UNI LIFE 101 || Making the big transition

Transitioning from high school is a major challenge on many levels. How are you faring?

University life may come with a lot of soul-rattling firsts. First time away from home. First time you have to pay bills. First time you've had to make friends at a campus with 150 buildings that cover 50 city blocks. (And maybe English isn't your first language.) First time your parents can't legally see your grades.

Bottom line: you're embarking on a tectonic life change when joining the University of Alberta, and it's important to be aware of that fact. Why? Because the wider open your eyes are to the challenges you're encountering, the better you'll be able to adapt, said Troy Janzen, a psychologist and an adjunct assistant professor at the U of A's School and Clinical Child Psychology Program.

Get a handle on your emotions early!

If you experience anxiety, sadness or loneliness that is not going away, reach out to your doctor or one of the University of Alberta's free support services.

Or, if you are not sure what you need, start with the U of A's Student Connect or InfoLink.

Also, try to pay attention to your moods and behaviour. Here are some self-reflection tips:

  • Pay attention to your body and breathing. Do you have tense muscles? Are you taking short breaths?
  • Recognize and acknowledge that you're not invincible. Everyone benefits from support and help.
  • Keep tabs on how often you see friends, and do stuff outside of studies. If you've withdrawn, ramp up your efforts to keep in touch and do fun activities.

"This is especially important because it's not unusual for first-year students to have a higher incidence of mental health issues," he added. He estimates up to 20 per cent of university students may experience a mental health issue like anxiety or depression.

"That number may well be higher," he added. "That's why we have a lot of supports at the university, like clinical and counselling services."

In fact, according to the most recent statistics from the National College Health Assessment, 66 per cent of U of A students felt overwhelming anxiety at least once in the previous year, and 63 per cent felt things were hopeless.

Don't downplay negative feelings

Some stress is normal in university life, said Mebbie Bell, a learning specialist and the director of the U of A's Academic Success Centre.

The challenge is gauging when stress is normal versus stress that is evolving into something more serious, like an anxiety disorder or depression, added Janzen.

"Many of us often feel the need to 'snap out of it,' or often there is resistance to consider mental illness for reasons of stigma," he said.

Michelle Huie did just that in her first year of U of A medical school. She couldn't figure out why she struggled to concentrate in class and it occurred to her that she felt numb. Her zest for life had faded, and others noticed, too. Still, she said, "I insisted I was just stressed out and it would pass over I wrote the next exam."

"You won't recognize symptoms of a mental illness right away," explained Janzen. "You'll wonder, 'what's wrong with me?' Your sleep might be taking a hit, too."

Unfortunately, Huie's grades told another story. She learned at the end of the year that if she wanted to be a doctor, she would have redo first year (a rare allowance). That summer, Huie got the help she needed and received counselling, which helped her stay well throughout medical school. She graduated in 2016 and is now doing her residency in pediatrics.

"Don't make the same mistake I did," she said. "I was very sick and should have gotten help sooner. I tried to mask it. Nobody else seemed to be struggling. And with medical students, you are with a cluster of people who strive to overcome obstacles and push past things. Everyone is a rock star, so I felt like I couldn't show I was struggling."

Watch for predictable phases of stress during the academic year, during the first and second midterms and end of semester. "It usually peaks early November and mid-December, and mirrors the pattern in second semester," said Janzen.

If you get to the stage where your academic performance is suffering, seek immediate support, he added. In the meantime, try to anticipate stressful times and be aware of your mental health.

"One big sign you're not coping well with the transition is if you isolate yourself," he added.

In fact, lack of engagement at university is a reason in and of itself why students may not thrive in the transition from high school. "It can be hard in classrooms of 200 or more to connect and make a circle of friends."

How to stay connected

Meet like-minded students

"It can be daunting to connect with new people on such a big campus," said Bell. "One of the easiest ways to connect is to join your undergraduate student association." Check out the list of U of A faculty associations.

Join a club

There are more than 400 student groups on campus that include residence associations, men's and women's fraternities and hobby groups to name a few. Check out one of these student clubs. "The Hide and Seek Club is a popular way to destress," pointed out Bell.

Meet someone one-on-one

The U of A Community Social Work Team offers a program called Unitea that enables students to enjoy one-on-one conversations about anything over tea. "It's a great way to connect with a peer and enjoy casual conversations," said Tiffany Sampson, a community social worker at U of A. For a confidential place to meet with peers to discuss more serious concerns, try the U of A's Peer Support Centre, she added.


One measure that had a huge impact on Huie's well-being was to get involved with activities outside of her studies, especially with volunteer work. "You can get tunnel vision when you're at university, and all that seems to matter is your grades. Helping others can be an incredible positive experience and boost your own mental well-being." Volunteer work is also an excellent way to connect for people with introverted personalities, added Bell. Find volunteer activities at U of A's volunteer registry.

Finally, remember that while you may be feeling scared or lonely or overwhelmed, so are many other students.

"The onus to get engaged isn't just up to the individual. We all need to be active in each other's lives," said Sampson. "If you sense someone is not doing well, or see that someone in residence is always taking their food to their room, for example, check in with him or her in a caring, non-judgmental way."

The U of A's Community Helpers Program, funded by Alberta Health Services, is open to students and faculty who want to gain the skills to support others' mental well-being.