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End Of Year Essay

“Refreshing”: A Reflection on My First Year of University

by Janine Maral, Storyteller for RU Student Life

I don’t even know where to start because thinking of writing this post is making me both sad, happy, and confused. Sad, because I already finished my first year of university; happy, because I’m glad it’s over; and confused because, really, where did the time go?

If I were to describe university in one word it would be: refreshing. It’s like drinking a glass of cold water during a hot day, or like taking a breath of fresh air in earth’s pure nature, away from the city. University is refreshing because it finally feels like you have taken a step away from high school and your childhood and a step towards maturity, growing, and finding yourself. You begin to learn things about yourself you never knew and you start to understand how things in the real world work, even if sometimes your classes seem pointless. Some of the major things I learned had to do with my program and classes, my commute, the people I met, and the freedom I gained all within this first year.

Journalism School

I guess we’ll start one year back. This time last year, I had been accepted to my current program, Journalism, but I was still waiting to hear from another program at Ryerson. I was excited knowing that regardless, I would be attending a school that already felt like a second home to me. By this point, I had had three campus tours and felt like I was part of the Ramily. The reality of university actually hit me a week before frosh week: I’d have to sit in boring lectures, write countless essays and articles and stress out about tests and exams. Until then, I’d forgotten this all came along with university and that it wasn’t all just fun and games.

I originally wanted to go into Ryerson’s Media Production program previously known as Radio and Television Arts. I wanted to be in this program so terribly bad it probably wasn’t healthy. Journalism was my second choice and in high school, I hated writing and preferred the technical work. Regardless, I thought it would be a good second choice since both fields are connected and similar in some ways. I ended up getting accepted into the Journalism program late February; I was wait-listed, then rejected to RTA. This was hard on me especially because I was worried that I wouldn’t love the Journalism program and that I would struggle with catching up to university level writing (of course, I was still incredibly grateful that I got accepted to a competitive program like Journalism).

Now that I officially completed an entire year in the program, I realized that I actually love to write and that I genuinely love the work. I was just too scared to break out of my comfort zone, try new things, and improve skills I thought I never even had. For instance, although I may not have been the strongest writer in the beginning, as the year progressed and with continuous practice, I noticed how much my writing started to improve.

The Classes

The amount of work you put in to each course is outstanding. It’s not like high school where you can pull something together in the last minute, especially when it comes to exams. It’s close to impossible to learn an entire semester worth of content in one day, let alone one all-nighter. This was something I had to learn to adjust to: not procrastinating.

I was pleasantly surprised with how simple each course was, however. In high school, they made it seem like university courses were complicated but really, for me it wasn’t. For some courses, I only had a mid-term, essay and exam which I found very satisfying since it would allow me to focus on my continuous journalism work throughout, and not worry too much about those courses, until each part came up.

In terms of organizing your semester, if I were to give you one tip it would be to have a month-by-month calendar of your entire semester with all your due dates and test days written in. What I found most helpful was using my computer’s calendar and recording all the due dates throughout the semester from the beginning of the semester in there. This was so helpful because I had everything in one place and could refer back to it at the end of each week to ensure that I wasn’t missing anything.

The Commute

The majority of students on campus at Ryerson commute to school and I’m one of them. My commute was roughly an hour and 15 minutes each way and honestly, it’s not as bad as it sounds. I did hate it in the beginning of the year because it was “such a waste of time,” but you begin to realize that sometimes you’re going to have to get used to doing things the “hard way.” Take a look at it in a positive way: Sure you save money, but it also makes you make the most of every second of your day. You’d be surprised what you could accomplish during your commute.

Things I did on my commute and that I recommend to pass the time:

  1. Listen to podcasts: This is one of my favourite things to do during a commute. Funny podcasts brighten up your day and educational podcasts teach you things you never knew.
  2. Read the Metro newspaper: Reading the news helped me stay on track with world events and also made the subway ride to Ryerson pass by a little faster.
  3. Play Sudoku: The best part of reading the Metro paper is the sudoku. Seriously, it gets addictive.
  4. Study: Print out your notes for a test and read over them on the subway. It keeps you busy and makes use of that time.

The Freedom

It’s true, the freedom is real in university, even as a commuter. I no longer feel like my life revolves around school, but more like school is a (large) portion of my life, but I get to explore other things, too. In my first semester, I had two days off and even on those days I would commute downtown just to explore the city. By having a flexible schedule, I could also do more with my time like go to events or panels on campus, write more journalism stories, blog for RU Student Life, and in general, just do things I couldn’t in high school because of its fixed schedule.

