Orientation First Days: How I Found my University Stride | By Jeff Wright

On August 27, The Wanderer Online launched its 2012 Orientation Series, which brings readers a diverse set of personal essays, videos and other interesting pieces in order to help both incoming and returning students transition back into university life. On day one, we featured Nikki Way, one of the U of A’s most energetic and involved students. Today, Jeff Wright, the university’s Associate Director from the Office of Advancement, delves into his first days of university life. Take a read through, and you’ll see how several chance encounters led to life-long friendships.

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When I arrived on campus for my first day of university I had no idea I was about to meet the people who I would love, trust and lean on for twenty-five years. Even after a month – or perhaps even a semester – I didn’t realize it. Everyone was just another stranger. I remember experiencing several emotions all at once upon my arrival: anxiety, stress, excitement, joy, uncertainty, and pride. Here I was, embarking on a four-year (turned five-year) degree, that would hopefully provide a foundation for a successful career and happy life, and I could not even think five minutes ahead! Everything was new and unknown.

After plunking my possessions in my assigned residence room I made my way down to an outdoor common area where I was corralled with a group of first-year students. I knew no one. The aforementioned stress and anxiety was setting in. I was used to knowing everyone around me; at my high school, the movie theatre where I worked, and the community pool where I hung out. I had to give myself a quick talking to, “This is a new beginning and everyone is in the same boat as me, so turn around and just say ‘hey man’ to the first guy you see.” That is how I met Gord.

I interrupted Gord. He was talking with a guy who had long hair and big ears and dressed kind of funny. His name was Glenn. The three of us talked about where we were from, where our residence rooms were in relation to one and other, and tried to figure out what we were supposed to be doing and/or where we were supposed to be going. None of us knew and we concluded that no one knew. Phew. I’m not alone. We made plans to connect that night for a frosh event.

Even with two new pals, this frosh event was intimidating. It still felt like everyone knew everyone and I only know two guys who I had just met three hours ago. But you cannot lose sight of how easy it is to meet people if you want to – even if you are not good at it. As a result of a lame icebreaker-like activity, the three of us met another couple of guys from Prince Edward Island: Tim and Paul. I was pleased to learn that Paul and I were going to be in the same Economics class. Phew. I won’t be completely alone in all of my classes.

The rest of Orientation Week proved to be fun. I met a few more people and got to know campus a little bit. Very quickly, however, the fun was displaced. Classes commenced. At least I had a few guys to hang around with who seemed fun and normal. I also recognized a few faces in my classes and around campus as well as others who had participated in the frosh events. I was slowly developing a network of friends and classmates and was not quite so worried all the time. That is, until I received my midterm grades.

I was having a ton of fun but I was barely passing. My worst mark was in English. I didn’t like reading what someone told me I had to read. Fortunately for me the English professor addressed the entire class about the importance of getting good grades in your first year, and how difficult it can be to raise your GPA if you get off to a bad start. I knew I had to work harder, but I didn’t know how. High school was pretty straightforward, plus my parents were around to push me.

I decided to visit my English professor during his office hours to ask for some advice. I needed to learn how to motivate myself to work harder. At first he sounded unhelpful with lines like “you need to want to do better,” and “this isn’t high school, your parents aren’t here to make you do the work.” I knew all that, but it was not enough. I needed someone to push me, so I asked him to call on me regularly to continue discussion in class. This would force me to do the readings. Avoiding public humiliation was a decent enough incentive.

After getting a ‘D’ in the first term of my English course I managed to end up with a ‘B.’ I did the readings. I read books that I still loathe to this day: Pride & Prejudice, Far From the Maddening Crowd, Moll Flanders, etc., but I am better off for having read them. It helped that that guy with long hair and big ears – Glenn – became an English major. He also became my best friend. He is now Head of the English Department at a prominent high school. Gord became an Engineer. Who would have thought he knew how to make anything other than a decent drink. Paul parlayed his Arts degree into additional graduate degrees and is now a Director with IBM, and Tim is a Researcher with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

I know all of this because we are still best friends. We met in the first week of September in 1991. We get our families together regularly for barbeques and family vacations. Last year we celebrated twenty years of knowing each other by going on a house boat trip. The trip began in Kingston, ON, where I was able to stop in and say hello to my old English professor who now teaches at Queen’s University. He and I have kept in touch, and I remain grateful for his help and remind him regularly.

Sometimes you don’t know when memories are being made or when you future is taking shape. That is one of the wonderful things about being a university student. So join a student club or Campus Recreation team, or get a job or a volunteer role on campus. How else are you going to meet your future best friend, or spouse, or mentor?

As big and daunting as university might seem at this moment, at the end of your journey it will make the world a smaller place. As a future alumnus of the University of Alberta you will not only walk away with a parchment from a reputable institution and the friendships you made as a student, but you will also be a part of a network of 200,000+ U of A alumni across the world. I encourage you to take full advantage.

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