home to the Natural History New Zealand headquarters and is the wildlife capital of the country.
What I had envisioned wasn’t impossible. This was my eureka moment. This was exactly what I was looking for! I spent so much time wondering what I was supposed to be doing with my life and it had been right in front of me the whole time! I have always been a communicator, I just never realised it. Now everything seemed to make sense.
I assumed that going to university, my path would only become clearer but at first, it was the opposite. Having so many options and so little restriction can be strangely terrifying. I didn’t seriously consider what the transition from school to university would be like before I went. And it can be challenging.
As awesome as it is to have greater freedom, for me going from the rigid structure of school to a place where you can pretty much do what you want was slightly bewildering. It was difficult at first to know how to study for example because no one could tell you exactly how. Everyone is different and used their own methods.
This was one of the many things I had to figure out on my own, with the support of my new friends and university staff.
For me, the unpredictability of university is what terrified me the most in those first few weeks. I’m a person who likes to know what I’m doing when. I like predictability and structure. But I have come to realise that life is not that simple.
It can be scary not knowing what you’ll do or where you’ll end up and moving away from home can be hard. I realised that it doesn’t matter if you think you have your whole plan sorted before university, it will almost always change. But that’s ok!
How lucky are we that we are young and have time to try things we are interested in? We have time to discover who we really are and what we are passionate about. Yes, it’s true we can’t predict where life will take us. But wouldn’t it be boring if our lives were already written for us? University is exciting! And you’ll find that the longer you are there, the easier it gets. I have made many great friends and have not only succeeded in my studies so far but really enjoyed my time at university too in a new city that I love.
I’ve now had a full semester to confirm that I’ve made the right decision to study Zoology and Marine Science, just not in the way I had expected.
One of the most important things I’ve learnt is that even though you don’t know where life will lead, it is so important to do the things you love because you spend so much of your life working you might as well do something you enjoy and that makes you happy. Even if your path doesn’t seem clear right now, it’ll work out because you’ll work harder for something you love. It’s totally ok if you don’t know what you want to do, in fact, it’s pretty normal! Even if you think you’re certain with what you want to do like I was, I can guarantee that it won’t turn out as you expect but that doesn’t mean you won’t end up studying and working in a field you love and enjoy.
Secondly, there is always help if you need it. It’s true that the leap to university can be daunting. If you’re leaving home, your family is no more than a phone call away and there is plenty of support on hand on campus whether that’s through residential advisors, course advisors or friends.
Change was hardest thing for me. It can be scary starting a new life but without change, you don’t grow. University is a great opportunity to make the most of life: to follow your passions, to dream and to take risks, so enjoy it! But in saying that, don’t pretend to be someone you’re not. Do what’s right for you and don’t feel pressured by others to do things. If you do, then you’re probably not with the right people. Find people who you know you can trust and accept you for who you are.
It’s difficult to explain how great it is to find a place where you feel like you belong and where the people around you have aspirations as great as yours. This is the remarkable reality of university and although it doesn’t come without challenges, it is a place where you can become the person you want to be. You are in control. Feeling passion coursing through my veins, this semester has placed me one step closer to dreams and aspirations I once thought were impossible.
So, what would I say to those of you sitting in Year 12 or 13 right now? At this time of year, you may feel like life after school is a world away.
But I promise, it goes so fast! Before you know it, you’ll only have a few weeks left and then you’ll be finished! Make the most of your time at school: stay motivated, hang in there, appreciate your friends and teachers and plan ahead. Even though your path might change, be prepared and have a starting point.
I know my path will probably change but I know my passion never will which it’s why it’s so important to pursue the things that make you happy. Once you’re finished with school, follow your passions, network, make the most of opportunities and put yourself out there. You won’t regret it. Don’t be afraid to have big dreams and aspirations.
I’ve been lucky to have many people in my life who have encouraged me in this way but you’ll always find people that tell you otherwise whether they are relatives or school peers. You design your own future and if you want something bad enough, there is no reason why you can’t achieve it. All great people started somewhere.
Written by Former Hillary House Captain Libby Christophers, published on 03/08/2018. Header image by dunedinz on Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)