Cheat Sheet for Commencing Arts at Monash

By Alex Creece

University is an experience that comes loaded with hype. As the job market gets increasingly competitive, tertiary education is becoming more of an assumed sequence in our lives, rather than a fully-realised choice. In addition, the ideas we are sold through pop culture, our peers, and our elders inevitably result in many new students having skewed expectations of the university experience.

I would know. I am finally coming towards the end of my Bachelor’s degree – six years after I began it, as a seventeen-year-old fresh out of high school. Back then, I had a pretty tenuous grasp on who I was or what mattered to me, but I didn’t question that university was the logical next step in my life; I didn’t have anything worthwhile I could do with a gap year, and I definitely wanted to delay full-time work. I eeny-meeny-miney-moed my way into a sufficiently general course, and crossed my fingers for the best. I’d had a hideous time in high school, so I pinned all my hopes on the assumption was that university would magically solve my problems.

Rookie mistake.

Since then, I’ve gotten four years of workforce experience, had a number of creative pieces published, developed enough social strategies to be able to actually look at people and talk to them aloud, received proper care for my autism, ADHD, and mental health struggles, and realised that I finally, genuinely want to complete my studies.

Academic and vocational achievements are no longer a strictly linear path, and that’s not an inherently bad thing; my initial failures eventually kick-started many of my current successes. But, it’s good to set yourself up to avoid preventable pitfalls, and the least I can do is offer some simple wisdoms for others starting out at university.

Toy hedgehog reading book
Study Something You Care About

There are going to be dry units in every degree, but the best chance you can give yourself is to study something that—for the most part—legitimately tickles your pickle. That way, even when you’re roughing it through the more boring topics, it will still hold some relevance to your overall goals.

For example, I love writing, but as an academic discipline, it’s not all daydreaming and creative catharsis. Nonetheless, even when I am trying to persevere through a reading about some crusty old man’s ancient musings, I can still wrangle some merit from this: it’s important to know the origins of literature when trying to forge its future.

You’re lucky if you jump straight into your dream course. It may be more likely that you need to dabble in a couple of different units before you have a clear picture of what you enjoy. You might need to change degrees altogether. No matter your choice of degree and/or major, you are committing to a long stretch of intense studying, some inevitably boring readings, and assignments that are designed to demonstrate how much (or little) you’ve engaged with the unit materials. The first step in motivating yourself to do these things is by actually caring. When it’s 2am and you’re nodding off into a bag of chocolate-coated coffee beans over Immanuel Kant’s philosophical ramblings, you need to be in this for yourself, or it feels much less possible to stay committed at all.

Avoid Comparing Yourself to Others

Tertiary students are generally studying by choice and on their own terms. Many students in your class will be at a completely different stage of a completely different course to you. There are full-time and part-time students, domestic and international, employed and unemployed, and with huge diversity in their individual backgrounds and abilities. Some people are naturally able to stick to stricter study habits than others, just as some people might have different amounts of time available depending on their circumstances. In the same respect, some people go into university with an existing friends group or an outgoing nature, while others feel a little more socially overwhelmed.

On one hand, everyone is very much in the same boat. But on the other, it’s important to remember that we are all differently equipped. Meeting people who share similarities with you is effective in feeling less alien in a new environment, but there’s also a lot to learn from people who possess strengths that you may not.

For instance, many commencing students often feel intimidated by the stereotypically studious mature-aged students in their class, but it’s important to remember that no one is more or less worthy of being here than anyone else. It doesn’t matter if you’re 17 or 70, you’ve been accepted into the course on your own merits, and you have an equal right to learn. Often, like myself, a studious mature-aged student was once fresh out of high school, lacking direction, and missing out on opportunities. Their current work ethic may be based on a history of mistakes and tough learning experiences.

No one magically got to wherever they are today, and they’re not judging you for where you are either.

Grab Opportunities Like They’re Free Food

If you don’t put effort into making friends, don’t let it come as a shock if it doesn’t suddenly happen. If you know there are workshops or library support sessions but you don’t attend them, don’t be surprised when you don’t absorb this knowledge via telepathy.

Feel free to make the choices you best see fit, but accept the reasonable consequences of those choices.

