How to make it through the roller coaster ride that is first-year university

Campus Life, Health

Hold on, things are about to get real

By now, you’ve probably heard all of the cheesy analogies. The first year of university is like a mountain. Or the ocean. Or a box of chocolates.

Do you know what first year is actually like? A roller coaster.

Remember that day months ago when you squeezed your eyes shut and hit send on your university application? That was the moment you stepped in line for this crazy ride.

Then came the waiting. The painfully long imaginary line that had you weaving back and forth for what seemed like forever. Until the day you got that message. The one you opened while holding your breath. You were going to university! It was going to be great!

When September rolled around and it was finally time to get on this monster, there was orientation day, fresh supplies, new textbooks and smiles all around. People welcoming you. Handing you free hot dogs. Talking about all the services out there to help. Giving you that safety talk and making sure your restraint was snug. It’s all cool. It’s all good.

And it’s probably going to stay that way for a while. During the first few weeks, things build slowly as you make that first uphill climb. You’ve read the course outline. You know what you need to do. You probably don’t need this story about where to turn when things get rough. You’re strapped in and ready to go.

But if you’re about to stop reading and close this window, do us a favour and make a mental note to come back in early October so you can read the rest of this story and listen to our podcast about the ups and downs of the first-year experience.


Check out this episode of our Clock Radio podcast where students, faculty and staff chime in on their favourite fails and best advice for making the most of first year. 

Because right before Thanksgiving that slow climb will come to an end, and that car you’re riding will be teetering on the edge of a massive downhill that ends in a triple loop. You might feel differently then. Or maybe you won’t. But if you do, we want to make sure that you know exactly where the panic button is and how to hit it. Because this ride isn’t one that you have to go on alone.

“ Students who make a connection are more likely stay in university and succeed.” Brenda Barrett-Boisclair 

Choosing who to share your seat with

Facing big, scary stuff is usually easier when you’ve got a friendly face beside you. It’s a piece of advice Brenda Barrett-Boisclair, a counsellor with Wellness and Psychological Services, has been sharing for almost three decades. “Get connected, make a friend, talk to your instructor,” she says. “Students who make a connection are more likely stay in university and succeed.” 

But putting yourself out there doesn’t come naturally for everyone.

“Even when the halls are bustling and busy, you can still feel alone very quickly,” says Brenda. “Connecting with new people is difficult for some people. Even when everyone seems friendly, it can still feel overwhelming. Support is really important, and if you don’t have that from the get-go it can be very isolating.”

If talking to your neighbour in class just isn’t going to happen, there are other ways to make connections. Joining one of the more than 80 student clubs is probably the easiest and best place to start.


Find your people

I’m tempted to walk up and down the halls, take students by the shoulders and say "Why aren't you in a club?" I’m that passionate about it. At the same time, I understand why students don’t join. When I was in my late teens and working on my first degree, I didn’t care about clubs either. I was in university to learn and to have fun. I didn’t think anything outside of that was important. But student groups are a great way to make friends, develop skills in a way you can’t in the classroom and find out what you're really passionate about. Read more on Facebook.


“Come to the SAMU office—our doors are open, you can walk right in and ask to talk to someone about clubs,” says Jason Garcia, vice-president of Student Life for the Students’ Association of MacEwan University (SAMU). “Whether it’s math or science, pre-med or pre-optometry, feminism, LGBTQ+ topics, improv, gaming, dance or Model UN—join something. That first time I walked through the doors of a club meeting was when I really started feeling connected to the campus community. And I know the story is the same for so many other students.”

If you just can’t find a club that interests you, going to a SAMU event or volunteering is another great way to connect with like-minded people.

“There’s something about getting engaged in the university that enhances everything you do,” says Jason. “I remember being a first-year student and wanting to be everywhere all the time, meeting new people. But that’s not everyone. There is no one-size-fits-all first-year student experience, and that’s okay.”

Some people breeze through that first year like they were born to study anthropology, music or massage—but not everyone.

Free falling

It’s October and those first weeks of classes flew by. You just crested that first hill, and what felt like loads of time earlier in the semester has somehow disappeared. The best thing you can do to avoid free-falling your way into an academic tailspin? Go to class.

“For decades, I've been asking students in my classes the one thing they would say to new students and they always tell me the same thing—go to class,” says John Corlett, provost and vice-president Academic (the person responsible for academics at the university). “At first that answer didn’t make sense to me. It was so obvious, it was like telling people to breathe. But there are a lot of reasons that people don't go to class—and it’s a mistake you should avoid. There's something about being in class that matters. Something good happens in the classroom that you can’t repeat by getting the notes from your friends, or looking at Blackboard and trying to figure out what the prof would have said if you had made it to class. Choose courses you’re interested in and go to them.”

