The Most Important Thing About University: And How I've Used It

Bam. You got in.

The excitement was real, and you couldn't wait to tell everyone.

Now you're here.

You've just unpacked all your neatly folded clothes and stuck all your high school photos on your dorm walls. And if you didn't move in to residence, you've just finished rearranging your home bedroom to fit your new-found profession:  * Updates info to 'Student at _____ University since [now]' * 

Fast forward a month.

There's no time to keep up with all the readings. Your TA reminds you of the Grinch. All your lectures are narrated by a research prof you never understand. Your grades suck, your grades suck, and your grades suck.

Now, let's assume you do the smart thing and assess your situation. You know what your vision is and you know your pathway to get there [or at least have a general idea]. Let's also assume you can manage the minimal grades you need. But if you're still completely lost, you can use the most important thing about university as guidance to finding that vision.

SideNote: First-year rhymes with Worst-year. Just push through and get by with what you can. It gets better. Not only because you get a grasp of the new learning style, but also because of the most important thing about university.

So let me tell you about it.

Actually, let me tell you what it isn't.

It isn't learning content.

It isn't sitting down in a cramped lecture hall and memorizing words on a projector screen. Anyone can do this on their own time without taking out thousands of dollars that don't exist.

  • If you can read it in a textbook, you can read it online for free. And if it isn't free, it's probably cheaper than the campus book store. For me, everything I've ever learned about operating a camera, using editing software, and film theory behind storytelling was all learned through personal research on a site called Google – all for the price of $0.00. Granted, I did take some classes that taught important aspects of filmmaking, but it either reiterated what I already knew or could have easily been found through the world wide web.

  • Naming carboxylic acids? Khan Academy. Fourier Series? Patrickjmt. Market approach valuations? Investopia.

  • And if you need to have hands-on experience with things, this is the best time in history to be a learner. Everything is cheaper and everything is so much more accessible for you to get your hands on. And if you can show successful results of your self-learning, professionals may be willing to share some hands-on knowledge (ie - find a nurse, ask a few things about how they nurse; find a geologist, ask a few things about how they geology; find a marketer, ask a few things about how they market. People like talking about themselves)

Some say teachers are the facilitators of learning – and they should be. But that doesn't mean you can't facilitate yourself. Most of the learning in university is done outside of the classroom, anyway. Find the right subject, and you can motivate yourself to learn everything alone.

So let's say you have a grasp of the subject you're studying, you can handle the degree requirements, and you can make the cut for what you plan (or generally have planned) to do afterwards. So "what is university for if I could have learned all this content off campus?" you ask. Other than the obvious "you can add it to your resume", I think the most important thing about university is:

Making Connections.

 
 

 

Connecting with people is the best part of being in a large institution of people your own age. You're surrounded by others who are in the same stage of life as you. This is the place where there's a high chance of meeting someone who wants the same Master's degree / med school / field of work as you (in comparison to any other random location in the city). High population, and high growth – you never know who your future coworkers will be, so make those connections while you're still growing. And you never know who has the ability to open the doors along your planned path.

But before we get to the more obvious professional advantages of making connections, I just want to mention the other side of "networking". [And I use the word "networking" very loosely. Don't try to "network", try to build relationships. "Networking" (at least to me) has the connotation of rigid negotiation. Good things come out of organic relationships, less so with coiled networks. But we'll save this talk for later]

Making connections and building relationships can open your doors to social freedom – the freedom to be (or at least feel) accepted into society for who you are, and walk around with the confidence every individual should have. The more people you can connect with – be friends with, can talk to, be open with – the more in tune you feel with your species, and being able to interact with people can finally make you feel worth it. WHICH YOU ARE. (Grades can make everyone feel bad, but having human interactions help remind you that you're more than just a student). Did I mention it gives you confidence? Don't underestimate the emotional/mental advantages of connecting with others. [More on this in a future post]

Now back to the obvious business / academic / professional advantages of making connections and building relationships. It isn't rocket science:

  • See someone you're interested in talking to
  • Introduce yourself (recall – look good, shake hands, smile)
  • Talk about them, then talk about your equal interests
  • Say it was great meeting them

That's it.

And if this interaction facilitates further discussion, great! Propose the specific business / academic / professional collaboration you wish to have.

