Throughout the Fall semester, TRSM’s Academic Success Centre will be sharing a series of articles related to the pillars that guide their work.

The first pillar is Supporting Student Transitions.

Academic Pillars

Academic Success Pillars

September often feels like the start of a new year – even more so than January 1st! The pace of life changes and you make promises to reinvent yourself, change your habits and embrace a new pace of life. One of my newest habits is listening to an audiobook or a podcast on my commute. Very recently, I read Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. Burnett and Evans teach at Stanford University and their course on design thinking has radically changed the lives of students who are lucky enough to score a spot in their in-demand class. Their 5 steps to designing your life can be adapted to any transitional experience. While I will share a bit about my transition from high school to university, their key steps are quick and digestible to use during ongoing transitions we are faced with throughout our lives.

My First Year Experience

Before we dig deeper into Burnett and Evan’s key steps, I want to share a quick anecdote about one timely transition that sticks out in my life: high school to first year of university. I will spare you the details of my elaborate breakdown when meeting my roommate who had wallpapered our room with posters of Cast Away and larger-than-life pictures of her and her partner. I have a vivid memory of my parents and sisters leaving me sitting on the edge of my bed staring at Wilson and Tom Hanks wondering what the heck I had just done.

Fast-forward a bit into a foggy first semester where all I remember was moving through the motions of going to class, socializing in residence, working my part-time job, and fitting in homework when it felt convenient (or when the deadline was 12 hours away). I felt, at times, like an imposter. I had an amazing opportunity at my feet: a university education. I was doing what all my teachers and peers thought I should be pursuing.


I knew that a university education = job = adult life = what you are “supposed to do”. I was studying a program that someone else had picked for me and chasing a dream that was scripted by the expectations of others. Things started to unravel. Midway through fall semester, I received a call from Katimavik, a Canadian cultural exchange program, which cemented my early departure from first year. I’m not sure if my parents were surprised when I told them I was leaving university. They didn’t know – er, and still don’t know – that I failed most of my courses in my first term. Spanish and Economics – no me gusta. Upon final sign-off from Katimavik, and paying my last phone bill to the main residence hall, I embarked on the greatest, most challenging adventure of my life.

My Katimavik Team

My Katimavik Team

For the next seven months, I lived and volunteered in Port Hardy, BC, Bonnyville, AB, and Cornwall, ON. My time in Katimavik was an important transitional period that allowed me to further focus my attention on being Canadian, how I wanted to contribute as a citizen and how I might do that though gaining further education. I returned home after my Katima-adventure and worked in a factory for four months. While my time with Katimavik provided me with more direction, the exposure to factory work also offered valuable information. I learned what aspects I did not want to pursue in my life. Twelve months later, I was back on campus with a new focus and a new attitude. And yes, Economics was on my timetable.

Let’s return to those five key principles:

1) Be curious

Beyond the regular, discover and explore. Take the time to get out of your comfort zone, and adapt a new mindset that your brain will thank you for! Instead of loathing or fearing a course this semester, try to imagine how the course will benefit you in your future. My experience with Economics could have been different had I shifted my mindset to be more curious about how I might apply the content from that course to my day-to-day life.

2) Try stuff

Students often disclose that they feel their peers have it all figured out, with a clear destination after graduation. I encourage you instead to blend one and two: be curious and try stuff. This will help to inform your direction, and perhaps a career destination. You may be surprised by what you will learn about yourself once you reject the idea that success and life happen in a linear pattern. This step is all about experimenting to gain more information and insight.

Success is Messy

Remember: success is messy

3) Reframe the problems

Our brains are powerful machines that can promote cognitive bias, which leads to limiting our thinking and restricting choices. Step back from a problem or unexpected results and try to look at them in a new light or with a different mindset. By introducing new ways of finding different solutions, we open ourselves up to new possibilities.

4) Know it’s a process

Living in a world that is 24/7 can create an environment where we think we find solutions or make decisions with great speed. Design thinking is an ongoing process, especially when you use it in designing your life. There is no finish line to rush towards. The process is the masterpiece – this is where you will be able to gather information, both good and bad that will inform your next step.

5) Ask for help

Moving through the motions of university does not provide you with the rich opportunity to explore and try stuff. It does not matter which year or semester you are transitioning into this fall – support is always required to help you navigate the new opportunities and challenges. When I left university, I did not seek any assistance or coaching. When I returned, I met with my academic advisor to make a better plan for my semester and the decisions regarding how to pace out my courses. Whatever barrier, challenge or opportunity you encounter this semester, there are many people here to help you navigate designing your life.

Burnett and Evan recommend that you embark on designing your life with a team.

Here’s a quick list of some of the folks at Ryerson who are on your team:

Change is inevitable as you navigate your years in university. The basic design principles shared by Burnett and Evan are useful starting points in helping us create the kind of life we want.

Happy designing!

Posted by Madelyn Steed

Madelyn is Manager of Academic Support at TRSM. She holds a Master of Education degree and is a proud Katimavik alumna. She is delighted to continue serving the Ryerson student population, and celebrated her eighth year with Ryerson this summer. Madelyn leads and supports the programming in the Academic Success Centre. She is eager to develop and grow the Academic Success Centre to support the needs and challenges our students face alongside exceptional staff and faculty in TRSM.

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