There are many social, academic and extra-curricular opportunities offered by Monash, and you don’t want to exclude yourself simply by not asking a question or not looking out for them. If you find that the widely advertised events are not interesting to you, do a little digging for something more suitable. Understandably, you may feel little shy to attend something like Beach Day or the annual Fetish Party, but there are always other events that cater to varied interests and to people who might prefer something more low-key. Similarly, you might benefit from networks such as Yulendj, the Indigenous engagement unit, or English Connect, an excellent service for non-native English speakers. Through these avenues (and many others), you can not only receive relevant assistance for your needs, you can also meet other students with similar experiences or backgrounds. But these services can be easy to miss if you don’t actively seek them out.

I promise that no matter how awkward you might feel, a student who asks lots of questions is not nearly as concerning to staff as one who won’t communicate. The Monash website, Facebook pages and groups, Faculty Student Societies, Student Services offices, and the Arts PAL Program are excellent resources for information that might not be bombarded at you during Orientation, and these all exist purely to optimise your university experience – whatever that means for you. There are even opportunities hidden in plain sight; your tutors and lecturers are industry professionals, and any knowledge, feedback or connection you can attain is a nugget of academic gold.

Arts is an educational degree, and—like many degrees nowadays—is not necessarily a ticket into an immediate career. With the amount of people undertaking tertiary degrees, the most valuable asset is not necessarily the certificate but the knowledge and experience that you take out of it. “Ps get degrees” is still technically true, but is not particularly wise if you want to give yourself an edge for postgraduate and career opportunities.

Keep an Open Mind

You may find your rose-coloured glasses shattered on the floor in a puddle of tears and flat white foam somewhere around Week 10 of your first semester, but try to tackle the new challenges of university without self-judgment or unreasonable expectations.

University is not as intense as Year 12, but you still actually have to do work, and a lot of that work is self-directed. And spoiler alert: university is not a kooky teen movie about frats and sororities, a raunchy never-ending party, or a highly stratified social competition. I’m pretty relieved it’s not any of those things, but sometimes new students get so excited over the prospect of university that they overlook the fact that it’s still predominantly a place for learning.

Take it a day at a time and temper your expectations as you go. It takes time to figure out the lay of the land, and how to best reap what you need from your education. Be gentle with yourself – new experiences are daunting enough without any self-imposed standards.

Incorporate Self-Care into Your Routine

By self-care, I’m not talking so much about spa treatments and expensive outings to dessert bars, but more about the crucial—and often mundane—elements of upkeep needed to stay functional. Riveting, I know.

Many commencing Arts students find themselves with fewer contact hours and a lot more freedom than ever before. Before even realising it, some students effortlessly fall into a pattern of time-wasting to the point of lacking any routine whatsoever. This makes it unfortunately easy to miss classes and coursework, and dangerously easy to neglect yourself too. It’s great to have a couple of free days each week without much of a focused or predictable plan, but try your best to get into a suitable rhythm for the majority of the week. Eating proper food, sticking to a sleep schedule as much as possible, showering, and self-maintenance chores are all extremely unglamorous but vital influences on your mental and emotional faculties. It’s also much easier to find regular time for study and assignments when the rest of your life is somewhat well-coordinated.

This type of self-care also helps you stay alert to any changes in your patterns. Potential issues are mitigated much more effectively the quicker you act on them, but without a sense of routine in your life, it can be difficult to detect any shifts or early warning signs. Before you know it, the freedom to sleep all day can go from being a guilty pleasure to a depressive symptom. A sense of purpose is extremely important, and if your life is just a jumbled sleep-wake cycle and a nest of potato chip packets, that sense of purpose gets lost. This may sound dramatic, but trust me – I have lived in that potato chip nest, and it’s not fun.

Keep a list of your preferred support services or people you feel comfortable with. Occasionally, check in with them even when you don’t urgently need it. It’s important to care for your mental health even when things are travelling along smoothly so you can readily put these skills into practice when they’re not.

Every day isn’t going to be a bastion of productivity and excitement, but appreciate and acknowledge the little things you do to keep yourself functioning – a hot bath, a homemade meal, a completed reading or a walk in the park are all little successes in self-care, and will make it easier for you to take on the trickier tasks.

And as an occasional treat, going to a dessert bar after a big week is a pretty worthy endeavour too.

Alex Creece is a current student in the Faculty of Arts at Monash University, Ambassador in the Arts PAL Program and a talented writer