Overcoming inadequate feelings as a first-year student

How my transition to Queen's taught me the importance of community

In first year, Luca struggled with feeling like he didn't have a place at Queen's.
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One month into my first year at Queen’s, I wanted to drop out and go home.
 
There wasn’t anything wrong with Queen’s. In fact, it was the opposite: there was something wrong with me—or so I told myself. Early in the year, I decided that I was wholly inadequate and unqualified to be a Queen’s student, that I was a simpleton destined to toil away in mediocrity for the rest of my life, and that I would never thrive at this university because everyone else was better than me. 
 
I was also desperately and helplessly lonely, had no social life to speak of, and felt that no one would really notice if I were gone.
 
I came from a pretty small high school. There were about 250 students in my graduating class, and I knew every single one of them. I knew each of my peers’ first and last names, what courses they excelled in, the sports they played, and the clubs they were members of. Even outside of my own grade, I rarely saw a face at school I didn’t recognize.
 
In addition to attending a small high school, I was also involved in a lot of extra-curricular activities. I was an elected campus leader and part of student government and the varsity lacrosse team. This extracurricular involvement made me an active part of even smaller sub-groups where I was surrounded by friends. 
 
All of this is to say that I felt deeply entrenched in a small community where everyone seemed to know everyone. I loved and valued my school community, and I felt that its members reciprocated those sentiments. I’m not afraid to admit that I felt special in high school. I felt that I was good at what I was doing, and that people recognized that. I felt that my absence would be noted. In short, before I came to university, I felt like a big fish in a small pond. 
 
I felt like a big fish in a small pond. 
 
But Queen’s is a gigantic pond. There are almost 20,000 full-time undergraduate students here, and all of them excelled in high school. And that’s a big part of why coming to Queen’s was a tough transition for me.
 
Queen’s is a very good school with some very good academic programs, athletic teams, and extra-curricular organizations. As such, it attracts some of the best and brightest: the team captains, the valedictorians, and the student government presidents from all over. It attracts a lot of big fish.
 
When I started, it felt like everyone was either smarter than me, better at sports than I was, or had more friends and a loftier social status. It felt like everyone I met got high grades, captained their high school sports team, was the president of every club, volunteered at animal shelters on the weekends, and saved babies from burning buildings (or something similarly heroic).
 
By comparison, it felt like I wasn’t good enough to be mixed in with this bunch of people. In my eyes, I was unremarkable among all the varsity athletes and geniuses.
 
This new and unfamiliar feeling of inadequacy is one that many Queen’s first-year students experience.
 
But it was more than just a feeling of inadequacy—it was a feeling of overwhelming loneliness.
 
I remember walking around campus during my first couple of days and realizing every single person I saw was a stranger—and that was jarring. I felt completely unmoored and rudderless in a sea of new faces, something I’d never really experienced beforehand. 
 
I developed pretty serious depressive symptoms, and anxiety kept me firmly anchored to my comfort zone. I rarely left my residence room other than to go to class or eat, and I took a lot of naps. Naps became my coping mechanism: I wasn’t lonely or inadequate or homesick when I was napping.
 
The worst part was that I felt this way even though I had friends at Queen’s, friends that I’d known in high school and remained close to. These are people that are still wonderfully supportive, never fail to put a smile on my face, and are my best friends to this day.
 
But part of what makes mental illness brutal is that it can convince us we’re alone even when we’re not. It can take the real world, full of sunshine and opportunity, and sap the light out of it. 
 
I remember one recurring thought I had was that the Queen’s community was so huge and full of so many people that if I disappeared, no one would notice or care. 
 
This mindset and my unhealthy coping mechanisms held me back. I missed out on some great experiences and opportunities in the early days of my first year. While other people were out joining clubs and meeting like-minded peers, I was consuming myself with self-doubt and homesickness. 
 
So how did I get out of this vicious downward spiral? I figured out what I was passionate about and I chased it.
 
I joined the varsity lacrosse team and instantly made 40 new friends. I wrote an opinion piece for The Queen’s Journal on a topic that I was passionate about, and they liked it and encouraged me to apply for a role as the Assistant News Editor. I did, and I got the position. I played shinny on the outdoor rink in Victoria Park, and made friends with other hockey lovers.
 
In other words, I shrunk my pond. I took this massive environment and I carved out a little niche where I feel comfortable and can be my best self.
 
I took this massive environment and I carved out a little niche where I feel comfortable and can be my best self.
 
I now have a wonderful group of friends and a strong support network that helps me through moments of self-doubt and loneliness. I feel I have a sense of purpose, goals to work towards, and a mission that gets me out of bed in the morning.
 
What I learned is that it takes patience and work to feel at home in a new community. Feeling displaced and untethered in a new environment is exceedingly common, and it doesn’t mean you’re defective or inadequate. 
 
It can mean a lot of things. In my case, it just meant I hadn’t found my niche yet.
 
That’s why my first piece of advice to incoming first-year students is to actively seek out your niche. Anchor yourself to something you’re passionate about and use that to construct a community where you feel like you’re a part of something. Join a club, foundation, or team. 
 
I’m probably the first of a hundred different people that will tell you to get involved in your first year, but it’s genuinely the most valuable thing you can do. 
 
Ask yourself what you are passionate about, what drives you, and what makes you happy, angry, or want to shout from the rooftops. There’s almost definitely a club or organization for it at Queen’s. Find that club and join it. It’s the best way to shrink your pond. You might never feel like a big fish here, but at least you won’t flounder in a sea of missed opportunities and unfamiliar faces. 
 
My second piece of advice is to always remember that you belong here. You are smart, capable, and extraordinary, and you will find a niche here where you excel and stand out. 
 

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