Orientation Breakthroughs: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe-ity | By John Nychka

On August 27, The Wanderer Online launched its month-long Orientation Series, which sees personal essays, videos, lists and more coming to new and returning U of A students. To check out the ever-increasing stockpile of contributions, click here. In the meantime, take a jaunt through Dr. John Nychka’s Thursday August 30 piece for the series. Dr. Nychka is among the Faculty of Engineering’s best-known professors – for all the right reasons – and was the keynote speaker at the inaugural SU Undergraduate Research Symposium. 

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While the University is very much smaller than the universe, there are plenty of mysteries to reveal and unlock; logistical, mental, emotional, and social mysteries abound on campus. Some mysteries remain past graduation, but some of the most stressful mysteries are apparent during one’s first days on campus. I hope, in this article, you will find some strategies for unlocking such mysteries.

As you will have, or will eventually determine, there are many logistical mysteries to unravel when arriving on campus: you will need to find out where to go, when to be there, and what to bring in order to be prepared. Luckily there is plenty of support for you on these tasks, and you should leverage every little bit you can to reduce your stress levels. Such mysteries are easily unlocked and you may even accidentally find that hidden mysterious lecture hall in the Biological Sciences building which is only accessible through a custodial closet…

When I reflect on my first days at university I recall that there were serious mysteries that captured my attention in new ways. In the beginning I of course got over the logistics, but then my attention was focused on what my purpose was at university. What was I going to do? What was the university going to do? Having earned three degrees from three universities in two countries my purpose on campus changed over the years, but not as much as you might think. As a professor now, my purpose on campus has changed significantly, but mostly as being the person on the other side of the curtain, though there are still mysteries! And the universities… well they each have their own mysteries – and to a certain extent mysteries are what make the university experience so enjoyable and rewarding, or in some cases just plain challenging.


People will tell you all sorts of things about university, and what to expect. The simple fact is that until you go through it, the explanation seems foreign. So, I would like to try to reflect on a few ideas that you may want to consider, and be prepared with when you start. You may have a set of complex emotions, but realize that this is normal and that you can, and will, adapt.

When I entered university from high school I was familiar with being a student. I thought university was just more schooling, and that my purpose was to learn more information so that I could have a chance to land a good job and lead a happy life. These ideas, while not technically wrong, were not aligned with the heart of the university. “More” turned out to be a mysterious word for me in the context of knowledge and learning.

No doubt you have heard that university is where you learn how to learn. It sounded so ridiculous and cliché back then, as it may to you right now, but the simple fact is that university offers opportunities and environments that aim to increase your cognitive abilities. University does not force this cognitive change upon you, but it allows for you to give willingly and grow.

I quickly found that university was designed to be a place where I could learn to improve the way I thought about topics and the world. The study of learning is called pedagogy, and “more”, from the context of pedagogy, does not just mean knowing additional facts, figures, equations, minerals, animals, anatomy, history, literature, art, or law (that is all called declarative knowledge); “more” really means extra and different ways of thinking – growing your brain in new directions to reach higher levels of cognition (knowing how to use knowledge, when to use it, why you should use it, and how you think about the application of knowledge). Sound like a bit of a mystery? You bet it is, but there are ways to navigate, and your professors will demand that you accept the challenge.

I encountered a shift from the “more” attitude in my first year CHEM 103 class with 300 other students. The very first thing our professor made us write down in our notes (which I still have in a filing cabinet 20 years later) was the following sentence: “My education is my responsibility”. Well, I will tell you that people were visibly upset. I recall thinking, “then why do I pay tuition, if you aren’t going to teach me anything!” Why did I save up all that money, apply for scholarships, work really hard in high school, give up part of my social life to just sit and listen to someone tell me that, in essence, I was the one who had to teach myself chemistry? This experience caused me a lot of stress. I didn’t know what to think about university. I had come from a large high school, but did the International Baccalaureate program in smaller classes so there was quite a bit of attention paid to us by the teachers. Now, I was the responsible one. My brain was hurting – was this the start of all that brain growth in new directions? Yes it was.

At this point an analogy is relevant: imagine you are trying to teach someone how to ride a bike (it also helps to recall how you learned how to ride a bike). Will you be able to talk with them, draw diagrams, show videos, have in guest lecturers, and expect them to ride the bike without ever practicing? Likely not. Practicing learning is what university is all about – if you are robbed of the ability to practice, then you will never become an expert!


When I moved away from home to go to graduate school I thought I had it all figured out: graduate school was just more university, and was just more research. Wrong again, shame on me. My master’s degree was a vehicle to another new way to think and learn. I had done research before, but this was different. Doing research for someone else and figuring out which research should be done alone required different skills. In my master’s degree I learned what research was about, that research never sleeps, and that it is never completed, just stopped with enough of a story to write up into a thesis!

MYSTERY IN THE THIRD DEGREE: PhD stands for Phinally Done!

So, finally I entered the terminal advanced degree, the doctorate in philosophy (PhD). A PhD is a serious commitment to furthering one’s cognitive ability, but is really centered around creativity, which of course was another surprise – I thought I had signed up to just get better at research. A PhD teaches one to create knowledge, and disseminate it in various forms: written and verbally to a variety of audiences. For instance, I had to learn how to read and write differently. I wasn’t reading to just gain facts and figures, learn how a discipline worked to a deeper level, or ways of doings things; I was reading to see if someone’s research made sense and was supported with appropriate evidence. I was writing, to convince the new style of reader I had become. Slowly I determined that what I was really learning was how to argue and support such arguments with evidence, which makes sense if you are someone who is charged with creating new ideas and knowledge – you better be able to convince people that your interpretations are believable and correct.

The mysteries of the universe-ity continued to fool me as I progressed though the levels of advancement for a very good reason – they were supposed to; for without the mysteries what would have been the value in growing my brain in new directions which I eventually was able to  identify myself? The purpose to earning different degrees is to keep ratcheting the mysteries up to new levels. The different stages we reach in different degrees are pedagogically difficult to combine because a certain competency, in each increasingly demanding stage, is required for the next. Rome wasn’t built in a day, so don’t expect your brain to be remodeled in a day either.

Universities weren’t built in a day either – they too have been remodeled. Though status quo has changed and more and more people attend university, university degrees are not about providing job skills, they are about changing the way you see the world, and figuring out how to think about your own learning so that you can continue to grow as you mature. However, that is not to say that you won’t have the chance to learn some job skills – the fundamentals of how to think, analyze, critique, solve problems, communicate, appreciate other viewpoints, work in teams, and manage your time will be useful no matter what you end up choosing as a career path.

I will sign off with a sentiment from a book I am currently reading entitled “A whole new mind” by Daniel Pink.  Dan’s premise is that the future of thinkers and ways of succeeding in business and society are to have skills which not only utilize the analytical left brain, but those which use the creative right side – basically, use your whole brain. If you can train yourself to use your whole mind then any mysteries which come your way will be scrutinized by twice as much brain power, and that, in my opinion, is a powerful personal change which university can ignite in you.

 Orientation Breakthroughs illustration by Farwa Sadiq-Zadah

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