"Hey, I'm sure I can be a big help to your research lab!"

"Hey, I believe I can be the perfect asset to your growing company!"

"Hey, I know I can help you out!"

---------------

This happens every time I make someone a video. You've heard the term word-of-mouth marketing (which is great), but I had to start somewhere, and what better way to start than with your own mouth. Give people a nice reason to connect with you. Offer your talents. For me, one big example of successfully connecting (and building) was how I started working on my fourth year thesis.

In iSci, it's mandatory for every student to undergo a thesis project throughout their entire fourth year of study. This was always scary to think about.

First year: "Ohman, I need to know all this stuff about science so I can come up with a thesis later on"

Second year: "Ohman, I need to review everything I didn't understand last year so I can come up with a thesis in two years"

Third year: "Ohman, I do not know every single thing we learned over the past few years… maybe I should just graduate now without getting the Honours degree I've been set on"

Those were my thoughts. And once we got to the point in third year where we had to come up with a project (and find a supervisor) I really thought about leaving my iSci 2016 graduating class. I just wanted to take the path of least resistance. I wanted to leave the program, and graduate after finishing 3 years.

What were my options? I had some professional skills with freelancing, I had prior experience working in a health research institute, I'd consider getting another degree/diploma, I could always go back to dishwashing if I absolutely needed to. I'd still get a regular bachelor of science. But all these thoughts happened because I didn't know what or who to work with.

Obviously my parents wanted me to continue working towards the Honours BSc. in Integrated Science. And I really wanted to, too. But only if I could do something interesting. I definitely did not want to work on something I hated for 8 months. The typical projects were doing wet lab work, collecting survey data, or investigating ecological environments. I did not want to do that… Then one day my mom suggested working with a pediatrician she knew.

She mentioned this doctor was always open to innovative ideas and might be open to straying from the typical path I wanted to resist. I did my own little background research on his research, and understood that his background is in metabolic health (ie - Type 2 Diabetes and Obesity). Dr. Constantine Samaan.

There wasn't a reason not to contact him. I was in a slump and didn't have anything to lose. So I got in touch with his secretary, booked a meeting, and prepared to give a typical spiel saying "iSci is a project-based research program that emphasizes the connections between the various fields of science, and aims to communicate these findings to a wide range of audiences. And because of all my experience with these science-y things, I've probably had a little experience with whatever you do research in. If I can't find anything I want to be working on, I might just settle for this." (spoiler: I wouldn't actually say that last part lol)

But when I got there, Dr. Samaan asked me what I was interested in. Which was weird. I thought I'd have to pitch what I could do for him, instead of how he could benefit me. After mentioning my scientific background, he touched upon my minor in Theatre & Film studies. This is where I got excited, and where the connection grew.

I told him I was a freelance cinematographer and wanted to get into the video production field of work if ever the opportunity arrived. He responded saying he's had a vision for using a multimedia wizard, and that he could help build my experience and outreach as the wizard he thought I was. He wanted to communicate his pediatric health background to a general audience… through video. I remember putting on a huge smile.

"Wow, I can do this for you? Am I allowed to actually do a science project with video stuff? I have permission to stray from everyone else's pathways?"

 

So we meshed the filmmaking and science, and came up with The Kiducate Project: a series of animated videos aimed at teaching kids about healthy living.

[The Kiducate Project provides a fun, yet scientifically rich educational experience for children around creating a healthy lifestyle. Click Here to watch the entire video]

And from this initial seed of a connection grew an even greater network of relationships. Both Dr. Samaan and I realized we needed to expand our production team – so I got a hold of a close friend of mine who deals with illustration. I'm forever thankful for Sam's talented vision, and could not have done anything without his work 👏! We also took on the Communications Coordinator of McMaster University's Department of Pediatrics and hired a Public Relations intern to manage and grow our network as best as possible! Mix all this with the amount of voice actors we've been through, and I cannot be more thankful for the relationships and help I've received. I can't thank these guys enough, and truly appreciate everything they've brought to the table! 

This was not the typical iSci thesis project opportunity. To this day, even after a year from our initial planning, I still can't believe I'm working on this. I don't think I'd be happy doing any other type of "science thesis".

And this perfect opportunity wouldn't have happened if I wasn't open to making connections and building those relationships with the unexpected.

Stay connecting. Keep building.