8 Things I Learned During 8 Years at U of A

Faculty of Arts graduate student Alex reflects on her time at the U of A.


As many great artists have lamented throughout history, when you’re at the end of something you often find yourself thinking of the beginning. Eight years into my time at the University of Alberta, with graduation on the horizon, I'm reminiscing about when I first started my post-secondary career and everything that transpired after. I have hundreds of life lessons to take with me, and here I leave you with eight. I hope they help you on your own journey to graduation.

1. First Year Undergrad — Try new things, but take it one dream at a time

Starting university brought a new kind of freedom to my life . Instead of taking pre-determined classes, I could try every cool opportunity, join every cool club, and take cool-sounding classes. I finally got to take Korean language classes and even placed third in the Intermediate level in the Korean Speech Contest. At Clubs Fair I joined the Kids Help Phone Student Committee — which changed my life. Not only did I learn about mental health services on campus, I became surrounded by friends who supported me as I finally got professional help for my depression. For the first time in public, I talked about my experience with bullying and mental illness. At the same time, I struggled with juggling all of that plus getting used to the semestered system and taking five classes at a time. Despite staying in the library every day until 10 pm , I was extremely stressed and had to get extensions on final papers due to mental health struggles.

The biggest lesson I learned was: take it one dream at a time. University is full of opportunities, and it’s tempting to take up every single one. But that’s a one-way street to burnout, a street I became all too familiar with. Though I realized I couldn’t achieve all my dreams all at once I achieved my first dream — I travelled to Korea for the first time, the summer after my first year.



2. Second Year Undergrad — Sometimes, failure or rejection can be a good thing

Being in Korea for the first time ever made me realize that life is too short not to chase your dreams. However, I also realized that chasing your dreams requires more than skill and knowledge, it takes passion.  I was constantly on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr at the time, and decided that I wanted to pursue a professional career in social media . For eight months I took random classes that I believed would transfer over to a communications degree. My grades were flawless, my plan was set, and my passion was burning—but I didn’t get into the program. I was disappointed, but a voice in my head told me that it just wasn’t meant to be.

What I’ve learned is that when you do everything “right” and invest all the time and passion into an opportunity and it doesn’t work  out,  it can be a good thing. I stayed in my program, continued to learn and enjoy social media in my spare time, and what happened next in my university career changed my life.



3. Third Year Undergrad — When in doubt, follow your passion

During my third year, I found out that the East Asian Studies major at U of A was going to open up the following year to students who weren’t majoring in Chinese or Japanese language and literature. Rumours of Korean culture and linguistics courses were floating around, and it would be my chance to pursue my interest and love for Korean culture.

In the meantime, I took it easy. I took three courses each semester, including Advanced Korean and Beginner Chinese. I became one of the first non-Korean students to volunteer as a TA for a Korean language class. I rediscovered a love for teaching and sharing what I know and love about Korea. I left for a summer abroad program in Seoul, absolutely sure that I would become a Korean language or culture teacher someday.



4. Fourth Year Undergrad — The longer you pretend everything is perfect, the more it hurts when you’re forced to face reality

As my life continued to look like it was absolutely flourishing on social media — travelling, scholarships, concerts, a part-time social media job at a prestigious company — I was actually having one of the most difficult years of my life. I continued to push myself to a place I could not handle, and I continued to buckle under the pressure. Things I should have had in the bag, friendships that had always been steadfast, and my sense of self in general alluded me. Losing the facade I had been wearing for so long hurt more than I expected. It took me longer to stand up again. I found that once I took off my mask, that there were still people who wanted to be with the real me.



5. Fifth Year Undergrad — Sometimes all it takes is one person to believe in you

Though it was important to do the inner work in order to heal from the year that I had, having professionals recognize me and validate my work and passion was very important to my healing process.

My manager at my part-time job pulled me into her office and asked if I’d be interested in a full-time job as soon as I graduate. With no formal education or work experience in social media and marketing before this position, it made me realize that I could still pursue my dream of being a social media professional. My Korean culture professor gave me my first ever A+. I never had my interest and passion for Korean culture evaluated before, and  it made me realize that I could be a scholar who researches Korean pop culture. When the leader of Jack.org's Alberta chapter moved to British Columbia, I was given a chance to be the face of the mental health organization. I did a live TV interview, and immediately after the then-Director of Development and Communications personally called me to give me another chance. And another, and another. It made me realize that I could make a difference in mental health not just on campus, but in Edmonton, across the province, and even the country.



6. First Year Grad — You don’t have to go to grad school for any other reason than “because I want to do this for me"

After a gap year between undergrad and grad school, I moved closer to the university and was ready to start my new life as a graduate student. I wanted to go to grad school not to be the best, not to get a specific job, not for any reason other than because I am passionate about what I am studying, and graduate school is important to me.



7. Second Year Grad — No matter what the outcome is, if you fight for who and what you care about, you will be proud of yourself in the end

I’m going to be honest with you folks. I didn’t do a lot of studying this year. I was focused completely on advocating for my department. At the same time, I was representing Alberta among 13 other national representatives to Jack.org, plus co-leading the Jack.org UAlberta chapter. Leadership and advocacy is not a walk in the park — and I don’t think I have enough words to explain the emotional effort it takes.

I had several uncomfortable conversations this year, as I decided pretending everything was okay was so… 2016 for me. I realized that it was time for me to live up to the title of advocate, leader, and representative. I persevered with the thought that, no matter what the outcome is, I was proud of the effort and passion I had put into these projects. 



8. Third Year Grad — Going to university really did give me an edge, and I’m grateful for it

In May 2020, something interesting happened. I realized that, since COVID-19 hit Alberta, my dreams had changed again. I realized that efforts to talk about and change mental health systems in Alberta and Canada is crucial work, and that I want to be doing more of that work. One of my closest friends, who I met volunteering together for Jack.org, reached out and I ended up in a contract position supporting communications and community outreach/engagement for a new Alberta youth health and wellness organization. While doing this work and finishing up my Master’s thesis, I realized that attending university really did give me an edge. I learned time management skills, research and knowledge translation skills, how to be a writer, how to be a leader, how to be a teacher, and how to be an ally. I built up my network and networking skills. I pursued my passion in Korean Studies, and even though I'm not pursuing an academic career (yet) it helped me find a career in mental health and communications. Every day in my role, I feel the importance of my degrees and my time at U of A.