Speaking of schedules, I specifically enjoy having a schedule that is not fixed, meaning it’s not the same hours each day. Some days I would start later, so I could make use of my mornings — like getting school work done or, let’s be honest, sleeping in. Other days I would start early but end before noon, leaving me with the rest of the day off. There is so much more you can do!

The People

Going to a completely new school where you know no one is scary, but almost everyone is in the same boat as you. They are all looking to meet new people and make friends. Orientation week was where I met tons of people in my program, some whom I haven’t seen afterwards and others whom I still keep in contact with today. During the semester, you continue to meet people as well, whether it be through a class or just sitting in the library building asking someone to watch over your stuff. You just need to break out of your shell and approach a new friendship.

I genuinely love and enjoy university, so far. People are accepting, there is so much to do (especially since we are in downtown Toronto) and the freedom is refreshing. I’m so sad to see my first year fly by so quickly but I still am looking forward to the rest of my university career!

To those going into first-year, remember to take chances and break out of your shell because sometimes the best outcomes come from a new step you are worried to take. Share your stories, whether you’re worried, excited beyond belief, or still unsure, using #RoadToRyerson.

Sometime around Inauguration Day, I started to notice the tall slender man at the southern edge of Lake Shore Drive. He stood perfectly rigid, his head thrust backward, staring skyward, as if watching an airplane pass. The man — a sculpture from artist Tom Friedman — is long and silver, made of baking tins and scrap foil. He was installed last fall on the lakefront. He’s hard to miss, but only after Donald Trump entered the White House did I start to wonder what he was watching. Did he see an asteroid approaching?

Was the sky falling?

There is culture that speaks to the moment, and there are moments so loud and dissonant that it becomes hard to distinguish where the moment ends and the culture begins. Or vice versa.

What if nothing much happened in 2017? What if it had a been a year like any other? Some losses, some triumphs, an outrage or two, then the next year began, institutions intact, morality intact, status quo. Would that slender man have felt ominous then? Would the culture we occupy — much of it planned long before the 2016 election — have looked different? Or were things trending downward for a while, fed on an ugliness lying in wait? This time last year, I was finishing a story that was partly about whether 2016 was the worst year ever. Turns out — nope. If you’re in need of an episode recap of what happened in the United States, Season 241, Episodes 2,881 through 2,892:

Donald Trump became president. The president sought a ban on travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Then the president sought a ban on transgender soldiers. The president said there were bad people “on all sides” of a white nationalist rally in Virginia (that ended with a protester being killed). The president endorsed the Senate candidacy of a judge accused of sexually harassing teenagers. The president brushed aside accusations that he sexually harassed a number of women. The president attempted to roll back hundreds of regulations, affecting children’s health, education, national parks. Hurricanes hit Texas and Puerto Rico; the president threw paper towels at survivors. On Jan. 1, after taking a knee during the national anthem to protest racism, quarterback Colin Kaepernick played his last game in the NFL; months later, when other players kneeled, the president sought their firing.

The Trump presidential campaign was repeatedly connected with Russian efforts to undermine the 2016 election; the campaign became part of an ongoing investigation. A gunman in Las Vegas killed nearly 60 people and wounded 500 more. There were additional terror attacks, in New York and Texas. North Korea threatened nuclear war, then the president threatened back. Scores of powerful men in Hollywood and the media (and nearly every profession and governmental body) were accused of sexual harassment and removed; Minnesota U.S. Sen. Al Franken said he would step down after allegations were made against him. The president retweeted videos from white extremist groups, insulted the prime minster of Australia, pulled the U.S out of both free-trade and the Paris Climate agreements, embraced dictators and called the press the “enemy of the people.” He referred to the news that he didn’t like as “fake news.” Also, Time magazine asked, “Is Truth Dead?”

Other stuff happened, too.

But basically, culture changed. The air grew heavier, the foundations on which much rested — literally, morally — witnessed a slow rumble. One of my favorite podcasts of the year was “Where Should We Begin,” a series of actual couples-counseling sessions, which at times is like listening to pieces of a cliff break off a continental shelf, chunk by chunk. Landscape changed overnight, sometimes tentatively, sometimes with a crash. A lot of people liked the change; they were, electorally, demographically, statistically, in the minority. The rest felt a steep dive — what decay already existed now accelerated.

Winter arrived (as they said on “Game of Thrones”).

People started “saying stuff to each other, none of it actually becoming dialogue” (as Ali Smith wrote in “Autumn,” her brilliant novel set in a splintering, post-Brexit England).

The galaxy, at last, had “lost all hope” (as Gen. Leia said in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” having sent a distress signal to a universe that appeared, at best, indifferent).

