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Year One: You were meant to fail

By Anjali Choudhary, October 7 2021—

The biggest discrepancy I noticed during my first week of university was the way the environment was described to us in high school, in comparison to its true nature. The notions that professors would never be flexible or care about me as an individual, or that everyone has to act completely professional and be self-sufficient laid the foundation for my university expectations.

I approached my first few weeks with a fear-based attitude towards the big bad professors and cutthroat assignments I had been warned about. I was surprised to find myself feeling fairly comfortable and relaxed. By no means were the professors out coddling students, and by no means were the assignments easy, but the fear that high school developed within me towards university was neither necessary nor representative. In fact, it actually harmed me and my growth.

For weeks on end, I was terrified to reach out and seek help when I needed it, and the idea that every test would be impossibly difficult had set me up as unable to perform to the best of my abilities. While I worked on becoming more comfortable and pushing this mindset away, this fear was so deeply ingrained in my mind that I kept waiting for the worst to come. This temporarily took away my love and passion for what I was learning left me slightly miserable. 

Although, it is not absolutely required for high schools to be accurate in their depictions of university, they are absolutely required to set students up with a strong and well-rounded academic knowledge base. 

First-year courses are in and of themselves a requirement to give students the necessary knowledge for future upper-year courses. However, there are general takeaways from high school studies which are very applicable to university studies. 

For humanities courses specifically, high school Social Studies and English classes are useful in providing the general context as well as strong reading and writing skills. The structure and requirements for assignments may change, but a solid foundation set me up for success to be able to adapt my skills to better suit the criteria of a university level course. I also believe the requirement for students to take all the core courses in high schools is extremely beneficial. Not only does this allow students to determine where their interests lie, it also provides a well-rounded knowledge base to apply to any discipline.

For example, a science-focused student cannot succeed in the field or their career without factoring in past and current social context and issues. It also allows for students to have a broad understanding of one anothers’ studies. This high school requirement fosters the multidisciplinary approach seen in many university classes and projects, but despite this, there are significant discrepancies present that hold many students back from excelling at the post-secondary level.

The flaw of the secondary education system is seen when academic success in high school does not translate to the university level because the system fails to emphasize the development of positive academic strategies. Creating a positive work ethic, learning how to personalize your study plan, and learning to take responsibility for your own learning are examples of barriers that I immediately ran into upon starting my first year at the University of Calgary. These things are seldom taught in schools and students are often expected to develop them on their own.

While some proactive students will do this for themselves, a large percentage are left feeling lost and underprepared. In fact, rather than helping students develop these strategies, teachers will deem students as lazy, not goal-oriented or simply not smart should they lack them. These interactions often act as a self-fulfilling prophecy for these students, and those who remain motivated to pursue higher education often feel both the blame and the consequences for being ill-equipped.

The feeling of under-preparedness follows into many other aspects of a student’s life. Every one of us becomes all too aware of this when we are suddenly thrown into adult life, and told to make decisions on our own. Essentially, schools fail to foster many skills that are crucial for individuals that are learning to be independent for the very first time. How do I do my taxes? How do I handle the stress of this class? How do I deal with this big change in my life? These are questions that every single student deals with, especially in the transition to university.

Unfortunately, many of us are forced to leave these unanswered or undergo tremendous hurdles to find the answer. These life skills are definitely enhanced and often developed through trial and error — no amount of formal teachings can replace that. However, everyone’s experiences are different, as well as their level of access to the opportunities needed to excel. Similar to high school classes providing a broad academic knowledge base — and not necessarily specific knowledge — schools have the ability to provide all students with a broad skill set which they will then be able to personalize and enhance. 

This feeling of under-preparedness seen in an unfortunately large number of university students must be taken into account by faculty and other key members of the university. For example, slightly modifying lesson plans to teach basics such as essay structures or formulas would not hinder the course a great deal, and allow for the evening of the playing field for all students. Further, an increase in tools such as writing or money and time management workshops would also ease the transition. 

In the end, the balance of the benefits and flaws of the secondary education system, in its preparation of students for post-secondary, tips to the negative side. It points to the flaws inherent in high schools — specifically, their refusal to prioritize the person over the student. I acknowledge that schools are intended to shape a student, but, it takes the creation of a well-rounded person to be a good student too. The former is necessary for the latter.

If schools refuse to provide essential academic and life skills to the person, the student will ultimately fail. To counter this, high schools must first and foremost prioritize an analysis of their success in the preparation of their students for university. Considering the fact that there is an overwhelming consensus that most university students feel at least somewhat underprepared, a curriculum and teaching-style change must occur. 

Year One is a column about the first-year experience at the University of Calgary.  This column is part of our Voices section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.

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