“ There's something about being in class that matters. ” 
John Corlett 

But for some students—even ones who have been going to class—the pressures that pop up seemingly out of nowhere in October can be daunting. Maybe it’s the steady stream of midterms, quizzes, deadlines for assignments and papers looming ahead. Or financial stress. Or homesickness.

Am I the only one screaming?

Down is up, up is down and suddenly you’re gripping that safety restraint so hard your fingernails turn purple.

“The sense of independence that comes with university life can be very freeing and exciting, but it can also lead to problems,” says Brenda. “Time management, priority setting, getting everything done, managing new friends and dealing with the newness of everything is just too much for some people.”

It might be no big deal for some students, but if the butterflies in your stomach turn into a sinking feeling, don’t wait to ask for help.

“We know that we’re at risk of people leaving in those first six to nine weeks and we want to avoid that,” says Brenda. “There are tons of resources at MacEwan—we talk about them a lot at the beginning of the semester in New Student Orientation and in individual classrooms—but I always wish it happened in October instead. That’s the time when students who are struggling really start to feel the water rising.”

If you do find yourself facing an emotional, physical or academic issue, you’re not alone. Forty-five per cent of the students who visit Wellness and Psychological Services are in their first year. 

“It might feel like you’re the only one who’s overwhelmed or freaking out, but I guarantee you’re not,” says Brenda. “A lot of people come saying that they don’t want to take up our counselling time. Or that there must be other people who need the help more. But we deal with lots of different types of issues and we don’t judge whether yours is a small issue or a major crisis. If you feel like you need help, that’s normal. And we want you to come and ask for it.”

“ Forty-five per cent of the students who visit Wellness and Psychological Services are in their first year. ” 
Brenda Barrett-Boisclair 

How to slow things down

Counsellors aren’t the only people who can help you find your balance when the ride starts to feel out of control. The Welcome Centre in Building 6, Wellness and Psychological Services, SAMU, your prof, your program advisor, the Library, Services to Students with Disabilities, Writing and Learning Services, the MacEwan University Health Centre, financial advisors, the university’s student ombudsperson—basically anyone you can think of. And if you happen to end up asking the wrong person, they will be happy to help you find the right one.

“MacEwan has grown over the years and is a big place, but I don’t think it’s any less personal than it was when we were much smaller,” says Brenda, reaching for the tent card on her bookshelf that lists the university’s eight pillars. “The first pillar of this university is Students First, and we’re not just saying that. We really are all here to support you. The key is to get over the fear of asking.” 

Let me off of this thing

Sometimes the track takes a sharp turn that you didn’t see coming. The Turkey Dump (breaking up with your high school sweetheart at Thanksgiving). Failing a midterm. Struggling with an essay. Finding out you’re on academic probation. Even when things look grim and it feels like getting on this ride was a huge mistake, it might not be as bad as you think.

“The stress of failing is a big part of the first-year experience for lots of people—I know it was for me,” says Jason. “Looking back now it seems so minor, but having to drop a class in my first year felt like a life-or-death decision. I talked to advisors, friends and everyone else I could think of—I probably talked to 10 people about that one decision. Ultimately, I learned that it’s okay to feel stressed, and that figuring out how to deal with the stress that comes along with being a student takes time. Feeling overwhelmed is okay, but you also need to know that there are safe and welcoming spaces to go to for help.”

Deciding to drop a class is difficult enough, but when things are really bad—say a series of low marks has earned you an unplanned academic vacation—there are people who can help. The SAMU vice-president Academic and director of Student Advocacy, and university’s student ombudsperson exist to help students navigate policies and processes when things go wrong. We hope that doesn’t happen for you, but if it does, bookmark this page and come back in November to see what you can do if the bend in the track leads somewhere scary. 

Don’t forget to enjoy the ride

Even when the world is spinning and it’s all you can do to catch your breath, remember that university is supposed to be one of the most exciting, uplifting and freeing times of your life.

“Having fun is part of this whole experience,” says Jason. “University is a time to learn, a time to explore, a time to be that person who you want to be. You’re investing a lot, so you need to get as much out of it as you can. Just be balanced about it—and make sure to reach out for help when you need it. We’re here for you.”

So enjoy the ride, feel the rush and make sure to remember that we’re all rooting for you.

Get MacEwan University news delivered to your inbox. Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter.

Related stories:

Clock Radio podcast: The First Year
First-year experience stories



Changing Minds Footer Image - 3 DotsThis story is part of Changing Minds: Creating a healthy campus – an initiative that makes mental health a priority. The program connects training opportunities, support services, resources and stories from real people across the MacEwan University community.

Get MacEwan University news delivered to your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter