Dear High School Class of 2011…

The Maggie Benston Centre, home to many of the...
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Dear high school graduating class of 2011,

Hi.  It’s me, Dave – I was one of the smiley, energetic people handing out popcorn last night when you came up to visit SFU for our open house, “Info Eve.”  Congratulations, by the way!  It’s a pretty cool experience to be offered acceptance to any university, let alone the top Canadian comprehensive school as ranked by Macleans.  So, you’ve got good reason to feel proud of yourselves.  I really could see that on a lot of your and your parents’ faces last night.  Way to go!

I wanted to write you a letter today for a few reasons.  First of all, it was a lot of fun seeing you and I wanted to say thanks for your enthusiasm and for helping me to remember that I work at a pretty fantastic place where growth, transformation, and intellectual stimulation are routine phenomena.  You helped me to get some valuable perspective in the midst of a very busy time of my life, and it’s totally refreshing.

I’m not sure how many of you will get to read this, but there are a few other reasons I wanted to write you a letter.  You’ll soon be discovering that university can be a really great time.  You’re also probably getting lots of (unsolicited) advice from parents, siblings, friends, and let’s face it – articles like this one, telling you everything from how to schedule courses to how to choose a major that will lead to the highest salary.  And if not, you probably will be.

It might get confusing, all those people throwing information at you, but you’ll probably just have to grin and bear it for a while until you can find out for yourself what it’s actually like.  And let’s face it – that’s going to be the best way to learn.  After all, universities have changed drastically over the last decade, let alone the last generation.  Back when your parents were going to university, they probably had to use an actual library instead of an online one!  Having a laptop in class was probably a luxury as opposed to a near expectation.  Tablets?  Never heard of them, unless you’re talking about something to help with that pesky headache.

Yeah, technology has really taken off.  But that’s not the only way that universities have changed.  You see, there seems to be this disconnect between academia and students sometimes.  And I’ll be honest – I’m not sure what you’re expecting to get out of university.  If you’re anything like I was, you have no idea.  You’re just hoping that you’ll be better off at the end of the day than you were going in.  If you had asked me what I was going to do with my degree when I first started university, I would have most likely just given you a blank stare and a few stammered sentences about waiting to see.

The thing is, I couldn’t have been more right.  Not having a plan was actually the best plan I could have made.  I went into General Sciences pretty much just because I did well in physics and chemistry in high school.  Guess how many calculus-based Newtonian mechanics/relativity classes it took before I realized that was the wrong path for me to be on?  Just one.

But here’s the flip side.  How many psychology classes did it take before I was convinced to change my degree and major in psych?  Again, just one.  But I was still in the same boat, direction-wise.  I still didn’t know what I was going to do with that psych degree, just knew it was the only thing interesting enough to study.  I knew I liked to write, so I decided to go for a minor in English as well.

Wait, was that a question?  Psych and English?  And I’m not working in a coffee shop?

I guess one of my messages to you is to not feel like you have to have it all figured out.  In fact, it’s better if you feel like you don’t have it figured out, because you’ll be in a better position to try out lots of different things.  For me, it was a volunteer position that helped me to discover that I had a passion for helping others and that there were careers out there in which I could do just that.

Which brings me to another (final) message: don’t forget to do things outside of the classroom while you’re here.  Participate in your education.  Taking courses is only one facet of the university experience, and may not even be the most valuable one.  Volunteer, join a club, do a co-op work term, get a part-time job, participate in student politics, whatever floats your boat.

I hope that your time at university is one of growth and success, however you’d like to define that.  I hope you make some big mistakes so that you can learn stuff you’ll never forget.  I hope to see you convocating in 4 or 5 years, passing along whatever words of wisdom you’ve gleaned from your experience to the high school graduating class of 2015.

And I hope you enjoyed the popcorn last night.

*Cross-posted at the Career Services Informer.