But wait!

Like the Millennium Falcon swooping in at the last minute: Democrat Doug Jones, to the relief of Democrats and Republicans alike, beat Roy Moore, who has been accused of molesting teens, in the Alabama Senate race — then a few days later, a terrific new “Star Wars” arrived.

Merry Christmas, indeed.

And it wasn’t just the usual Stormtrooper parade: “The Last Jedi” is as much a product of its moment as any overtly political work released this year, containing both the downswings and hopes of its times in one package. Female leaders are second-guessed and mansplained. Fundamentals are questioned. We see sometimes it’s best not to meet heroes. There’s a trip to a planet characterized by income inequality, ruled by a One Percent; in bad-guy Snoke, we get the juiciest portrait of needling, soulless opportunism since “Saturday Night Live” portrayed Steve Bannon as the Grim Reaper.

Steven Spielberg’s “The Post,” which for months has been called the right movie at the right moment, felt relevant, if in less magical and obvious ways. It doesn’t have the engine of a classic fairy tale, but rather the power of a populist Frank Capra fairy tale. It tells the story of how the Washington Post printed the Pentagon Papers during the Nixon administration, as the administration actively sought ways to subvert the newspaper’s First Amendment rights. When Chicago actress Carrie Coon (playing journalist Meg Greenfield) reads the Supreme Court decision — saying the press exists to “serve the governed, not the governors” — I imagine it was hard for Coon to not look directly into the camera and wink. Unlike the years of development most movies take, “The Post” came together remarkably fast; it didn’t start shooting until Memorial Day.

You feel the clipped urgency to get it on screen immediately.

The result (opening here Jan. 5) is a call for resistance, though less an argument against a White House than an argument for journalism itself, the exhausting, intense reporting that goes into holding public servants accountable. Ironically then, Coon was also at the heart of the finale of HBO’s “The Leftovers,” as a woman wandering through a world pulling apart, where accountability no longer has much relevancy. The plot, if you recall, is about how the world was altered overnight when 2 percent of its people vanish. Right until the end (and maybe after), Coon’s Nora was struggling to find purpose in the remains, and as seen in a lot of culture this year — “Twin Peaks: The Return,” “Mother!” — what remained was a shred of empathy in a dream-state existence.

In other words, resistance took less evident forms.

For instance, I met the Resistance in June, at a music festival in Wisconsin. At least they called themselves the Resistance. They were registering voters; they kept a bowl of pins for people they liked, each with the insignia of the Rebels from “Star Wars” — not unlike the Rebel-insignia rings that children collect in “Last Jedi,” dreaming of joining the fight one day. The Resistance also found a place in your mailbox: Creators of Cards Against Humanity, the playfully abrasive Chicago-based party game, solicited $2.25 million in $15 donations, to legally tie up a small patch of land on the Mexico-U.S. border, to defend against the Trump administration’s attempts at building a border wall. With the money, the Cards folks also “redistributed” $1,000 each to 100 low-income people, retained a Texas lawyer and, charmingly, stuffed envelopes full of good news.

You know, to cheer you up.

It was kind of a prank, kind of art — and definitely an act of resistance.

The trouble with 2017 was that, as the relentlessness of significant, impactful news refused to slow — as bombarding us with way too much to process and react to became a political strategy — it became hard to tell if an act of resistance was a response to decay, or the decay was a necessary byproduct of the resistance. Take the biggest cultural story of the year: the sexual harassment charges against powerful men that tsunamied, taking with them Louis CK and Harvey Weinstein and Matt Lauer and Russell Simmons, among others. I can think of more than a few instances where the culture itself seemed presciently cued in: The Art Institute of Chicago had an insightful show on Gauguin, who has long been a kind of Exhibit A of our ongoing debate on what to do with great art made by bad people. Inversely, Kerry James Marshall painted a 132-foot-tall mural on the side of the Chicago Cultural Center that honored 20 Chicago women, some famous, some not. Did you pick up on the side-eye and smirk that Laura Dern throws a boundary-stepping Oscar Isaac in “The Last Jedi”? It looks well practiced. Just as Daniel Day Lewis’ impervious fashion designer in “Phantom Thread” (opening here Jan. 12), a man who treats women as canvases, matter-of-factly explains to a muse: It is his job to provide her breasts — that is, if he chooses to give them.

It’s not as if any of these movies or exhibits were hatched in the past two months; it’s not as if the arts community were somehow more woke on systemic misogyny. (If they were, they wouldn’t be among the biggest misogynists.) Yet each of these works, in its own way, arriving this year, became a comment on institutional rot. That foundational decay curdled at the center of so many works in 2017 — again, works not conceived and directed at Trump himself — suggests a country that’s been unraveling in elementary ways, a nation where no one even agrees anymore on the basic point of the country.

