Research shows that students who feel a sense of belonging on campus are more likely to be successful in their studies. Building strategic campus connections will also help you succeed in your degree. These are the top 5 people to know at your university:
Number one of the top 5, you should get to know at least one student in each of your classes. This will be helpful in case you miss class and need notes, when you need a study buddy, and also when you just need to vent about how much homework you have!
But you should also get to know students outside your program. You might meet them through orientation, clubs, elective courses, student government, or other places on campus. These classmates will help give you some perspective when your own program is driving you crazy, and know what’s going on in other parts of the university.
It can also be really helpful to get to know students who are in higher years than you. If you have opportunities to meet these students, you should definitely do it! This might be through orientation and events for new students, mentorship programs, or other programming. Higher-year students can support you because they’ve already navigated some of the challenges you’ll be facing, and they survived to get into third and fourth year, which can give you hope for your own future. They’ll also be able to give you tips for studying and course selection, and the low-down on the professors.
2. TAs (Teaching Assistants)
TAs are definitely one of the top 5 people to know at your university! When you are a lower-year student, you may be working with TAs as much or more than you work with your professors. TAs are usually grad students (or sometimes higher-year undergrad students) who are hired to support professors. Because they are working in a course, they can help you with your course material, and because they are also students, they can help you with student advice and navigating university in general. They will usually be your first point of contact (before the prof) if you need help with course material or if you have questions.
If you are even faintly considering going to grad school, you should definitely get to know your TAs. Many of them will be grad students, and they can tell you about their own experiences. What did they do in their undergrad to be more competitive? How many times did they have to apply to grad school? What tips and advice can they give you about getting into a grad program?
A lot of students are afraid of their professors. They’re so smart, they know everything, and they control your grades! But they are human, too, and many of them will be happy to help you and get to know you. Office hours are specific times when they are prepared to meet with students, and often students don’t take advantage and go see them.
If you’re nervous about going to see your professor in office hours, plan out your questions. Be as specific as you can. Don’t just tell them that you can’t understand the course. Go through the material and ask detailed questions to show that you have put in the effort to understand. Try to find the answers to your own questions so that you can tell them which sections or specific topics are not making sense to you.
Remember that your professor is a person, too. You can ask them questions about their research or about how they became a professor, and they are likely to appreciate you taking the time to get to know them.
Finally, you may need a professor reference one day, whether it’s for an exchange, a research position, grad school, a job, or a scholarship, so you want to make sure that at least a couple of your profs know you well enough to provide a supportive reference.
Librarians are the under-appreciated hero in this list, but they are definitely one of the top 5 people to know at your university. Did you know that librarians specialize in supporting academic research? This means they can also support students who are learning how to do research. If you are having trouble finding research resources on a specific topic, or can’t figure out how to use a journal database, they can help!
Your university library probably offers online resources and workshops to teach new students how to do this work. You should definitely sign up for these! Academic research strategies are very unlikely to have been taught sufficiently in your high school. The librarian can also help you learn how to reference your papers properly and avoid accidentally submitting plagiarized work (which you can get into trouble for). Learning these skills early on will help you for the rest of your studies.
Many libraries also provide support for study skills. Many new students think they don’t need to learn how to study, but university is very different from high school and the adjustment can be difficult. Attend as many study and learning strategies sessions as you can! (And if you can’t access these through your library, see if your student services or student success office has anything).
Your university probably has all sorts of staff and faculty advisors who can help you: Career and/or Co-op, Academic and Financial Aid Advisors are just a few that might exist. Take advantage of these resources while you are a student! Of course, these will vary depending on your institution, but here are some of the roles that exist at many Canadian universities:
Career Advisors can typically help you explore and prepare for your career. They can give advice in terms of selecting a career path and then building towards it, and also with more tangible skills like writing resumes and cover letters, networking, and interviewing. Their offices may also organize workshops to learn these skills and events where you can network and meet future employers.
Co-op Advisors are similar to Career Advisors (and at some institutions they may be the same), but they can focus specifically on helping you with co-op roles. This means they will guide you through finding, applying and complete co-op work terms. Like career advisors, they will probably help you with resume, cover letters, interviews and networking, as well as supporting you in finding an appropriate work term.
Academic Advisors’ roles can vary quite a bit depending on the institution. At a minimum, their role is to help you make sure you are meeting the requirements for graduation (required courses, electives, units/credits, grades/GPA, etc). They may also be able to help you plan more complex degrees (double majors, adding a minor, etc). They may be able to go into even more depth and help you explore different elective courses that may be of interest, alternative degrees, majors, or minors, and then you can leverage those conversations into career discussions.
Academic Advisors may be staff, or they may be faculty members (professors). Sometimes departments might have a Progam Assistant who supports students, rather than having Academic Advisors. They may be in your faculty or department or in a student services area. Make sure you seek out the folks who can help you stay on track, though! I have worked with students who applied to graduate but had to cancel to go back and finish one course – nobody wants that to happen!
Financial Aid Advisors are there to help you explore different funding options for your degree. They can help you with student loans, bursaries, scholarships and awards. And remember, financial aid is not just for students with financial need! Some funding options are highly competitive and can be prestigious – including them on your resume can highlight your excellence as a student to a future employer.
I’ve met students who paid for their entire degree (upwards of $40,000 of tuition) entirely with many smaller scholarships. Some are only $500-$1000 but these add up over the four years of university. These applications can take a lot of time and require you to write essays, gather references, and provide detailed study and career goals, so make sure you manage your time to make room for this.
Those are the top 5 people I would recommend you seek out on campus in order to build a support system for you at university. Have I missed anyone? Let me know in the comments or contact me.
If you’re seeing any unfamiliar vocabulary on this website, you can look it up in the Glossary of Canadian University Vocabulary.