It’s Not Hogwarts So Ask These 3 Questions
Not Hogwarts
Photo by Kevin Dooly via CC
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I’ve got some bad news. I know you got a letter in the mail, bought some big books, and maybe even packed a bag that resembles a trunk, but that doesn’t change the reality of the situation. You’re not going to Hogwarts.

We all go to university with expectations. Some expect to make the Dean’s List, others expect to complete that legend (wait for it) -dary pub crawl. Some expect to leave with an expensive piece of paper, and others honestly believe they’ll leave equipped to change the world. Or, if you’re like me, you might be expecting very little. You could be on a university campus this month because it’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Everyone knows that a bachelor’s degree is the minimum cost of entry into a good career, future success, and a life you can be proud of. (Wait. Isn’t that what they say about a Master’s degree? We’re getting ahead of ourselves now.)

Let me tell you about my First Year expectations. They weren’t high or low, I just didn’t have any.

I applied to my program, Specialization in History, because I met the minimum requirements and justified this as the best choice because, well, I liked history. I mean, I watched the History Channel all the time! Oh, and I was first rejected by the Journalism program, but that’s not strictly relevant. The point is that I wasn’t worried at all. I had been an honour student in High School and achieved moderate success with minimal effort in CEGEP (I’m from Montreal). Besides, everyone always told me I was smart.

Hindsight has exposed this nonchalance as arrogance. I expected to succeed by virtue of my past success, which every pro athlete will tell you is a no-no. What’s more is that when I realized my classes were tough, I consoled myself with the promise that I could just “start trying” and find the fabled balance between talent and hard work.

Then I got my first D minus.

Photo by Szoki Adams via cc

Photo by Szoki Adams via cc

That’s when the apathy kicked in. The apathy had me singing a chorus of C’s get Degrees and looking up professors online to confirm that they really were as horrible as I thought. The courses were dumb. The lectures were boring. The system was corrupt.

Then I didn’t hand in a term paper.

That’s when I discovered my problem. The problem was me.

Utterly demoralized by my inability to cruise to success in my first year, I was forced to ask some tough questions. Am I as stupid as this grade says? Am I really this lazy? Why do I feel so worthless today? These questions shook me up but they also opened my eyes. I realized I lived for pats on the back. I wanted the approval and admiration of my parents and peers; I wanted to meet everyone’s expectations. I didn’t know that, nervously stepping into class, the first day. If you would’ve asked me I probably would have said “whatever, it’s just school.” The truth is, is that it was more than just school. My experiences in first year shed light on who I was; they had a direct affect on who I am today. First Year took me by surprise, to the point where I needed to sit and reflect on my faith, my self-worth, and the real option of dropping out.

So, we all go to university with expectations. Even when we don’t think we have any, presuppositions about success, life, and ourselves lurk beneath our brave faces. Please don’t misunderstand me, I’m not suggesting that you learn to manage your expectations to avoid disappointment. That’s a band-aid that, I believe, leads to a life of regret and dissatisfaction. I’m proposing a far more risky course of action: ask the tough questions. Here are three:

  1. Why am I here? Don’t worry about the existential part of this question just yet, tackle the practical. Ask yourself why you’re on campus, in your program; spending time and money for that piece of paper.

  2. Where do I want to make a difference?

  3. What do my attitudes and actions tell me about who I am?

It may lead to uncomfortable conversations (you’ll need help) and difficult decisions but the changes this can set into motion are worth it, I promise. My first year of university showed me that I fall short of even the standards I set for myself, not to mention graduation requirements. The challenges that First Year presented me with opened my eyes to the scary fact that I wasn’t who I thought I was; I wasn’t even facing in the right direction. It’s not all scary bad news though, I just got into graduate school. I told you it would be alright.

You might be expecting me, after all this, to tell you how to avoid my trainwreck of a First Year. Well, I know you’re not going to Hogwarts, but it’s for the best—they’re not accredited. The truth is, and I don’t want you take this the wrong way, but I hope you have the same rotten year as I did. When given the opportunity to deal with a crisis early or deal with a bigger one later, it seems wiser to not delay. One thing that university does, what it does best, is hold up a mirror. If you’re brave enough to look into it, and lean into those tough questions, you might just change your life.

Have you ever had an experience where you discovered a hidden motivator, a craving, in your life that reordered your priorities?

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2 thoughts on “It’s Not Hogwarts So Ask These 3 Questions

  1. Eric David Nielsen

    Interesting article Matt. Your experience of feeling incompetent first year reminds me of the time in in my first year of grad school where I was biting it in a language course. I became frustrated with the course and myself. It was humbling mid-way through the semester to discover that the reason I was so frustrated, was because the facts were revealing that I was not as smart or successful of a student than I liked to think of myself. I was forced to be honest before myself and God. I am grateful for the experience looking back because it drove me to look at where my ultimate identity is found-in the identity God has given me in Jesus-not how competent of a student I think I am. In asking him for help I found strength from him to continue to press on, to do the best I can do, and trust him with the results.

    1. Matt CivicoMatthew

      Thanks for your thoughts Eric. My terrible first year definitely shaped the rest of my time in undergrad and has changed my outlook on work in general. I’ve found that faithfulness, and not the results (or grades), is a far better measure of character.

      I remember feeling the need to apologize to my professor for the term paper I didn’t hand in. I didn’t even want a second chance, but felt like my bad attitude did him a disservice. He also taught me a new word that day: candor. It’s so hard to be honest when building an identity on performance!

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