So, horror films had a blockbuster year, and Ken Burns’ epic Vietnam War documentary on PBS — a government lies to its people, and goes to the trouble of covering up the lies? — played almost quaint at times. “War for the Planet of the Apes” was a strong argument against humanity itself, and “The Florida Project” became a Huck Finn for the age of inequality. The alienation of a shrinking middle class fueled Steven Soderbergh’s return to directing, “Logan Lucky,” and “S-Town,” the hit podcast from the “This American Life” team, focused on the claustrophobia and collapse of shared values in a small town. The tiny Steep Theatre in Rogers Park didn’t seem concerned if “Earthquakes in London” — a sprawling, three-hour global collapse — fit on its stage, only that it had a stage. In Carmen Maria Machado’s indelible debut, the story collection “Her Body and Other Parties,” women read porn-star minds and charted sexual history by the apocalypse unfolding before them. Bruce Springsteen, our reliable foghorn of hope in the murkiest American moments, used his Broadway stage for a study of depression.

Superman himself, in DC’s “Doomsday Clock,” is unable to sleep.

None of which is quite protest. You also didn’t find much music in 2017 reminiscent of the heart-on-a-sleeve outrage from a half-century ago. Instead, the times seemed to strip off navel-gazing: Jay-Z rapped about never intending to mope around a mansion; Lana Del Rey, a seemingly vaporous pop presence by design, sounded eager to cast away nostalgia. In Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA,” there’s a desire to see super clearly:

Tell me when destruction gonna be my fate

Gonna be your fate, gonna be our faith

Peace to the world, let it rotate

Sex, money, murder our DNA

Then again, in a country where white nationalism is seeing a resurgence, the act of creating art itself is political: When Perfume Genius — the stage name of performer Mike Hadreas, who is gay — sings, “How long must we live right/ Before we don’t even have to try?” he sounds long past caring for an answer. Compassion becomes a political act: There was a remarkable episode of Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” that, for one episode, shifted the focus to a doorman and a cashier who is deaf — the sort of blink-and-you-miss background roles often treated like wallpaper.

Perhaps there was a fear of the didactic, a worry about creating work that dates quickly, a concern that the line between moral righteousness and moral grandstanding gets thin.

Smart things to worry about.

Perhaps it’s too early in a relatively new White House to expect much: But when the Resistance didn’t mince words this year, it created the culture’s best moments. Tina Fey devouring a cake, in real time, on “SNL,” working out Trump-era anxiety. PJ Harvey, in one of Chicago’s most discussed performances of 2017, reimagining the festival show as political dirge. The public voted clearly for Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel and Steven Colbert’s political satire over an increasingly irrelevant Jimmy Fallon. The National Portrait Gallery filled an exhibit with images of laborers, even as Congress moved to extend tax cuts to primarily the richest Americans.

“Dunkirk” and “Darkest Hour” were not conceived as reminders of what true leadership resembles, but it’s hard to imagine either playing many other ways now. “Get Out” blasted through the racial-healing rhetoric of the Obama years, only to land like a cruel joke weeks after the Trump inauguration. Indeed, you could argue the Resistance was born the day after the inauguration, at the Women’s March, with its homemade banners and ubiquitous “pussy hats.” The opening salvos of an insurgent culture? Less than a month later, Vince Staples rapped in “BagBak” about the president using language we can’t print in a newspaper, but really all you need is the song’s refrain:

We on now

By summer, monuments to the Confederacy were coming down, while in Chicago, a 5-foot-tall gold message went up, pointed at Trump Tower, courtesy of the city itself:

Real Fake

The city says the sculpture wasn’t political: But then, we should not confuse the city of Chicago with the Resistance, and besides, it’s not the city’s place to say. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” ends with an uncertain Resistance, hoping to persevere “not by fighting what we hate but by saving what we love.” That’s political in 2017. Things get worse before they get better. Asteroids hit the earth. Look up. “The Post” — the “Rogue One” of Nixon movies — ends not quite in triumph but with the Watergate scandal. Ali Smith’s “Autumn,” a book I returned often to this year, finds comfort in this inevitable falling apart, the way seasons pass and resilience rises to the top, the way everything is “bones in grass, bones in flowers, the leafy branches of the ash tree above them, Which is what, in the end, is left of us all, whether we carry a gun while we’re here or we don’t. So. While were here. I mean, while we’re still here.”

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @borrelli

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