by Sarah Nathanson

First-year students, welcome to university! You’re independent now. (Kind of.) You get to study whatever you want. (Within reason.) I’m sure you’re in fact a whirl of confusion and nerves, along with feeling pretty excited about the much-touted experiences you’re going to have.

To be completely frank with you: the next four years will not be a breeze, but they will be supremely rewarding. It’s probably going to feel like you’re being thrown into the deep end of the ocean (in both a good and bad way), but remember the reality — the boat you were thrown from is only 10 meters away. There are thousands of students who have been thrown in with you, and, most importantly, the people you think tossed you into the water are still on that boat, and they’re all waving, cheering and throwing you life jackets as well. Enjoy the swim.

A Gnu in an ice-cream truck.

The ORSL information board in Wilson Lounge.

I’ve pulled together this cheat sheet for first year as just such a life jacket. A big shout-out here to Todd Le Blanc of the New College Office of Residence and Student Life (ORSL), who talked to me about some important points. Todd is part of the team welcoming you into New College. You can learn more about what ORSL and the Orientation team are organizing for you on the orientation website.

Your First Port of Call

  • Dons
    • These are upper-year students who WANT to help you — they’ve been waiting for you and want you to feel at home at New College.
    • You can ask them about anything, from social questions to academic concerns, all year round — their help doesn’t expire after Orientation, and it’s a no-social-pressure kind of situation. Check out a story about one of our former dons, Julia.
    • If a don doesn’t know the answers to your questions, they’ll direct you to where you need to go.
    • In residence, there are 21 dons, all ready to help.
    • If you’re a commuter student, you can count on three dons who hang out in Wilson lounge during community hours (check social media for the schedule). Don’t know where Wilson Lounge is? Don’t worry: in a week or so, you will.
    • Remember, they can’t help you if you don’t reach out — don’t feel weird about doing so.
  • Finding community information
    • Social media — keep an eye on @NewCollegeORSL (on Facebook), @New_ORSL (on Twitter) and @new_orsl (on Instagram).
    • Check your email regularly — you’ll be receiving three newsletters from ORSL on a weekly basis, for general, residence life and student life information.
    • Boards in Wilson Lounge provide information on different ORSL groups and initiatives.
    • ORSL offers lots of ways to get involved and make friends, so take advantage.
    • If you have questions, you can reach ORSL by phone (416.978.8875),  email, or by walking into their office in Wilson Lounge.

Your Academic Life Raft

  • Academic Advising through New College. Also, some academic advice.
    • Advisors can help keep your degree on track and organize your classes.
    • Don’t be worried if your degree or your vision of the future changes. This is a time of growth.
    • Remember, there’s no shame in taking fewer classes — your mental health is just as important as academics.
  • New College Writing Centre
    • Visit them even if you think your writing is up to par — they’ll know what professors look for, and they’ll teach you how to hone your skills.
    • If you’re not confident, and don’t know where to start, they have a solution for that too.
  • Learn how to use the U of T library system
    • This will help with research papers and if you want more information for an exam.
    • Life hack: if you can’t afford a textbook and don’t need a specific edition, the libraries might have a copy you can use.
    • There are librarians on staff to help you find relevant books or papers.
  • Insider info about classes
    • Make personal connections with your professors by introducing yourself and going to office hours, especially for big lectures.
    • Go to class, and be mentally present while you’re there.
    • Make connections with other people in your class, and if you’re shy, try to find a class Facebook group — studying with other people or even seeing that your classmates are in the same boat as you can help relieve stress.

Man in green shirt dancing in a library.

Your Personal Life Buoy

  • Friendships and community
    • Keep in touch with people from Orientation.
    • Get involved in New College community activities, or find which campus club fits you best.
    • Introduce yourself to the person next to you in class.
    • Be generous with compliments.
    • Invite people to coffee after meeting them (lock that friendship down).
    • ORSL recommends hanging out in Wilson Lounge to actively integrate yourself into the community, especially if you’re a commuter.
  • If you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like large groups or high-energy activities
    • You’re still not alone — if you don’t make friends right away, don’t panic.
    • If you don’t feel the need to gather a large group of friends, if you’re uncomfortable with new people or if you’re just here to learn, that’s fine. Crazy social lives aren’t for everybody! Don’t feel pressured to have one. Just check in with yourself and make sure you’re feeling healthy and comfortable. It took me a while to settle in with a group of friends, but now, I’m close with several people and I even get to live with some of my best buds.
  • Organize a support system
    • Join a mentorship program — you were automatically enrolled in SPROUT by ORSL, a New College e-mentorship program. After summer, If you like it, you have to opt in to the in-person version.
    • There are also other mentorship programs through U of T Student Life.
    • Call a parental figure or someone you know well and trust at least once a week — this has helped me with homesickness and kept me from feeling lonely more times than I can count.
  • If you need a job:
  • U of T Health and Wellness
    • You have access to health insurance through the Ontario Health Insurance Plan (OHIP), your province’s health Insurance or the University Health Insurance Plan (UHIP, if you’re an international student). Take advantage of it.
    • U of T has a general doctor’s office and a department for mental health at which you can easily book an appointment at their office, which is at 214 College Street — general health is on the second floor, mental health is on the first.
    • Don’t worry about weight fluctuation — college is stressful, and it happens to everybody. Just focus on getting yourself the right balance of nutrients and be as healthy as you can.


A lot is about to change, first-years, but it’s all about taking on the next part of your life. Ultimately, this is your experience, and there are resources to make it a good one. Before you get thrown off the boat, gather your floatation devices, close your eyes and remind yourself that you’re not alone. Take a deep breath — and leap.

People on a boat wearing life jackets looking into the distance.