If there’s one thing someone took away that would completely transform my first-year experience (apart from uni), it’s empathy. Away from home and in an unfamiliar environment, the first year is full of moments out of our comfort zone. No one knows us. We can’t rely on our reputation or looking around us, because most of us don’t actually know what we’re doing. In a 500-person lecture theatre or in a 700-person hall of residence full of strangers, as we follow our degree requirements and are nudged into recommended directions that we may not be quite sure of yet, it’s easy to feel lonely or overwhelmed.
Someone asked me about the highlights of my first year so far. At first I thought of O-Week, of the first week back on campus after the first lockdown, of the inter-semester break and being able to enjoy Auckland without having any work to do. But as I kept mulling over my answer over the next few days, I realized there had been one invisible factor I had completely overlooked. Empathy. Some people’s acts of kindness made a good day better, fixed problems before they happened, and made turning points on sub-average days. A stranger’s ability to put themselves in my shoes was often the push I needed to carry on through the day. And trust me, there are a lot of them.
The more you see yourself as part of a group, with the ability to make a difference in the lives of others, the more rewarding it will be to live alone (at least in my experience). I started volunteering, checking up on others, making a big deal out of my friends’ birthdays, surprising them with their favorite foods when I knew they were stressed. If I met someone new, I would wait for them by the door to walk out together. COVID-19 has shown me how lucky we are to be in the same place at the same time – let’s appreciate it. After lockdown, I worried that when I returned to halls, everyone would have gotten much closer and I’d be left out. On the first day back, people waited for me to come down to dinner and made plans with me the next day. Sometimes you take these things for granted, until you realize how much more different the day would have been without them.
Empathy takes on all kinds of shapes and forms. If you stay in a hall of residence next year and you see someone sitting alone, join them. You have no idea what difference it may make. If you agree with someone while they’re contributing in a tutorial, nod. Sometimes that’s just the encouragement they need. Knock on people’s doors to let them know before you go down for meal times. When you’re living away from home, it’s nice to know you’re being remembered. You’ve probably heard this saying many times but it’s still just as true, “treat others how you want to be treated.” Sometimes that’s just what starts a great friendship or what brightens a stranger’s day. I’ve had so many misunderstandings this year from people trying not to appear over-eager, when really we were dying to get to know each other.
Being young and in a new environment is scary, but putting yourself in someone else’s shoes makes you realize you’re part of a community, on the same journey as everyone else. To anyone coming to Auckland next year, keep empathy in the back of your mind 😊