Tips to Transition: Surviving your First Year in Uni
Or, 5 years of regrets thinly veiled as a self help guide.
First off, congratulations! You’ve managed to slog through 12 years of compulsory education and presumably have done well enough to get into an undergraduate degree. That’s an achievement you can genuinely be proud of. Well done! 😊
Entering your first year of university can be an exciting time. It can also be daunting. Being on the precipice of freedom isn’t as great as you thought it would be, and 16 hour anime binges or Fortnite sessions with the boys get boring pretty quickly. On top of that, having some realistic degree of choice for the first time in your life, you are now riddled with constant self-doubt.
Some classic examples of this self-doubt include:
- Am I picking the right degree?
- Is my destiny to be a wage slave for some nameless corporation forever?
- Am I actually meant to be studying Islam with some dude in a cave?
- What does my job mean? Do I have a purpose?
Let me iterate, this article will not answer your questions. Heck, people muuuch older than you and I still struggle with these issues. Hopefully though, reading this will give you a bit of perspective on what to expect, and how to approach things a little more maturely. So, here are some scattered thoughts on picking a degree, making the most of your time and figuring out this whole career dilemma which plagues most young Muslims.
Stop worrying about jobs
In my first year of university, I was desperate to get a job. Confused about my path, I went where every misguided millennial goes for advice — the internet. Some online careers page told me that Civil Engineering was the field with the least unemployment and the most projected jobs. In a frenzy, I did the deed and transferred into Civil Engineering, blissfully unaware of the fact that I had just signed away my future to a life of mediocrity and a perpetual middle-class existence.
Every weekend, I would go to Oliver Brown with my friends, open up Indeed.com and apply for literally anything that had the word “Engineer” in it. Nevermind that I had zero qualifications, or that I was in my first year; I needed to get my foot in the door however I could — whether that was by doing weird extracurriculars I wasn’t that interested in, emailing random people or even cold calling. The thought of being unable to graduate because my 60 days of Industrial Training hadn’t been completed haunted me day and night.
Gone were my dreams of becoming a doctor and flexing an M.D on the aunties. Gone were my dreams of walking around like a hobo in the outback for 10 years, returning after reaching enlightenment. I was going to be a Civil Engineer now, doomed to look at rocks and be bald in my early 30s. Well, at least the work would be generally halal. And I’d be making a comfortable income, right?
Needless to say, I didn’t get a job that year.
Three years on, a lot has changed. I, alongside a lot of my other dropkick friends, ended up finding work, Alhamdulillah. For a lot of us, we felt it was an opening from Allah; something we did nothing to deserve. For some of us, it took some searching. Some sacrifice. But at the end of the day, we were all employed, making money, or at least, on the way to it.
And this is exactly what is so difficult to see as a student. Allah has written our rizq for all of us — on His terms, not ours. On top of this, Allah doesn’t waste your efforts. You, and everyone, in some way, shape or form will eventually receive what you wish for. Some of the stories I have witnessed have really helped put this conviction in me — people rising from the most unlikely of circumstances, late in life, after having been written off as failures and lost causes, turning it all around in a few weeks.
So, please don’t do a degree solely for the sake of “it’s employable” (the entire cohort of Malek Fahd kids going into either UNSW Civil or Data Science next year, this one goes out to you). Whatever you do, there is some potential to give back to the community through it. In saying this though, I don’t mean to shame people going into STEM fields. Gainful employment is a noble endeavour in our tradition and a necessary part of growing up. Which leads to my next point…
Learn skills, not courses.
Once upon a time, the institution of a university was designed for the elites of society — nobles, aristocrats, priests and scientists bankrolled by rich patrons. While we have moved on from the days of Galileo dropping a ball from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, our educational systems have unfortunately lagged behind. Because of this, you will do a lot of courses in a wide range of areas which exposes you to a bunch of concepts that are loosely connected but that will never make you feel like, “Hey, I’m good at this.”
Having a foundational understanding of the various areas of your field is important. However, it’s not really a selling point. Something you can really sell is a skill. For example, you can say “I am studying Computer Science,” which doesn’t tell the company much. Or, you can say “I have a high level of proficiency in managing databases using SQL”, which is far more likely to get you hired. You do a degree to learn a bunch of skills. Decide on a few skills you want to master, think about where they can lead you and then stick to them.
Of course, this is all well and good for someone working in Engineering or Tech, where the skills you’re learning are obvious. How about someone doing something more niche, like Biology or Arts? The fact is that even in these fields, you’re still learning a skill. Molecular cloning is a skill. Writing is a skill. Research is a skill. It all depends on how you sell these skills. Think of a degree as a signal that yells “I’m keen, please hire me and give me money” to a prospective employer. Especially early on, it’s not something that confines you to employment within a certain field. There are plenty of Graduate Programs run by large entities which hire a from broad range of disciplines and retrain them to do the job they want, the most notable being the NSW State Government Program.
On that note, make the effort to find out about common career paths for your degree, the skills needed and what jobs require you to do in general. Most don’t need any special knowledge, just half a brain and the ability to use basic Excel.
Hope in Allah, believe in your abilities and forge ahead with the path you choose. There is a lot of work and you won’t be idle for long In shaa Allah.
Passion isn’t a given, meaning isn’t a right
As the classic boomer adage goes, “Do something you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” Though well meaning, you and I can never really commit to it; we’re too scared of the externalities. The second you start thinking “hey, maybe following my dreams is worth it,” you’re hit by some bloke who’s anointed himself as the second coming of Karl Marx after doing a few ARTS courses. In his revolutionary analysis, he will guilt trip you about how your concern stems from a position of privilege, how your immigrant parents worked hard at menial jobs to make ends meet, and how detached you are from the 3rd world masses exploited by the capitalist system (please, don’t be this guy). This leaves you even more cynical and directionless.
Look, there’s no easy answer for this. Some people are passionate by birth, others by learning and some have none at all. Some people see work as something to pay the bills and some have a grand vision of how they will change things wholescale. Some people derive great meaning from their work — even if it’s just pushing papers — and others, despite their involvement, see it as a necessary part of life detached from their other pursuits.
It’s just how it is. The corporate environment is draining, and there’s no easy way to engage someone who is disillusioned by it. Karl Marx’s second coming does have a point — we are in a very privileged position, and meaningful work is a modern concept, possibly created by early American industrialists. However, the nature of modern work is completely different to how we worked historically — work consumes a much bigger portion of our lives now, so it’s important that such a large investment of our time bears some kind of fruit.
Debates on that aside, it’s not to say that we can’t aspire to do something we enjoy, especially if we are in the position to move towards it. The natural proclivity of the human being is toward advancement — you and I are always looking to improve, make progress, and reach an end goal. Just don’t lose yourself in your plans and be thankful to Allah for the opportunities He has afforded you, even if you can’t see where they lead.
Study hard! A lot of your friends will tell you “Your marks don’t matter.” They don’t, but often, if you’re good at something, you’ll like it, and good subject performance gives you a bit of confidence. Also, universities don’t advertise this, but students with very good marks often get invited to secret networking events, or are sent job/research opportunities not advertised to others.
Make lots of friends! Friends who pray together, play together. This is the best part of uni. It’s no fun otherwise. Join the MSA (subtle plug).
Finally, take it all as one big learning experience. All the exams, assignments, stress; in the moment, it seems meaningless, another obstacle to overcome. Once you come out the other end, you’ll see that you did change. Small and subtle changes, but changes nonetheless.
Obviously, I can’t cover everything. I’m no expert, and you’ll get bored. Plus, it’ll stop you from learning university’s most important lesson: you need to learn to figure it out yourself. Don’t worry, you can do it. You’ve made it this far, not much longer to go.
Best of luck.😊